I have often wondered what would have happened if we had not gone to America. You most certainly would not be reading this. I would have been a completely different person. Suffice to say that it changed my life forever.
Why would an Asian woman from Singapore go halfway around the world and bring her entire family along? PhD studies. My mother wanted to do her PhD and we were to come along because she couldn’t leave us with my father in Singapore. I’m sure at this moment you are well acquainted with how my mother’s and father’s relationship (or lack of one) was, and how she wanted us to be with her and not him.
I can remember my parents talking about this in hushed voices (one of the few times they talked about any issues, or anything for that matter) and how she wanted him to come along with her to support her. He took a year of absence from his job and joined us in the States.
At the tender age of ten, I had no conception of how life-changing the move would be. I innocently assumed that we would be there for two years, come back, and then everything would be the same. I didn’t want to go! I wanted to stay here, in Singapore, with all my friends, where it was familiar and nice and good. I think most kids would have thought the same.
But the die was cast. My mother had acceptance letters from Edinburgh and Chicago, but she rejected the former on the grounds that it was “too colonial” (a strange reason if there ever was one) Chicago was excellent in her field (which was education) and the decision was made thusly. My Dad would come along to help us settle in and then he would go back to his job in Singapore.
I was sad to leave. I can still remember the last visit I had with Connor and Calvin, walking down the stone steps to their place and across the roads to mine. They wrote farewell messages into a scrapbook that I still have today.
And so we packed, and said our goodbyes, and we went. The packing was such a big deal to a ten year old child. It looked like my entire world was going into those huge brown boxes. I looked over each one with worry and wonder. Would all my books and games be safe, going halfway around the world? I remember my Dad telling me that freight could be insured for emotional value and I immediately wanted that for everything that was mine.
A plane ride later and we were halfway around the world. It has been twenty-three years since but I can still remember the first few things I saw. The streets of Chicago, so unlike those at home, tall and wide and seeming to go on forever. The soft carpet of white snow that blanketed everything. The TV channels (more than fifteen of them! not just four!)
The tall old black waiter who brought me a Coke and smiled. It was the year of the Clinton/Bush election and I was watching it on TV, looking at how the ratings measured up. I was completely and utterly convinced that Clinton wouldn’t win and I said so, quite loudly if I recall. He just came up to me, placed the Coke on the table in front of me and left, smiling all the while – not amusedly at all, just a warm, gentle smile that I can remember till this day. I was so embarrassed at my outburst but he didn’t seem to mind one bit.
The snow! I had never seen snow before, let alone felt it. The thick white mass that covered everything, the sensation of cold on my fingers, and the seemingly endless flood of flakes that rained from the sky. Coming from a tropical country to the middle of winter was a shock in itself. I had never ever worn so many clothes before. It was as cold as Singapore was hot.
Everything was new. The streets, the cars, the sky, the entire world. Taxis were too expensive, we had to drive. All the food in the grocery shops was different, and no one spoke a word of Chinese. I remember this black lady crossing the street and singing gospel songs and I was just blown away. Whoa, people sing in the streets? Can you even DO that?
My Mum had her heart set on me going to Chicago Lab Schools (despite the price) and so it was there I went. It was a nice place, almost too nice, to be honest. Everyone was so well-behaved and upper middle-class. Nice, but also a tad artificial, I felt.
School was different too. No bowing to your teacher as they came in and out of the classroom. People sat around and talked and discussed things, instead following exactly what the teacher said to do. We could read books out loud – in fact it was encouraged! You didn’t need to wear a uniform either.
Coming from the hothouse academic environment of Singapore, schoolwork was a cinch. The first take-home assignment I ever got was to keep a journal. We could write whatever I wanted but being the nerdy Asian kid I was I wrote about coming to stay and live in the US. What I REALLY wanted to write about was knights and dragons and princesses but I took the safe option that I was sure would get me an A. I was really quite addicted to A’s back then.
