Rotan, it’s what we call those canes the teachers used to hit us for punishment.
They would call up a student and we’d make fists with our palm-side down. The rotan was held high above us and struck down upon our knuckles, the contact of wood against bone ringing out across the classroom. I never figured out how to avoid the rotan.
In a textbook, an illustration demonstrates what a school should be: teachers are the doctors, students are sick patients and rotan, the medicine given to us. If I couldn’t avoid the rotan, I was terminal.
I was in Chinese school for the first two years of primary school. My name is 智文, but classmates called me 文智. Reversing my name happened to sound like 蚊子, meaning ‘mosquito.’
Growing up, I lived vicariously through the social lives of people on TV. It was all Hollywood fare. Films and books were my peers and soon the internet became my best friend while suburbia held me hostage within my own family. Malaysian cities aren’t exactly pedestrian friendly and public transportation was atrocious, so the car was our only connection to the outside. I didn’t know my neighbours, they might as well not exist.
My parents would rather English be my mother tongue. It would provide more opportunities in the world, at the expense of my Chinese heritage and Malaysian patriotism. I spoke the language of Sesame Street, while everyone else spoke the language of Chinese variety, Malay soap operas and Bollywood films.
I felt alien.
In 1989, a whale was discovered calling at a frequency of 52 hertz. No other whales with the same migration patterns shared the same frequency.
Emigrating from Malaysia was my future ever since I had my first dreams. Durians are beloved by Malaysians, but I hated the fruit. It reeks of petrol stations on particularly hot days, but it’s the king of fruits, seemingly baked into the DNA and heritage of this peninsula.
It was two years before I moved to Canada. My mom was cutting up durian in the kitchen, I was complaining about the smell as usual. My mom turned to me and told me that the Malaysians who hated durian are destined to live overseas, for their home wasn’t enough. We stood there in the kitchen stewing in the knowledge that we never saw a future where I would stay.
I did the Ontario curriculum at an international high school starting Grade 8. Every teacher was from Canada and they were the first white people I’d met. They were also the first positive relationships I had outside my family. Through them, I learnt I deserved respect, to be included and listened to. I tried my best to spend as much time as I could with them.
It was funny when my classmates dreaded the teachers when I found them such a joy to talk to. In an email exchange I had with a teacher, I told him I felt like I was socially inept. He said I was mature for my age and was stuck surrounded by immature kids. He said when I did get to university, that would be where I’d finally find my tribe.
JumpStart orientation week: so many people and nobody knew me. New people at last -- I got a fresh start. But it was too much. I stayed in my dorm room eating cup noodles and crying on my pillow. I knew on some level I was an introvert, but in that first week it was finally confirmed. That was the last time I wished I was extroverted.
I forgive myself. Uprooting yourself across an ocean is difficult. No matter how much you wanted to runaway and cut off the past, it didn’t soften the pain of leaving behind what you’ve known your whole life.
Culture shock: Canadian strangers on streets making small talk with you. Locals keep telling me that Vancouver is unfriendly. I beg to differ. It’s different from your own countrymen looking down on your Anglo-stained tongue and turning around to break their backs for white foreigners.
I relearned what people were like, as I’d had poor examples to draw from. I learned what small talk was like, I learned that people found me interesting and that my company was enjoyable. I even gained a best friend -- he was my first best friend.
I tried my best to accumulate more friend memories, hanging in other people’s dorms late into the night, going to parties, exploring Vancouver and engaging in residence life. But something still felt missing.
I still felt lonely and unworthy of love.
Chronic loneliness is like sensory deprivation. You become more sensitive to how people are in relation to you. I’m so used to being invisible that being visible feels uncomfortable. Being asked questions about yourself, asking you to repeat yourself if you’re cut off, calling your name, asking for your help, checking on you, remembering things you shared, talking about you when you’re not there, being excited to see you, inviting you, making fun of you in a good-natured way and other little things people do to affirm that you have a presence. Such small things to other people, but a whole universe to me.
Mom, I wished you didn’t do everything for me growing up. Trying to be the ‘perfect mom’ just made me feel more alone in the end. Growing up in an honest academic family did not prepare me for a life trying to cope with people that did not grow up like I did. Ming could’ve graduated by now at 25, but he failed. I know you’re trying to give us the love you didn’t have growing up but for once please say ‘No’ to us. Please make us responsible for our own lives. You are failing my brother by not telling him that a part of his misery is his own fault. Please stop feeling his misery for him.
Please stop trying to protect us from everything and ourselves, that was never your responsibility.
When my mom was still pregnant with me, she asked my brother whether he wanted a brother or a sister. He said he wanted a big sister.
I reined in my desperation to make friends. I can’t expect anybody to save me from my own loneliness. My insecurities do make other people uncomfortable -- not because I’m unworthy but because it’s too much responsibility for others to give me the unconditional love, acceptance and validation I don’t know how to give myself yet. When I am secure with myself, people are free to like and dislike me on their own terms. It’s easier for everyone, including me.
There isn’t a neat happy ending, I still haven’t quite found the belonging I’m looking for. But I’m getting better at making amends with myself and I’m learning to be a better partner to myself. I’m hopeful I can feel like I belong at last, proving one of my favourite teachers right. Yes Mr. Milberg, I was able to find the people I was looking for, after all.