School Days

School Days

During all this time normal life continued, and that meant going to school. What was school like? In a word, horrible. Actually, beyond horrible.

I’ve said a bit about it in my previous chapters but yeah, I hated it. I just couldn’t really understand my classmates that well. I was intellectual, English-educated and given to analysis and deep thinking, they were Chinese speaking and…well that actually put a barrier on much further conversation. I didn’t understand half of what they were saying most of the time.

School is not a perfect institution by any means, but I think it was especially bad for a creative and sensitive soul like myself. I later found out that I had gone to one of the worst schools in Singapore, which was actually subject to a government investigation and the principal barred from any further work for a time.

The teachers were bad. Like, really bad. Not all of them, but most of them. They cared only about the grades of the class and whether or not you passed up your homework on time. There was Mr Sim, whom I mentioned above, but most of the others were lacking in teaching ability and human kindness.

The pressure to succeed and perform was incredible. It seemed like all anyone had to talk about was studies and grades and studies and grades and…studies and grades. I had always gotten straight As all my life and this is where it really started to trip me up.

I started to study when actually I didn’t really need to. Education in Singapore at that time was more rote memorization and regurgitation than anything else. There were facts and figures to learn, and you learnt them, and when the time for tests came, you reproduced them to the best of your ability – that was school in a nutshell.

The problem was the sheer amount of facts and figures that we supposed to memorize. Teachers thought nothing of making us learn a hundred or more words over the weekend, to say nothing of the fifty-odd math and science problems we were expected to solve almost everyday. Spending upwards of four hours on homework a day was considered normal, even encouraged. Even I with my vaunted academic excellence started to slip. Holding on to getting A’s in everything (except Chinese of course) seemed a more and more daunting prospect with each passing week, but I never once considered,, well, maybe just doing something else? It was tied so deeply into my self-concept that giving it up was not really ever an option.

All this didn’t leave me with much time for my other loves – games and books – but sacrifices had to be made, and so I made them. I squeezed it as much time as I could out of my punishing schedule for leisure, but even so, the strain of keeping up with the Joneses academically (or in this case, the Tans) took its toll.

For years I felt such seething rage and anger whenever I thought about it. You used me! YOU USED ME. All you stupid teachers used me just to get more marks for your classes and promotions and you didn’t care about me at all.

I was probably right. I was a middle-class kid who was sent to a school better known for street gangs (I’m not kidding) and it was terrible for me. It would have been rough even without everything that was going on in the background.

To be completely honest I must say that there were redeeming factors about school. My class was not THAT bad. Most of them were friendly and spoke English to some degree. I think that it was just too hard to adjust back after being in the US for almost three years.
Whatever happened to C and C, you ask? That’s what I wanted to know at that time as well. I had come back expecting to pick things up from where we left off but that didn’t happen.

Connor wanted to be “cool” – listening to Guns and Roses (which I thought was Satanic at that time…I was a very sheltered child) and dyeing his hair. Once I saw him come out of a changing room (it was swimming lesson time at school) and I was really surprised at how different he looked. He had slicked back his hair and was strolling out of the changing rooms like a boss (or at least trying to be like a boss…he looked a bit uncertain actually) and the other kids were ribbing him about it. I was just wondering what had happened to my best friend.
He became steadily more distant. We didn’t even really share the same interests anymore. We played some Magic : the Gathering together (it was HUGE at that time in Singapore) and some games but it just wasn’t the same. I beat him once in a marathon run at school and I mustered up all my courage and fought against my shyness to tell him that I didn’t mean it and he didn’t reply at all. It hurt a lot at that time. He actually once told me “don’t be such a nerd” (or something similar) and was quite a blow to me as well. I never talked about it with anyone because…well, I believed I’ve outlined my family situation in some detail above.

From the vantage point of today, I could see that there were problems in his family as well. His Dad (whom I always knew as a jovial guy) was sending both of us to school once when I (always the straight A student) asked Connor if he had studied for the upcoming Math test. He was about to reply when his father started shouting something about how he would disown him if he didn’t do well in school. Boy that escalated quickly. Connor later just told me not to mention studies in front of his father, ever.

Calvin? Always the more analytical and rational one, he seemed to slowly retreat into himself more. We still talked about games and other things but he didn’t seem to be quite the same person that he was before. Once when we went out shopping with his mother he suddenly broke and started shouting at her and Connor – over what I can’t remember – and I was more than a little shocked. Calvin, the quiet one, shouting?

