Book 2 : …And Here My Troubles Began
So after two years and nine months in America I was back home. It had been a long time for a little kid. I didn’t yet know how much the US had changed me, but I would soon.
The day I came back is forever etched in my memory. It was a hot, humid night. (If you know anything about Singapore at all you’ll know that almost every night is like that!) Our house wasn’t quite ready for us to move back into and so we went to my grandmother’s. After putting the luggage and everything away it was bedtime and as we settled down to sleep I looked at the unknown ceiling (I had never ever slept in this bed before even in all my childhood) and all I could think to myself was “I’m home. I’m back in Singapore. I’m home.”
I thought of all my friends (especially C and C!) and how I was going to meet them and play together again. My cousins and what school would be like now. My room in Sanc Ville next to the McDonalds. The game shop and comics store and all the bookstores in town. The swimming pool and Dad’s motorcycle.
I was home! I was home. Things were going to be just like before. I was going to meet all my friends and talk to them and tell them stories of the States and then we would play games and read books and it would be great. Just like before.
Little did I know how things would turn out.
I’ve asked myself a hundred times over the ensuing years – where did it all start? When did it begin to go wrong? What the exact moment my life ended? Now I have the answers (as much as these things can actually be answered) but to my past self, everything was a blur.
Until this point I’ve intentionally kept the focus tight, showing you things as I experienced them, when I experienced them. But now I’m going to take off the blinders and expand things somewhat, explaining that which only my adult self can understand. If not, all you would get a mess of angsty emo poetry (which I can tell you I wrote plenty of during my teenage years) and despairing wailings (not that I didn’t do my fair share of that either!)
With age often comes perspective, and with that perspective, clarity. So here we go.
Like most descents into Hell, it started off slowly enough. My mother started working a lot. Sure, she had always worked a lot. After all, she was Asian, and in an Asian country, and in an Asian country known for hard work. Like I’ve said in the previous chapter, she grew more and more distant even in America, working, always working. But now it slowly grew into an obsession.
Or rather, the PhD did. What started out as a chance for career advancement and further studies soon became an albatross around our necks, choking the life from everyone it touched. Though I can’t blame it all on the PhD either. It was perhaps just a symbol for all that went wrong…but I’m confusing you at this point, I’m sure.
Back to the facts, or at least what I understood then. So Mum was working harder than ever before, and mentioning the PhD perhaps a few times every day, strewing statistics and papers everywhere. Does that sound obsessional to you? Sure, to a normal person yes, but not to us back then. That was the reality. That was normal. Everyone thinks their normal is normal, and I was no exception.
So when she started asking me to do the accounts, I did them. I tallied up each and every expense from the utilities to property tax. I’m not sure why we had to do it but I did it anyway. When she told me every son is expected to help their parents, I did. I helped with transcribing the interviews from the participants in the PhD study, even when I was worn out and tired from school. I was a Good Boy.
She would tell me what a terrible person my father was, and how she was going to divorce him because he was a Creep and an Asshole and Never Did Anything to Help the Family. I listened to her and agreed with every word.
She was going to divorce him because she just couldn’t take it anymore and he was such a terrible person. He didn’t do anything to help and didn’t contribute and we would be better off without him. So she was going to get a divorce. She had started talking about this in the States (largely to me, never to my Dad) about it, and when we came back she finally got it done. She served him the divorce papers without so much as a by-your-leave.
The divorce came. It was fine, it was great, in fact. Finally that Creep would be put in his place. How dare he make my dear mother suffer? I remember clearly the lawyer explaining everything to us and I just sat there, looking straight ahead, meeting his concerned gaze with my own. Yes, everything was fine. Yes I understood the terms clearly. No, I had no questions, nor did I disagree on any of the points.There I was, a fine young boy doing the right thing, Mummy’s little knight.
What about my own needs? I had great difficulty adjusting back to Singapore. School wasn’t exactly difficult – I was a straight A student after all, except for that goddamned Chinese – but the US had changed me so much in ways that I didn’t initially see that there were a lot of other issues.
I spoke up in class a lot and I didn’t see what the problem with that was or why people used to keep on shooting looks at me. I clapped a girl on the back when she did well on a test and she was more than a little shocked. I asked people for their opinions and I was more than a little shocked when I didn’t get them – what I got was a lot of weird looks instead.
There was an incident in which I told a trainee teacher to calm down and the whole class looked at me like I had grown another head. I stood up once to explain why the planets move in a certain orbit around the sun in Physics once and the whole class burst into applause. (Also, the teacher was being a dick which might have accounted for the reaction somewhat.)
Other teachers cut me down for being so outspoken. I distinctly remember my Math teacher looking me straight in the eye and saying that my behavior was that of a six-year old. Years later I realize that he was trying to shame me into better behavior (that great spur of Asian culture, shame!) but at that time I was just so chastised and upset…as well as feeling strongly that I wanted to knock his block off.
Didn’t I tell anyone about what I was feeling? I wasn’t sure what it was myself. I may have tried at one point though. It was late at night and I was feeling depressed (a grey and black feeling that grew daily) and my mother was watching TV. The only CD player in the house was in front of her and I was listening to my one of my precious FF6 music CDs and conducting to the music furiously because I was feeling terrible.
My Mum flew into an absolute rage (maybe because I was blocking the TV?) and practically chased me into my room. I remember lying in bed and…crying? Or maybe I couldn’t cry because I was so shocked? It was one of the above.
