Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Talent Time

Have you ever watched someone do something so incredibly well, you find yourself utterly enraptured and jealous at the same time? Because you know that you couldn’t do the same thing to save your life?
            I’ve always admired, for instance, people who could bake. My mother doesn’t even bother with a recipe, let alone take off her diamond rings. Just a cup of this, a pinch of that, a capful of something else, half a block of this, mix it all up and half an hour later, she pulls out a perfectly golden cake from the oven. And because she’s been so efficient, there’s next to no washing up afterwards.
            The last time I baked a cake, the kitchen counter was littered with egg shells, spilt batter and puffs of flour on the floor, butter smears on the oven door and at least five mixing bowls piled up in the sink. Meanwhile, the cake tasted like cardboard and I had to throw the whole thing out.
            The other kind of people I admire endlessly are musicians. They’re the ones who can sit down in front of a piano and from memory, unleash the most sublime waves of music.
Or they can sing. Or dance – little delicate steps that are perfectly in time with the music.
            I can’t sing or dance. Which also means I can’t sing and dance at the same time. People don’t realize how difficult it is to sing “I’m a single lady” while doing the choreography (don’t ask) because BeyoncĂ© makes it look so easy while wearing heels.
            I bring this all up because it recently occurred to me that I have no discernible talent. I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t act, I can’t draw, I can’t cook. I have no sense of balance or hand-eye coordination which immediately rules out professional tennis, platform diving, or the parallel bar. The last time I got on a bike, I promptly rode straight into a wall.
            When I was a child, my mother insisted that I learn the piano, but seeing as our school’s music department only had electric organs, I found myself every Friday afternoon learning scales on a machine that sounded and felt like it was coming straight out of a vampire horror movie.
As for those squiggles on the note-sheets, they might as well have been ancient Sanskrit.
            Finally, I firmly advised the music teacher that telling me that this little beansprout mark was meant to represent the C-chord meant nothing to me and that I had better things to do with my time, like play five stones with my buddies in the canteen. Mrs Tan reported me to my mother who immediately ordered up an extra hour of music tuition.
            Eventually, they all gave up when Mrs Tan finally realized that during class practice, when everyone was meant to be banging out “Somewhere over the rainbow” on their respective Yamaha two-tiered electric organs, I’d secretly switched mine off, so that as I ran my fingers elegantly over the keyboard, I was actually making no sound.
            That was also round about the time my family hosted a foreign exchange student. Pascal was French. He barely spoke a word of English when he first arrived, but by the time he left us six months later, he was speaking fluent American (on account of all the time we kids spent watching TV) and, thanks to a lot of time spent in the kitchen with our cook, he could swear in the ripest Cantonese.
            But every Friday night, Pascal was allowed to make a long distance call to his home in Paris. Jack, Michelle and I would sit on the stairs and listen, transfixed, as this incredible music of words spilled from his mouth, wasted on his parents.
            “We have got to learn French!” Michelle said to us. “It’s so incredibly sexy!”
            “What does sexy mean?” five-year old Jack piped up.
            With a straight face, my eight-year old sister replied, “It means ‘clever’.” Which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to tell Jack. The next day, he marched up to his art teacher and told him that he was very sexy. Mother emerged from the principal’s office swearing she’d never been so humiliated in her entire life.
            We all eventually learnt French, but, again, nothing stuck. To this day, all I can say is, “Can I have the bill, please?”, which has a somewhat limited use in daily conversations.
            So here I am, no longer a kid, all grown up and still completely talentless. Saffy says I’m overthinking it. “Maybe you could go into politics?” she suggested helpfully.