It saddened me more than a little at that time that my two closest friends – and our friendship that had stood the test of time and distance – could so quickly grow apart. At that time I felt that it was because I was more into JRPGs and video game music and they weren’t but it was probably other things as well. I actually met his mother at a barbershop one day and she asked me why I never came over anymore. All I could reply with was “we have different interests now.” That was what it seemed like at that time.

So I made new friends. I met Zhen Xun Yang, who would become my new best friend during those years. He was a transfer student from the US and that was initially how I believe we bonded. We had a shared interest in all things literary and of course, that old standby – fantasy and sci-fi. He also had his fair share of family problems, but I don’t think we ever really talked about our issues together at any point because we were just so young and confused.

There were others as well. There were many Indonesian students studying in Singapore at that time and one of them was Warren Subianto and the other was called… Warren something or other. Sorry, I was closer to one of them than the other, obviously.

Through them I met other Indonesian friends as well. I wasn’t as close to them as I was to Warren but they accepted me readily enough, even though I was so English-educated and different. My school was pretty rough and I always wondered why I wasn’t bullied (as I was in the States) and now thinking back on it, maybe the Indonesians protected someone who was so close to their kin in their own way. I’ll never know.

Warren Subianto was a good friend. We shared a common interest in manga and sci-fi novels and we would talk about them all the time. I think he was being bullied at one point and I remember shouting at half the class in a fit of rage that they would do that to my friend. I think he heard me and was always grateful for it. I’ll always remember his halting English and semi-bumbling walk, but also his deep care and concern for me.

Nauru, the first ever girl I was consciously interested in. She was a pretty Indian girl (notice how all the girls in my book are pretty?) who did Indian classical dance and played the sitar. She was the first person to read my amateur prose and cry. I sent her some fanfiction and she cried at that too. Yes, she was kind of emotional.

I remember her trying to teach me a bit of Sanskrit one day and my sitting in amazement at how anyone could understand those strange squiggles. (says someone who started learning Japanese scant months later…) I also learned tact from her. She had this way of never saying anything bad about anyone and minimizing the negative while amplifying the positive while always sounding sincere about it.

I did a school project with her (if memory serves it was about Kenya – Elechi Amadi’s the River Between) and we shared a mutual interest and love of English literature. I even visited her house and met her family once or twice. I think we might have had something if not for what happened a few months after I knew her.

But slowly in the background the darkness spread and spread. A year passed and I turned fourteen.

I discovered anime. Back in those days (now I feel old again…) anime was not something you could turn on the TV and watch. Nor could you YouTube it. It was the most precious of gems, like sheets of beaten gold wrought into prized and treasured art, and the feeling if you discovered something with ENGLISH SUBTITLES…pure ecstasy!

I first read about it in the video gaming magazines of my youth and I was pretty intrigued. At that time I had no idea what anime was. All I knew was that when I played certain games, the art style was a certain way, and I so loved it that I would try to collect as many games as I knew that had “that kind of art.” To learn that there was an entire industry and culture to this art was almost too good to be true.

The first anime I ever watched at this time was the Heroic Legend of Arislan. I found it at my neighborhood video store and I borrowed that video so many times that the owner of the store told me he might as well have sold it to me – it would have cost less than what I spent renting it! To this day it remains one of my favorite series of all time. (This is the classic version, NOT the remake! Urgh, everyone looks so ugly now!)

I discovered the Internet. Back then it was in a primitive phase indeed, with barely any pictures and no music at all. I spent night after night on Lynx (my connection was too slow to use Netscape) reading webpage after webpage. What did I try to find out about? Video games and anime of course.

I also discovered fanfiction…but that probably deserves its own section below.

During this time all my mum did besides scold and complain and of course, work on the PhD was to occasionally ask me how I was doing in a worried, querulous voice. I said I was fine. How else could I answer? I didn’t want to worry her. I was a Good Boy.

More PhD work piled up and I was the one to help deal with it. Essay after essay had to be transcribed, marked and coded. She had hired a student to help but she needed more help, and so I helped.

She also needed more material for her classes and asked me about it. I sent her links to all the anime MLs that I had discovered online and she used them. I think she taught an entire class on intertextuality with old posts from the Maison Ikkoku mailing list.

