I grew up with Asian parents who wanted the best for me, but never followed the typical Asian parenting stereotype when it came to my academics and self-enrichment.
We didn’t speak English, or Mandarin at home. We spoke our own dialect, Foochow (a.k.a. Fuzhounese/Hokchiu).
When I cried about going to tuition classes on the weekends and after school, they let me skip it.
I never picked up a musical instrument. I was too lazy to go to classes.
I spent most of my time catching grasshoppers, touching shy mimosa leaves, playing hopscotch, watching cartoons, and colouring.
Naturally, there was nothing much to show on my report card except for a streak of red.
It didn’t bother me. I didn’t have enough ambition in me to see it as a problem.
My classmates wanted to be doctors, lawyers, engineers… chefs.
Me? I wanted to go home and sleep.
Not knowing how to play a musical was an even tinier source of unhappiness. I preferred whistling my own tunes.
And up until I was in my tweens, not being able to speak English well didn’t bother me at all. I put myself in the corner of kids in class who simply didn’t talk much.
Maybe this is how life is – some kids speak English when spoken to in English, and some other kids say nothing. Or very few things. I thought.
Kids like me.
I understood English, and could write in it, but speaking it was hard. So I gave up.
I settled on speaking really basic English, enough to survive on, but pretty much unusable for more advanced discourse.
Until one day.
I was probably 12 or 13 when my teacher arranged a school trip to a gallery. It was a national thing, so kids from different schools all over the country came.
I loved school trips because we got to skip class and have a great time.
I was immersed in this one section of a gallery when I heard someone call me. I looked over and saw a bunch of boys. They were from one of the private schools.
From the way one boy looked at me, I figured he was the one who was calling me.
“Hey,” he called out to me again, “did you hear what I was saying?”
I looked at him, probably with a perplexed look on my face, and said nothing.
He squinted at me, seemed to analyse me for a moment, and then broke into laughter. As if he’d seen something funny on my face.
Then, he turned to his group and said, “Okay, I think we need to go ask someone else. This one doesn’t understand English, like all the dumb public school kids we spoke to. Why don’t they teach English there, sheesh…”
They all broke into a combined laughter that filled the small section of the gallery we were in, and chimed in on the remark.
I wanted to say something back to them, to defend myself, to stop them from laughing at me, but I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.
It was obvious they had a far better grip on English than I did. So if I said anything, they’d probably laugh even louder.
So I continued being quiet.
They continued laughing.
In that moment, I felt helpless and alone. Knowing everything they said, yet being able to do nothing.
As they trailed away, I heard one boy call out the name of the boy who talked to me.
I made a mental note of that face and name, and made a promise to myself that in the off-chance that I meet this boy again, I won’t be silent anymore.
I’ll defend myself.
The next week, I started asking around friends who I thought were really good at speaking English for advice.
Read a lot, they said. It’ll help you understand when to use words and how to sound smart.
Up until that point, I didn’t read much. I almost hated reading. The only books I read (sparingly) were Sweet Valley and Singaporean Ghost Stories.
Even though I wasn’t a fan of reading, I went to the library and took out 3 books I thought were interesting, and a little more advanced than the ones I usually read.
I had an important goal in mind.
I finished the first one, understood nothing and got worried.
I don’t understand anything inside this book, I told my English teacher.
Keep going and one day you will, she told me.
With that reassurance, I went ahead and read the second book. Surprisingly, I started to understand the storyline a little bit better.
I felt encouraged.
I read the third book and found my brain was responding to the words with much more vivid imagination.
I returned the 3 books I completed and checked out another 3.
The next 3 books were a lot easier to read, and I read them much more quickly than the first 3.
I returned the next 3, and checked out another 3, now going for books harder than the last.
In this way, I finished reading over 300 books in just over a year.
Even though I hadn’t made a conscious effort to practise speaking English, I found myself using complete sentences with ease.
I felt more confident in speaking English when being spoken to in English.
I finally had a voice.
Six years after our fateful meet up in the gallery, I saw the boy again.
As fate would have it, we were enrolled in the same public Pre-U. I didn’t recognise him until I learned of his name and matched it with his face.
He had grown chubbier, but nothing changed about the way he laughed.
The sixteen year old version of him was different, however. He wasn’t the bully I remembered him to be.
He was a friendly, and funny guy who loved making people laugh. I didn’t feel any kind of bitterness towards him.
That year, unbeknownst to one other, we joined an international English competition together.
When the results came back from the UK, I was surprised to find out I was the only one in the country awarded with a plaque of distinction.
He only received a certificate of participation.
Every time I see a library and kids reading inside, I think of myself at that age and ask, What if I didn’t have access to a library? Where would I be today?
What if I had access to a library, but one with very few books I needed? How different a person would I be today?
The library I had wasn’t a state of the art. I checked out books with a laminated printed paper with my name on it.
The tables, chairs and carpet was old; the books all dog-eared.
The shelves smelt of age.
But it was enough.
Enough to help me find my voice.
Thank you, everyone who keeps libraries alive.