I was seven when I first realised something was odd about me, although I had no words for it.
Six to seven is school-going age; consequential, psychologists say, to when kids start learning about social norms and their place in it. Part of the determination of social hierarchy, of coolness, of self-worth, extends to the childhood birthday party. In Singapore, you had a birthday party if:
a. your parents were rich and lived in a house or condo that could host that many of your classmates (s0 30% of the population), or
b. your parents were deeply concerned about how well-liked you’d be… and scrimped and saved for the material things needed for a kid not to lose face. The practice of the birthday kid at the very least handing out goody bags to their classmates was and might still be the bare minimum. In this way, we quietly judged each other by how expensive or tasteful (tasty?) the contents were. Some of the meaner girls would even judge the cellophane bags these came in. Were they clear or decorated? Sealed with tape or ribbon?
Anyway. The birthday party. In your first year of school, no one’s had enough time to form an opinion of you. So you get invited to all of them.
The first party I was invited to had a temporary pool set up in the garden and free flow cherry coke. This was the 90s and you couldn’t get more atas than coke in flavours other than coke. The birthday girl, D, made me her ‘official best friend’ throughout primary school, but for the life of me I don’t know why. It was a one-sided affection. On my end. That was probably why. She and her older sister would later molest me in an episode so brutal, that I would harbour the sense that women always betray and attack other women for a long time. But that story is for another post.
For now though, forget I wrote that. It was a party. And our classmates were sprawled everywhere, laughing, screaming, being happy. And I wanted to be laughing and screaming too. At some point, we decided to have a talent show contest on the driveway for the adults. My turn came and I was given the hairbrush we’d been using for a microphone. Then, the adults waited. My new friends waited, and started losing interest. I waited, observing everyone’s general happiness, and started feeling unsure. I had been so excited to show everyone my ‘special’ talent, but seeing everyone happy, it dawned on me that my talent would be unappreciated.
I was going to sing, but it wasn’t the singing that was the talent. Rather, I wanted to showcase the curious fact that whenever I sing a song I’ve made up, I naturally start to tear up and cry. This came in handy later in life in the odd school play when a part called for weeping. I’d just hum something original under my breath (it only ever works if its an original composition). But at that age, faced with other children, wanting deeply to be liked, but also deriving pleasure from inducing my own tears, I was unsure if anyone would see the capacity to be emotional as a gift.
I can only explain that intense desire to show people grief as a self-correcting mechanism.
For as long as I can remember, I have been distrustful of environments that aren’t ‘balanced’. A place that’s happy needs sadness. So parties need tears. Funerals, laughter. Churches, questions. Schools, freedom. You get the point. Something in me felt – feels – like pulling in the other direction.
Long story short, seven-year-old me solved the problem by telling everyone that I would sing with my back to them. And mind you, this was way before Sia did it.
I faced the neighbours yard, sang a song I had made up about D’s dog, and let my tears flow to my heart’s content. I forgot I would have to turn around again when I was finished, and when I did the adults were understandably shocked and concerned. Had I hurt myself? Was someone mean to me and had I been upset by that? How could they solve the problem?
But to me there never was a problem. There was nothing wrong with desiring the negative space sometimes. The place where tears came from.
Gradually I stopped being invited to parties altogether. I cried too often, consistently, and seemingly without reason. Including at my own birthday party. My father was furious.
Funnily enough, it was the revelation of my father’s struggles with depression that made it okay for me to finally seek help as an adult. But that’s also a story for another post.
There are two texts about the Singapore childhood birthday experience (for lack of better term… I’ll come up with one later) to my knowledge. One, I highly recommend, is the short story “His Birthday Present” by Alfian Sa’at from Malay Sketches (Ethos Books, 2012). The other is found in the novel Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao (Epigram Books, 2016).