Where was Dad in all of this? Well, I had bought her story, hook, line and sinker, and firmly and with all my being believed that Dad was a Bad Man and the reason that everything went wrong (which ranged from whatever she was feeling bad about today (which could be a lot of things) to why she still hadn’t gotten the PhD after all that time spent in the States) So obviously there was no talking to him for or about anything.
But I still had feelings for my father. I did want him to come back, to start living with us, to be a Dad, but I could never say or express them because well, he was a Bad Man. I didn’t even know I felt this way at that time.
So I kept it all in, kept working, kept my grades up. I was the best not only in my class but the entire level. I might have beaten the whole school if not for that constant stone around my neck, Chinese.
I probably had depression as early as twelve, though I was only officially diagnosed when I was fifteen. My sister tells it the best, as usual. She said that “I was always thinking.” And that was very true. I can remember thinking about this, and about that, about everything. I was really into philosophy at that time (sparked by the book Sophie’s World and all the video games I played) and I asked the same questions that I think teenagers (and humanity) have been asking throughout the ages.
Back in my last year in the States I used to sit on my bed and dream and ponder as well as have what I called “big thoughts.” I tried to talk with my parents about them but they weren’t very forthcoming. Understandable, given what was going on at that time. But the questions had started and they would not be denied.
What did it all mean? Where did we come from? Where are we headed? Is there a God? (okay the answer to that one was obvious, no) The feelings that Illusion of Gaia and FF6 had kindled in me grew and spread into the books of our library, my thoughts and feelings and far beyond. I wanted to know more. I wondered and thought and wondered some more.
One night I was at my mom’s bedside and I asked her if these thoughts were new or if they had been thought many times before. She said the latter and I left disappointedly…but not without noting how lined her face looked.
But besides the usual deep musings that are so common to teenagers, there was a desperate, compulsive quality to my thoughts that grew and grew. Like if I somehow thought it out well out enough, I could solve everything and figure it all out.
It’s so obvious to me now that that was depression, and perhaps the beginnings of OCD. But to a thirteen-year old kid there was just a vague feeling of unease and sadness that grew and grew and grew. My mother said it was “just teenage” but it was anything but.
I did what I could to fight back. One day I took out all the maps and instruction manuals from all the games that I loved and pasted them on the walls with Blu-Tac. I was so happy. Look, I decorated my room! But the next day that feeling had just disappeared.
I read the books that I loved and treasured from my childhood again and again but the sadness that ate at the edges of my consciousness wouldn’t go away. Though I can also recall moments of deep peace and pristine quiet. It would seem like everything had stopped and I can clearly remember a sense of infinite wonder that seemed to extend into the air around me and reach to the stars themselves. I would read and think and suddenly the world would seem to drop away and I would feel…ok. More than ok. I would feel connected, alive and part of something greater.
And then those feelings would stop as suddenly as they started and I would feel the encroaching darkness at the back of my mind once more.
Amidst all this, there were still good things and great games. Chiefly, Ogre Battle for the SNES – the first time I heard Hitoshi Sakimoto’s compositions. (he’s one of the best!) The epic battles and endless menus to navigate to outfit, equip and train your army. Chrono Trigger in the December of that year, one of the best JRPGs of all time. That was the first time I heard Yasunori Mitsuda’s compositions, and they blew me away. Up until that time I thought the only God of Game Music was Nobuo Uematsu, but those two sure proved me wrong.
I remember my Dad buying me Breath of Fire 2 and being me so confused. My father had bought me a game I truly wanted, but at the same time, he was a Bad Man and a Creep. What should I do? Young boy that I was, I actually asked my mom, who uncharacteristically told me to thank him. I did, but I was still confused. Surely I had to hate him? After all, he had done such horrible things to the family. If I loved him, was I a Bad Boy? I was a Good Boy, wasn’t I?
Then there was the Christmas of 1995. Since we weren’t Christians Christmas was never a huge deal with us, but we often went over to my eldest aunt’s house to celebrate and just generally hang out. Not this year. Either she was busy or my mother was busy (probably the latter) and so we were stuck at home.
Things felt…wrong. No one was happy. There were no presents. Dad wasn’t around. There were no friends and no joy and not much of anything except this empty feeling inside.
That was the worst Christmas of my life, and one that I remember vividly to this day. I ran around, almost frantic with worry, talking about how it “didn’t feel like Christmas.” What was my Mum doing? Working on the PhD of course. I put all my stuffed animals on my bed and I managed to feel a little better.
There were other small hiccups as well, which added up into big ones. We wanted to rehire Mary, but there was some problem with current employer and they didn’t want to her release her and wanted us to pay extra and…I can’t really remember the details but I do recall my Mum going into one of her rages and blaming my father, Mary, her employer and the whole world. I didn’t understand. All I wanted was to go back to where we were before we left – with our house and Mary and my friends and my games and books. What was so difficult about that? What was the problem?
Everything seemed to go wrong all both all at once and in stages, though in the next twenty years I would discover that it was the detonation of time bombs that had been in place, ticking away, even before I had been born. It was true that much of it was a congruence of events. Coming back to Singapore, readjustment, divorce, Dad leaving, Mum working…that’s a lot to take it at once even before you factor in the negative habits and pathologies of old. But the child of the past did not know any of this. To him, the world had ended for no reason.
I would spend a large part (too large in many ways!) of the next two decades sifting through the debris of the past, trying to find the truth amidst the illusions. My parents certainly had no clue. They had their own stories of what went wrong, of course, but those stories were also part of the problem.
But let’s return to the world of 1995 for a while. Like Jon Snow I still knew nothing. Things were still crumbling fast around us faster than we could see or react to. Depression was growing in the background. We could not have known what would happen next.