Disposal Unit

When you’re growing up, adults keep a lot of things from you in the hilarious belief that they’re protecting you.
When my aunt Soo-ling got divorced, my parents insisted that Uncle Tom had been posted overseas. Imagine our shock when we bumped into him, his new wife and new triplets the following Christmas.
And there was that time my four-year old brother Jack was staying over at an older cousin’s house and accidentally walked in on her and her husband in the middle of sex. After everyone had stopped screaming very loudly, they told him that she had a cramped muscle and “Cousin Matt was just helping me massage it, that’s all, you don’t need to tell your mother about this, it’s really nothing, can I buy you a Transformer toy?”
To this day, Mary has never been able to look Jack in the eye, which makes Chinese New Year reunion dinners a little awkward.
Another thing that adults never tell you about when you’re growing up is just how much crap you’re going to accumulate.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Amanda said the other day as she looked at the dining table covered from corner to corner with American Vogue, Vogue Italia, Vogue Australia, Paris Vogue, UK Vogue, W, O, Martha Stewart Living, Martha Stewart Weddings, and a whole bunch of titles I couldn’t make out.
“How many dead trees is this?” Saffy asked, goggle eyed, as she gingerly fingered through the pile. “Amanda, some of these are still in their Kinokuniya plastic wrapping!”
“That’s just the last two months!” Amanda said darkly. “I’ve got two years worth at the back of my closet, hidden beneath a pile of clothes that I’ve never worn.”
As I stared at the bleak evidence of Amanda’s obsession, I thought guiltily about the stacks of books on my shelves, gathering dust and turning yellow with mould.
I have unread books that I bought when I was still in high school. Some of the pages are crumbling from the humidity. But still I keep them. And then I go out and buy some more. Which I proceed diligently not to read. Even though I promise myself, one day, I’ll get around to reading all three thick volumes of The Lord of the Rings, and the geo-political intrigues of the Middle-East. I keep thinking this in spite of the fact that I can barely get through a copy of 8DAYS.
Meanwhile, Saffy has left us with strict instructions to shoot her if she ever comes home with one more set of underwear.
“I don’t know why I have so many!” she moaned that night as she sat on her bedroom floor surrounded by open drawers overflowing with lacy thongs, bras in every colour and pattern, silky nightgowns and little bits of g-strings. “I only ever wear the same two pairs of undies, but I must have a hundred sets! This is why I must stop watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show! It’s pure evil!”
Sharyn says her entire flat is covered with little sculptures of pigs, on account of her birth year. “Once, hor, I was really bored, so I count how many I have. You know how many or not? Tree hundred and twenty tree! Siao or not, you tell me?”
Which is why this past weekend, we’ve all been on a massive purge. I’ve emptied three quarters of my bookshelf. We did this with the Two Year Rule. If a book is more than two years old, the odds that I will ever read it are not good. The same rule immediately emptied four of five drawers in Saffy’s room.
Two Years became Two Months for Amanda’s magazines. The mound of magazines grew on the floor of the living room next to the books and bras.
By the time we were done, you could barely make your way from our bedrooms to the kitchen. Leave it to Amanda to stand there for a few minutes, her lips moving silently and her fingers twitching before she announced that we were probably throwing away five thousand dollars worth of unused and unread stuff.
There was a moment’s silence as we all stared up at the pile.
“Really?” Saffy said finally. “That’s…that’s a lot of money…”
Amanda fixed Saffy with a look. “Don’t even think about it!”
Saffy shifted guiltily. “What? I’m just saying…I mean, I know we said we were going to donate it to charity…but, really, what’s a seventy year old granny in the old folks home going to do with a size-four fluorescent string bikini?”
Amanda later said that this is the kind of mental image that can give you a seizure. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

