I always knew I was a little different.
Let me give you a brief background of my heritage. I am half Ceylonese from my mother’s side, half Malay from my father’s side. My mother converted and married my father. They have 4 children and I am their eldest. I grew up with my paternal grandparents living with us and my maternal grandmother whom we visited very regularly. I celebrated both Hari Raya and Christmas. I am a classic 50 – 50. Of course, as a child, I wasn’t deliberately told that “You are half this race and half that race”, I only realized what the whole commotion was about around my pre-teen years.
To say I had a horrible childhood would be absurd because in many aspects, I think my parents have tried to make mine and my siblings’ a happy one. We had lots of toys to play with, Mama made it a point to take us out to parks and shopping on the weekends, visit my late Grandmother and play with my cousins every one Sunday of the month and even went on vacations during the school holidays. On these aspects, I did have fond memories growing up.
My school life though, I cannot say the same – it was just a living hell on earth. Singapore is a multi-racial society and I guess people are more accepting of racially mixed children these days. Society wasn’t very kind to me growing up, especially in school. I couldn’t play with the Malay girls because they thought I was different, I didn’t understand Tamil and the Chinese girls only played with their kind. So I wasn’t able to fit in and was always the odd one out.
To add to that, I was also a very slow learner. I couldn’t catch up on what my teachers would write on the board and my classmates would give me deathly stares or giggles if I took too long copy it all down. I hated doing my homework because it just reminded me of school, I much rather go play with my friends at the playground in the evenings and countdown to the Sunday that I can play with my cousins again. I got punished very regularly for being so idle; in school and at home. Back in the day before there were such things as Child Abuse regulations, my teachers would smack me with metal rulers, make me stand in front of the class and pull my ears without my pinafore on, fling my books out of the class window for me to go pick up later and pour chocolate milk over my head. I was always reported as ‘a quiet child’ and was very weak in almost all my subjects. I think it horrified my mother and my father would beat me with the cane on a regular basis.
Kids can be very mean. My Primary One form teacher told the class that they shouldn’t mix around with me because I don’t finish my homework and therefore was ‘bad company’. Due to this, I was called ‘stupid’ instead of my name by my classmates. I can tell you many other mean things that were said and done to me.
- On one incident, a boy tugged on one of my pigtails (which I wore everyday because I had long thick hair and even that was also made fun of) to poke fun at them and screamed, “EEEEE!!! She put oil in her hair!!! Apu-Neh-Neh!!!” and stared at his hand. The class then went, “EEEEE!!! Apu-Neh-Neh!!!”, too. Needless to say, no one wanted to pull my hair anymore.
- When I was in Primary Three, a boy was made to sit beside me in class. The next day, his mother complained to our teacher that she didn’t want him to sit beside a non-Chinese. The seat beside me was empty for awhile.
- We had a class play and were choosing who wanted to rehearse for a character as a Princess. Of course, I raised my hand and the class laughed. My teacher let me rehearse alongside the other girls and made the whole class vote. A Chinese girl was picked to play the Princess and I ended up playing the talking tree.
Mama let me bring my Polly Pocket to school so that I can make some friends after crying to her that no one in school wanted to play with me. It came as a pencil case so not only was it a toy, I could put in my stationaries. So when I opened it up in class, some girls saw it and exclaimed loudly, “Oh hor, you bring toys to school!”. My teacher was furious and confiscated it. I remembered being very heartbroken. Mama asked me when I got home, “Did you make any friends today?” and I burst out crying. She went to school without my knowledge and got my Polly Pocket back. But I never dared bring my toys to school again.
- We were made to draw our favourite holiday on a particular lesson and present it in class. I drew Christmas and explained that my uncle would dress up as Santa Claus and exchange gifts with my cousins (some of my favourite memories). The Malay kids started whispering. During recess, I was approached by a girl who said that I cannot celebrate Christmas or I will go to hell when I die. They started calling me ‘Kafir‘. I didn’t understand this until an Indian Muslim girl told me what it meant. That was when I knew it was not common to be in a family with different religious backgrounds.
