Narrative Essay #1: Summer of a New Century
In the summer of a new century, I cut my hair and turned in to a boy.
Not literally, of course. But to the everyday passerby or curious eye that ever graced a photo of me taken during those special months, and to myself today squinting down at that midget me feeding pigeons on a blue plastic stool: I was a boy from my do to my shoes. And on the occasion that I did wear a dress, it was the lovely girl-turned-boy-dressed-like-girl situation. I don’t really remember, but I don’t think I ever minded though. To be Chinese, an only child raised by grandparents in a city under renovation, there weren’t many gender-specific kids’ toys or clothes to choose from, apart from dresses. Unlike up here in Toronto. So that totally avoidable phase came and went at the speed of hair growing, and I was okay.
My first favourite hat was an upside down Happy Meal box. Even at the tender age of three I was collecting things and finding new uses for them, and I guess a new home at that. I saw shining potential in the most disposable of everyday objects, and grabbed hold of bliss in every fleeting moment. I used a wash pail as a prayer nook, my stuffed toys as a barricade.
I had another hat, it was handmade by my lao lao (the way I address my grandmother from my mother’s side) with an indigo-yellow plaid fabric. It was a beautiful plaid pattern. The same fabric was used to make the pillowcase for my beloved tea pillow. A tea pillow is a small fabric pouch about the size and shape of an envelope, filled with dried tea leaves. Tea leaves are naturally cool to the touch, so playing with the pillow would have a kind of calming, therapeutic effect on me. At first it was just a new addition to my sleeping arrangements in the summer. Then somehow, quickly, it became the one possession I held on to most fiercely.
My first soup kitchen was a restaurant. My grandparents and aunt took me there one winter afternoon. It was the one at the corner of the street, the one that boasted huge barrels of tasty, steaming soup on every table taking up most of the space. These peculiar pots were heated constantly from underneath so that the soup was always hot and ready to eat. An attraction in itself, the soup barrels served also as centerpieces and heaters for the hungry guests seated around their respective round tables that winter afternoon. We started with soup. So warm, the perfect appetizer. I had donkey meat for the first time that day. I don’t remember which of my relatives it was that decided on this main course for me, but I can still recall exactly how it looked and tasted. Wrapped in flatbread, it was pink, moist and surprisingly delicious. I would have liked us to stay that way. Just us, laughing around the big soup barrel on that bright winter day.
I loved birthdays in China. Every third of January I would find a yellow paper crown on my head and a cake on the living table, smothered in whipped cream with chocolate sauce dripping down the sides. I would slice the cake once with a plastic knife and my family would jokingly allow me to attempt to eat the whole thing by myself--to my delight, of course. When my hair was long enough to tie up again, my aunt or grandma would give me little pigtails in red ribbon left over from the cake box, as many as the year I was turning. They started looking pretty funky by age four. It’s quite a shame I never got to see what five pigtails would look like on my head.
Still, I wouldn’t complain about that. My favourite haircut to this day would be when I met my parents again and turned five in Singapore. Strangely for me, it was a bob cut. (I’ve always had a slight fear of cutting my hair too short and have successfully kept it long since then.) On the day I arrived at the flat, they had a room complete with Lego, a spare bed, computer desk and plenty of floor space ready for me to move in to. Like a new tenet I immediately got to work, starting from my den, ooh-ing and ahh-ing my way through every inch of the little apartment. Peacefully, matter-of-factly, as if I’ve done this a thousand times.
I was a resilient one, my family would tell me in Chinese years later. It turned out that I had marched on ahead in to the passenger area with even a second glance at my elderly guardians, the ones who laboured day and night to raise me well, and with the same face I stepped in to the strange whitewashed apartment after hours of sickness on the plane. I never once shed a tear. Not for stomach pain, not for the family I left behind. Still, I wouldn’t consider myself a resilient one. I was just fast at getting used to things. Too fast, that being one of the few things I was quick at.
Mom and dad got me a little sleeping mat so I can take naps wherever I wanted, while they were working away on their PHD’s and things. The only place I ever wanted to nap, however, was halfway under the spare bed. Whether my head was positioned inward or out, I can’t remember. All that mattered was a safe, dark place I can count on to hide me.
I always looked forward to going to that one Kentucky Fried Chicken because of its little indoor playground. I would finish my food quickly, which I never do, just to run and claim the ship's wheel, the lookout post, and finally the jungle’s secrets all for myself. (It was a big, but pretty empty restaurant.) The air conditioning was always on full blast, but that was the one time I would happily endure the cold just to bask in the glory of steering my own magnificent ship a little longer, until mom got tired of waiting and beckoned me. Then I would reluctantly slide down the ship’s side and silently bid goodbye to my jungle friends, already anticipating my return. That little playground was as tiny as it was dear to me, but size didn’t matter when I was up there. Because up there, it felt like nothing could possibly get to me. I was free, free to go anywhere and be anything. The world was hushed and still and all was well in that glorious moment.
On the first day of kindergarten, I proudly donned my matching oversized Pikachu T-shirt and shorts, paired with my Winny the Pooh water bottle and backpack. The kindergarten I went to was a free-standing, faded blue building that had a centipede problem. The program was fun, and people were nice, and I got to be the master of ceremonies for our new year’s concert at a big venue. It was great. Looking back, I still have a hard time grasping the fact that the little girl opening the show on that massive stage was me. But still, the bathrooms in the kindergarten were—oh dear. School toilets were squatting toilets, and many of the times that I dared to venture in to one of the unlit stalls, there within and around the bowl would be—as I gravely imagined—one or two or three, crawling or twitching. Perhaps it was because of the constant humid weather. I didn’t always see it, but there seemed to be at least a few at any given time, like a terrible sign.
We had a sunny yellow half tent that we took to the beach every now and then. I always smile when I think about our funny yellow tent, the way it looked like the sun or a lemon that someone had clumsily sliced in half and had the insides hollowed out. I was self-appointed treasurer, always making sure that the mesh pockets were stuffed with SunMaid raisins and yogurt drinks. Even though the tent provided little in terms of coverage or shade in the daytime, to me it was a momentary haven. Separate from the chaos all around, it was like a secret that tasted like sweet yogurt, shared only by the three of us.
But that was just the beginning of our coastal adventures. There was Sentosa, the ultimate fun park by the beach, where the majestic Merlion (I never once thought a lion with a fish tail was anything out of the ordinary) stands guard to this day. My best friend Yi Fu and I, we got buried side by side once, like mummies in the sand. A photo of us is the only memory I have of that ever happening (maybe because I was trying too hard to be like an actual mummy). Both our eyes were closed, but he had a serene expression and I looked like I had died swallowing a lemon. One of the many things I didn’t know at the time was that it’ll one of the last. And that ten years later, there would be very little I wouldn’t give up to be buried with him in the sand again.
When I was told we were to leave by Christmas for a country called Canada, somewhere cold and far away, I carefully packed my things. If only I could hide a few of my friends in my suitcases, I thought, we’ll all come out on the other side laughing. Instead, I gave the baggage check personnel at the airport a pleasant surprise. What they discovered inside every suitcase was a sleeping stuffed animal—and if one looked closely enough, among the animals was a little plaid pillow, tucked neatly between the piles.