I discovered that Zhen Xun had watched Ranma 1/2 as well (in Indonesia no less) and we started talking about that. He still preferred Babylon V to most anime though, something that at that time puzzled me to no end.

Fanfiction and video games managed to hold the darkness at bay for a while, but there is only so much they could do. I felt increasingly bad and had no one to talk to about it, nor did there seem to be anyone who could understand.

I learnt about the existence of an anime club in Singapore and I was like “ok I have to be a part of that.” I made my way down to the club meeting and said hello to everyone. I still remember how I introduced myself. “Hello, I am Kain, a fourteen year old single Chinese male.” That got a lot of smiles. Everyone there was a lot older than me (most of them were university students) and I felt a bit overwhelmed but also more than a little proud.

We talked for a bit and I was so happy to meet people who understood, who were my own kind…except that I wasn’t. Try as I might I could not feel happy. Anyone could have told you that I was then already in the grip of a pretty severe depression, but all I knew at that time was a vague but utterly desperate sense of sadness.

They were going to have an anime screening somewhere in December and I went along merrily. It was fun! In fact to this day I can remember exactly what we watched, and in what order – Vampire Hunter D (the old version, with the terrible English dub) Nabiki’s introduction to Ranma 1/2 (raw Japanese, which meant that no one could understand anything except the word “hentai” (pervert) and finally, Project A-ko 2 : Cinderella Rhapsody (also raw Japanese)

I can remember the bus ride home that day. Earlier that year I developed a persistent worry (which I now recognize as OCD) which resisted all my efforts to solve, understand or comprehend. Classic Pure OCD, completely unknown to all at that time.

There would be thoughts that I could not get rid of that spiralled incessantly, boring holes into my mind. Since the June of my 13th year there was a worry which haunted me constantly. I was obsessed with the notion that I had to know what the author of a specific work thought of his or her own creation before I could enjoy it. Maybe they meant it to be understood in this way, or that. What did they think about this character? What did they MEAN by this scene? If they didn’t mean it this way, then how could I take it in another way? Was it alright for me to love things this much, in the ways that I did?

This went far beyond the normal musings a devoted fan might have about the perspectives of a favored author. I had to know. I absolutely had to. Even when there was no way to find out (circa 1998, the Internet was still in its infancy, and you certainly couldn’t Google anything or anything) I still felt as if I was chained to a rack, unable to watch or read anything unless I KNEW what were the intentions behind it.
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? As Zhen Xun said to me when I hestitantly confided in him one sleepless night – wouldn’t any authors be happy to know that I held them in such high regard? One would think so. I thought so. But my mind had other ideas.

My mind. Not me. My mind. I would tell my family about “my mind” – as if it were a separate entity from who I was. My mind thinks this, but I think that. My mind wants me to worry. My mind, racing along tracks that I had never intended for it to follow, a hungry dog champing at the hand that fed it. My mind – not me. Someone else, somebody else, an unwanted tenant that had taken up residence inside me and that I had no way to evict.

My parents and sister would listen to me in horrified perplexity…what’s all this about his mind? Surely he means himself? Is he going insane? (a clear and present danger in those days.) They tried to pacify me – to distract me – but I would always return to the same questions, the same concerns. I tried futilely to make them understand the struggle that raged inside, how I could see so clearly the thought processes that brought me such pain but was at the same time powerless to do anything about them.

It was especially bad on that evening. I should have been so happy at meeting friends and watching anime but instead my mind was on the same track, going round and round and round the same thing. I was only fourteen years old.

I say I don’t remember or realize anything but that is not entirely true. Children have a certain intuition about things, and even before that first Christmas I think I knew things were wrong. I didn’t know how to tell anyone (even if they would listen) but I knew it somewhere inside.

The first time my young mind realized something was wrong was when my sister started crying and crying. My cousins were over and I remember joking that it was the “family curse” – because I too used to cry a lot at that age. No one had yet realized the simple equation of young children + frequent random bouts of unexplained crying = problems in the family. She cried and cried and the only way I could get her to stop halfway was by playing a scene from Eric the Unready.

She began to cry about everything. I remember the Hamburger Incident, when she wanted to buy a hamburger from McDonalds and couldn’t because it was almost dinnertime. She went totally out of control, grabbed a pencil and started drawing hamburgers on everything. And I mean everything – tables, chairs, walls, lamps, doors…Mary was kind of freaked out to be honest.