- We were made to do a class project and we were segregated according to the teacher so I was put in a group with a mix of Chinese and Indian girls. While in the midst of the project, the Indian girl said to me, “You are so pretty like my favourite Princess Jasmine”. Upon hearing this, the Chinese girl said in disgust, “She? Princess?! *Grunts. Only fair girls can be princess. You all so black can only be a maid”. I was so hurt by that comment, I went home to ask Mama if it was true. Mama was clearly upset, kept her cool and replied, “No darling, you shouldn’t listen to a pandi (haha!!!)”.
Baby G watches were the rage when I was about 11 (and Spice Girls, lol). All the popular girls in school had one in different colours and I told Mama about wanting one but she said I wasn’t at the age to wear expensive stuff. So one day, as we were walking through a Pasar Malam, there was a stall that sold watches. I spotted a Pink Baby G watch at $20. Mama said I could have it. The next day, I innocently wore it to school. During PE lesson, after doing stretching exercises, Girl A; a really mean bitch who found a thrill out of making fun of me, suddenly came up from behind me, pulled my wrist to her face and looked at my watch. She then threw my skinny wrists out of her face and yelled at Girl B and C (her minions), “Its fake! I knew it!” and the whole bunch of them along with some of the boys laughed. I felt really disappointed and cheated, didn’t know that there was such thing as a ‘fake’ until that day. I was too embarrassed to be seen with the watch again so I left it at home. Mama asked me why I didn’t wear it but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her.
- On my final year of Primary School, a bunch of us girls wanted to take part in the Passing Baton Run for Sports Day. Four of us were made to run around the school field and the fastest of this round would be able to enter the run with the 3 other girls who’ve qualified. I was quite excited as the Passing Baton Run was a big deal in school then and I was pretty sure I could do it but my excitement was short-lived when the 3 girls (Girl A, B and C again) surrounded me to a corner of the courtyard and told me to let Girl A win the race. “Pretend to run slowly, you don’t need to win, no one would cheer for you anyway”. I said ok in fear that they’d hurt me. After witnessing what had happened, the notorious Indian/Sikh girl (whom nobody wanted to be friends with too) pulled me aside; told me to win it and not to let them take advantage of me yet again. So when the race began, I ran as fast as I could so I could avoid from listening to the girls threatening me. True enough, I could hear Girl A screaming at me, “WAIT! Or else you’re gonna pay for this!”, but I ran even faster. Upon reaching the finish line, I continued to run, pick up my bag and ran straight to the toilet to hide. The girls managed to find me and started shoving me and slapping my face. Of course my notorious friend came to my rescue and started slapping all three little bitches back. I went on to take part in the Passing Baton Run and came in at second place.
As I grew into a teenager, things became a lot more awkward for me in school and the bullying became from bad to worse. It all stemmed from me being racially and culturally awkward which in turn, turned into something the kids were already used to – from years of seeing me get pushed around and talked down to – they must’ve thought it was ok. It wasn’t. I left school right after my secondary education because I just about had enough of it all. It affected my psyche as a young adult. I always felt that I wasn’t pretty, smart or good enough and the men I would date then would only reflect and take advantage of my low self-esteem and confidence. I only got out of that awkward stage in life when I started working in Sentosa where people were so accepting despite your background, race or religion which is the way Singapore should be.
Now that I’m in a much better position in my life and planning for our own family in the coming future, I am reminded of my awkward childhood. I am very aware that I myself will be in an interracial marriage and produce beautiful interracial children but will they be spared from the criticism and bullying that I got as an interracial child? How should I react when they are thrown racist remarks or get bullied? It horrifies me. However, as odd as this may sound, I’m grateful for that experience. It has allowed me to learn from it, to impart my knowledge to my children in the future and that I know first hand the after effects of bullying. Now, I’m proud to say I’m of different cultural backgrounds and that it makes me unique. Most of all, it has thought me to be a fighter.
So there you have it – my childhood as I know it.