When we were small, people were always asking me and my siblings what we wanted to be when we grew up. It was as if the question occupied their every waking moment. “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” my aunt Ai-Ling would ask as she handed me a red packet at Chinese New Year. In her tight red cheong sam, she bore an uncanny resemblance to a lap cheong.
“Not look like you!” my sister Michelle would mutter under her breath while Jack, just five years old, would snigger.
Our mother, of course, harboured the fantasy of every Chinese mother since the dawn of time that her brood would become a doctor, lawyer and engineer. Imagine her distress when Jack suggested, with a very straight face, that he might like to become a nurse. She never was able to get a handle on his sadistic sense of humour.
Still, the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” came up with increasing frequency and after a while, the pressure began to tell on us all, especially my sister. At university, Michelle dated in rapid succession, a medical, law and engineering student and then announced that she’d never been more bored in her life and that she would rather die than to end up like “those jerks”. And much to everyone’s confusion, she decided she wanted to be an accountant.
As Jack would ask me more than once, “That’s not boring?”
Years later, Mother has resigned herself to the fact that her wilfully stubborn children will never amount to much. I’ve quit being a lawyer to write magazine articles for 5 cents a word, Michelle is a reluctant (and often very angry) accountant while Jack spends his time trekking across the Himalayas and smoking bong to keep warm. And whenever anyone asks our Mother what we do, she changes the topic.
The other day, Michelle rang and complained that she hated her job. “Oh my God, it’s so boring!” she moaned.
“Try writing for 5 cents a word!” I said. We’re a competitive family.
“I’ve just spent the past three weeks auditing this company that’s gone belly-up and all I could think of was ‘Who cares?’ It’s a financial meltdown. The world as we know it is coming to an end and there I was, stuck in a dingy room in the basement surrounded by boxes and boxes of dusty accounting records. It was awful!”
My flatmate Saffy thinks Michelle needs a complete career change. “It stands to reason,” she said, her bosom inflating firmly. “Only someone who is emotionally lobotomised would ever become an accountant and your sister is slowly waking up from the nightmare!”
Amanda stared at Saffy for a bit.
“What?” Saffy asked.
“Do you just make these things up?” Amanda demanded.
“So I mix up my metaphoricals, but they make sense!” Saffy replied stubbornly.
“But what’s she going to do?” I asked. “She’s spent her whole life as an accountant, it’s not something you suddenly just give up.”
“Sure she can,” Saffy said easily. “People do it all the time. Especially married couples. Look at my father and Wicked Evil Stepmother. He spent 20 years putting up with her nastiness and then one day, he gets up from bed and files for divorce. What? Stop looking at me like that, Amanda! It makes sense!”
I immediately Skyped Michelle. “Oh, I’m too old for a career change!” she groaned.
“Saffy says her father is very happy now,” I reported.
In her little Skype window, Michelle blinked. “What?”
When Mother heard about her daughter’s mid-career crisis, she was ecstatic. She’d never gotten over the fact that her precious child had ended up being a “book-keeper” and now there was hope. “People have career changes all the time!” she said happily to me over the phone. “Your uncle Martin was just a pharmacist before he decided to become a dentist!”
“Mother,” I said patiently, “Uncle Martin is a dental assistant! He’s the one who moves that tube around in your mouth to suck up all the saliva and blood.”
“Well, he’s not going to be doing that for long. He’ll be a real dentist soon,” she said loyally, completely ignoring the fact that Uncle Martin is 62 and he works for his wife who’s the real dentist.
“Maybe, I’ll just take time off and join Jack on his treks,” Michelle said last night. “Or maybe I just need a break, clear my head and get my Mojo back.”
“Or maybe she just needs to get laid,” Saffy said, to which Amanda added wearily, “Join the queue!”