Kids get out of control, they howl and scream and yell, that’s all pretty normal. But looking back on it, this was anything but normal. She was really quite hysterical. I took control of the situation and spoke to her sternly, bringing her to the bathroom and slapping her hands a few times – gently, I might add, I have never believed in corporal punishment.

Little did I know that that would be the pattern for the next fifteen or so years, me being the parent, picking up the slack and the pieces. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some part of me also knew that my relationship with my mother was not at all healthy. One day in a very emotional mood (as teenagers can get) I forced my Mum to read this Ranma fanfiction called “Apron Strings” (I’m not sure you can even find it anymore…) All she did was laugh and say that it was “very emotional.” I was pretty angry and I just chalked it up to my mother’s academic background that prevented her from seeing anything other than serious literature as a waste of time. That may have been true, but I didn’t know how deep the barriers to certain things went at that time.

My mom got worse and worse. She started shouting at us for no reason. She would tell me repeatedly that I was “just like my father” (an unjust accusation if I ever heard one) and that I was like “the rest of the Lings” (my father’s side of the family) as if they were demonspawn from the vilest pits of hell. In fact, over the next fifteen years anything bad I did was referred to as a “Ling thing”.

Just like my father…it was very painful to hear it back then. Just in what way was I like my father? I worked hard, I helped her with everything, I certainly did not betray or abandon her in any way. What was going on? Wasn’t I a Good Boy?

I recall the one time I got angry and rebelled against fourteen years of indoctrination and Asian culture that you Do Not Talk Back To Your Mother For Any Reason. I can’t remember what I said but I do recall protesting loudly and getting angry at her. I was shouted down with such force that I never dared raise my voice again.

I couldn’t quite believe it. I tried to reconcile the kind, loving woman who would buy us books and sit and read with us at night with this witch who seemed to delight in tormenting and shrieking at us (all the while telling us that she didn’t enjoy being angry and that it was OUR fault that she was like this) It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible.

What do children (especially good, kind, obedient children, like we were) do when they are told anything? They believe it. Obviously we were bad! After all Mum said so! (often and loudly) We were terrible, horrible kids. We were the cause of all of her problems. We were just like our father.

It’s clearer than crystal to the me of twenty-one years later, looking back on everything that happened. But back then it was like the world had ended not once, not twice, but every day. I would tell the story of my teenage years in therapy again and again (until even I got sick of hearing it sometimes) rehearsing detail after detail. Most of my life (sometimes it felt ALL of my life) was a search for the answers…which I eventually did, against all odds, find.

But let’s not spoil anything, shall we?

Gazing back into the past after all this time, my heart can’t help but break a little again. This was really childhood’s end for me. I still believed in rainbows and unicorns, fairy princesses and miraculous rescues. The world was still filled with mystery and love and wonder, even if there were homework and chores to do. I know the boy of that time better than he did himself then, and he wished for nothing more than to love and to be loved.

School continued. Gotta keep those grades up! I still managed to do pretty well throughout Secondary 2 (8th grade in the US) but when we got to Secondary 3 everything came crashing down. (much like the rest of my life) You see, the thing is that things got MUCH HARDER. Advanced Math had become compulsory and I sucked at Math (yes, how un-Asian of me) Plus there was just a general ramping up of the difficulty level of school. More fuel to an already raging fire.

My Dad did visit once or twice during those times. He was still busy in China and sent letters and money (as part of the alimony payments) but he didn’t call much. Why would he? He thought everything was going ok. I think he also remarried about then, something that would bring its own share of problems in time.

He did send plenty of letters though, asking me how things were doing in school and what games I was playing. He couldn’t have known how badly things were going. When I was going through my old notes in writing this I actually found some of the old faxes that he sent and I started crying again. While we were in a land of nightmares he was living on the outside and thinking everything was going ok.

I do recall one visit he made. I had been biting my lips and scratching my fingers for a while now (quite obviously stress-related) and my lips were so bloody and torn that I think even my Dad (who at the best of times was quite oblivious to things) noticed something was wrong. I think he asked me about it, but I fobbed him off. I would have nothing to do with the Creep.

I would go to sit at the back of the school somewhere and think to myself – long brooding thoughts. I thought about there was no perfect and true love in the world (which certainly seemed the case at that time) I thought about all the fanfiction I was reading. I thought about Deep Philosophical Questions, but they were always tinged with sadness and desperation.

Before I go any further I’ll take a short break here to talk about my love affair with fanfiction.