There was a Physical Education class where a fat black girl named Katy was teasing me about something (what about I can’t quite recall – I was only ten at that time) and not knowing that teasing was pretty normal in American schools I reacted rather badly. All that homesickness and frustration and anxiety about being somewhere new must have come pouring out of me, because I ran right at her and started beating her with my fists. The other kids and the teacher had to come and break it up. To be honest I was kind of shocked at myself. I didn’t know I had that in me!
I still feel a bit bad about it now. I hope Katy, wherever she is, forgives a young Chinese boy who was just so out-of-his-depth and confused that he went kind of nuts. The homeroom teacher called my parents and I remember wanting to hide my head in a hole.
We bought a Super Nintendo (the system I didn’t get to buy at home because of the TV, remember?) and I played a Link to the Past – of course you have to get a Nintendo game for a Nintendo system! Which was pretty amazing. I think that may have been the first video game in my life that I tried to get every item, defeat every enemy and leave no stone (or bush) unturned.
Speaking of video games…I remember my first time stepping into Blockbuster Video. So. Many. Games. Rentals in Singapore had amounted to my Dad on his bike (with me often in tow) going to remote (and often kind of seedy) locations around Singapore to find games to rent, and the selection was never really that good. This was something else entirely.
Hundreds of games lined the shelves of each store, and all of them were in English to boot! In Singapore I often had to make do with awkward Chinese translations which I couldn’t understand a word of. But now for the first time in my life, the names that I saw in the stores matched those in the gaming magazines that I spent many a long afternoon poring over.
And, of course, Final Fantasy 4. (or 2, as it was known at that time) I stared at the shiny red case on a cold night at Woolworth’s, wondering why it was fifteen dollars more than all the other games on display. I would soon find out.
It wasn’t just a game, any more than every other game in my life was “just” a game. It was an adventure, a journey of truly epic proportions. It firmly cemented my love of JRPGs which began with Phantasy Star 2. It has a story which was more than just “go here, save the world” but one which encompassed two worlds and a lot more besides. Fighting. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies (especially Rydia!) Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles. True love.
My parents didn’t take to the city well at all. They found it unsafe, scary, and threatening, and worried endlessly about the danger factor. While it’s true that Chicago is not exactly the safest city in the world, I always thought they blew it way out of proportion.
My sister? She was still quite young (around four) But she loved the kindergarten she was at. Everyone adored her and she adored everyone. Especially her father – she was always a Daddy’s girl. One of the teachers used to say that “she’s got her father around her little finger” and that was so, so, true. We played together a lot (since we didn’t have many other friends) and one of my clearest memories of Chicago is her watching me play FF4 while dressed in a tutu from school. Meimei was now old enough to talk and read books so having a little sister suddenly didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
I have a lot of good memories of my time there. We ate hotdogs outside the “bee place” – which was a little grassy steppe outside a bookstore with a lot of bees. I read books while swinging my legs on the bench in the university library while waiting for my mother to finish her classes. My sister and I made snowballs and snow forts and snow angels and snow castles. If there’s anything I will miss about Chicago, it’s the snow. I know it can make driving tough and shoveling walkways a pain in the ass but playing it in, feeling that hot-cold sensation on your bare skin and mashing it up in your hands and letting it fly…pure magic.
Eventually my mother decided the city was unlivable and that she didn’t know anyone, so despite it being an objectively worse choice in her career she decided to move us to LA. In later years I would also learn that she couldn’t take the academic heat (I believe Chicago University requires four publications a year or something similar) I don’t think I had a strong view about that decision one way or another. I was ten and a half and Asian, I went along with whatever my parents said.
So we packed (again) and moved (again). My schoolmates were sad to see me leave and bought me a book (I still have it, Terry Brooks’s A Spell for Abernathy) but I can’t say that six months had particularly endeared me to them. Maybe it was just too short a time and I still wasn’t used to America. I still have their farewell note though, and wherever they are now, I wish them all the best.