Where did you come from and where are you going?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I remember one sunny day in the summer, in my early twenties, and my friend Shelton asked me where I was going; off-handedly. I imagined he just wanted to know if I was going to meet some friends somewhere but, in a cheeky flash of inspiration I screamed out "straight to the top!"

But where I've come from, this is a question I get asked all the time. Blame it on my face that betrays no clear ethnic origins. I have toyed with taxi drivers, anxious boys, and everyone else in the same way, saying I was a mix of everything: argentina, native american, texan, mexican, filipina, brazil, turkey, spanish, french, tibetan, nepali... everything you can imagine of someone with a vaguely mocha skin and then some. I don't know the value of this question because I have never really identified with what my ethnic origins dictated to me.

For example, I'm part Sri Lankan. But, asked me to tell you something about Sri Lanka and my mind draws a blank. Perhaps Colombo will come out by habit.

I was born in Singapore, a tiny island south of Malaysia. Singapore is about as big as Paris, physically, and violently over-populated. It is a great place to stop if you like shopping and eating. Besides that, I can't really recommend it. There are no sights to see, for me, besides the beautiful Merlion which always leaves me breathless and slightly bored.

I lived in Singapore till the age of seven. My memories are small and concentrated from that time: being yelled at in Primary 1 because I drew stars and hexes all over another girl's math test, being sent to remedial class because I didn't know how to read, locking my grandfather out of his house, slapping my cousin Tym violently over the head because she sat in front of the television blocking my view, being the star of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, throwing ponsetta into the soup because I thought all leaves were vegetables, eating raw fish every morning for breakfast near my HTB home in Telok Blangah, the green tiles in the apartment, and the horrible animated man with no eyes and too many teeth that would come on everytime there was a problem with the TV.

May 1982, I moved to Canada where I was rapidly shown that I was different. Children mocked my accent, mocked my food, called me 'Paki,' called me chicken legs, made fun of my intelligence. I reacted in what I now know to be my patented style. I adapted, fast, disappearing into small passions that were common to my new country. I am a chameleon. My accent became invisible. I became Canadian, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean.

By consequence, I also lost a significant portion of my native roots. I lost the slang, the hokkien words typical to Singlish. I stop eating the food, I stopped worrying about memorising and doing well in school by diligence. I embraced my new type of schooling, which was quite experimental.

At that time, the Toronto Board of Education had a rather impressive and developed system for dealing with "gifted" children. The term "gifted" was used to denote children who displayed unusual intelligence or creative ways of thinking. We had several open-ended projects. Math lessons commenced with a small lesson in the concept we were to learn, then the rest of the class was spent in groups or alone working out rather creative math problems. I loved this way of learning math and excelled. I wrote math competitions for fun. English and History: we acted out Shakespearean plays and made false archaeological sites in the woods. This is all junior high, when I was not more than 13.

I learned that the world was interesting not out of concepts that we were supposed to know for no available reason, but because the concepts led us out into deeper richer strange pastures. I learned to be curious and to do independant research on anything I became passionate about. I loved school, I loved my family, I loved my life. No boyfriends, not many friends, but a rich internal world fuelled by endless energy and passion for everything strange and wonderful the world had to offer.

My father and I used to fight endlessly at the dinner table, over all sorts of subjects. Anything we could chew over. These fights would get so aggressive that the usual outcome would be me storming off from the table to go banging away at the piano in another room. But though he was tough, my father would sometimes award rare prizes. One time, he asked my sister and I what the highest mountain was. My sister duly noted 'Everest.' I clenched my fists in frustration and said that there could never be a tallest mountain because there was always something higher. The point of the question is to draw attention to whether zeniths could be properly identified without any doubt... I think though, that my response was somewhat metaphorical of an awareness that whatever is great and big out there is never enough. How soon is now? How much is enough? My father laughed out loud at my response and smiled out of his eyes. I always remember that moment.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered three things that were to change me forever: literature/poetry, philosophy and sex. One soothed the beast inside my soul, another gave me a way of posing the questions that pierced the dark miasma that was my understanding of the world, and the last gave me ultimate release from anything and everything.

So, that's a very rough detail of my childhood. I could go into my twenties... where I discovered sex, love, drugs, friends, enemies, failure, loneliness, fear and narcissism... but I'll save that for another time.

Where are you going? Straight to the top, or at least off the map. Bye!