I went to school with kid who was just like Mark Zuckerberg.
By which I mean Philip was a bit of a loner. He was president of the chess club and during lunch, he played Dungeons & Dragons with Simon – who, as far as we knew, was Philip’s only friend – in a corner of the students’ common room.
Mark was also super-brainy but not in a sexy Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” kind of way – more like that kid in “Chronicle” whose used his super powers to pull apart the legs of a spider. Nobody talked to him. The girls thought he was weird and dorky, while the boys found him so strange they didn’t even bother bullying him.
Now that I think about it, Philip never spoke to anyone, other than Simon. He kept his head down as he trudged down the school corridors, sat at the back of the class and after a while, even the teachers forgot he was there.
After school, we all moved on. Some of us went to university. Some went overseas to study. One suffered from severe depression and killed himself. A friend became a TV news presenter. Another had a sex change and went on to become a huge drag queen star in Sydney.
And Philip became a stockbroker, made millions trading bonds and Euros, and became the richest of us all. Since none of us were friends with Simon (who opened a coffee chain and also became very rich), we followed Philip’s progress in the newspapers.
“How the hell is Philip worth that much money?” my brother Jack demanded. “He walked to school and ate peanut butter sandwiches during lunch!”
“His mother must be so proud,” my mother sighed as she carefully scrutinised Philip’s picture in one of the financial magazines. You could tell she was mentally editing the article and replacing his name with one of her children’s.
When I bumped into Philip on the street a few years ago, he barely recognised me though he explained this was because he’d spent the whole time in school looking down at the ground.
His skin had cleared up, he’d had Lasik done on his eyes and, thanks to my flatmate Amanda’s patient tutoring, I could tell that he was wearing this season’s Armani.
We talked about nothing. He said he was busy putting a deal together for a few big banks and Fortune 500 companies and I said I was leaving legal practice to become a penniless writer.
“Good luck with that,” he said with a shy smile. I couldn’t help but notice that he’d straightened out his teeth and that they were now a brilliant white.
“My mother is in deep shock,” I told him, while wondering which dentist he went to.
And just before we parted, I hesitated. “Listen,” I began awkwardly. “Umm. I’m sorry about…you know…I’m sorry about how we treated you in school.”
Philip looked surprised. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, we…well…I’m sorry we didn’t really make more of an effort to be…you know…uhm…friends with you.”
Philip looked down at his shoes which, again, thanks to Amanda, I could tell were Gucci. “I appreciate you saying so, but it wasn’t your fault. I was really shy in school. Plus I had problems at home. My dad…well…he…” Philip trailed off. “I just didn’t fit in, I guess.”
When we finally said goodbye and walked off in opposite directions, I was secretly relieved that neither of us had pretended we were ever going to stay in touch. It was too late for all that now. Too much had been unsaid and too little done.
And then a few days ago, an old school friend said he’d read that Philip had bought a chunk of Facebook shares when it floated and that within 24 hours, he’d sold everything and made a killing. A day later, Facebook’s shares began spiralling downwards. Philip had got out just in time.
“Oh my God!” Saffy said when I told her. “How much money did he make on that deal alone?”
“A lot, I think. It’s so depressing.”
Amanda sighed. “It just goes to show. It’s the quiet ones who always surprise you in the end.”
Saffy, who’d been thinking, spoke up. “Is he married? Your friend, Philip, I mean.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Here we go.”
Saffy’s breasts inflated. “What? It’s a legitimate question!”
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about Philip. Whatever problems he may have had at home, we had not been very nice to him at school. If we had, maybe... Coulda, woulda, shoulda. I hope he’s happy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Parent Trap

The other night, I was having dinner in a Chinese restaurant with some friends. As we were seated, the waitress hustled up to the table and asked if we wanted tea. John piped up and ordered pu-erh. And before I knew it, I blurted out, “Oh no, I can’t have that tea, I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I drink that.”
I swear, the entire table swivelled around to look at me.
“I’m sorry,” John said eventually, “but did we invite your father to dinner?”
And there it was. The comment that no child ever wants to hear. Finally, that moment I’ve been dreading for years had arrived – the confirmation that I was turning into my parents.
As children, we used to laugh when our parents sat down after dinner in front of a TV and within a few minutes, they’d be snoring. Or they’d barge into our rooms and yell at us to turn down the music.
“What are you listening to?” my father would always complain. “That’s not music! It’s just noise!”
“Don’t you talk back to me!” Mother would warn, her eyes narrowing to slits. “You young people have no respect for your elders!”
And for years, we listened to our parents moan in the morning that they’d not slept a wink after drinking Chinese tea at dinner the night before. By which they meant they’d only slept seven hours instead of their usual ten.
“Never again!” they swore to each other as they trudged through the day bleary eyed and then had to take a nap in the afternoon to recover from their sleep deprivation. Meanwhile, my brother, sister and I somehow managed to survive on five hours of sleep and still packed in a full day of school, socialising and late night dancing.
“God, is that what happens when you get old?” my sister remarked with the flippant insolence of youth.
 The other day, she called me and said that she’d just gotten off the bus. “My God, I just had to call and tell you this. There was a kid on the bus and he just sat there while this little old lady struggled to stay on her feet next to him. So I said to him, ‘Hey, kid, show some respect! Get up for your elders!’ And as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realised that I was channelling Mother! Oh my God, I’m turning into her!”
I told her to relax because I’d already turned into our father. “It’s actually not that bad,” I said. “It’s a great perspective. I finally understand why he was always so agitated by us.”
Sharyn says that it wasn’t till she had children of her own that she finally began getting along with her own mother.
“Before, hor, I always argue argue argue with my mard-der. Anything she say, I argue,” she told me the other day, her spectacles fogging up as she started to tear. “But then, hor, when I have my children, I sar-denly realise, wah, I know why she always so gun-zheong!”
“Oh my God, that’s what I said to my sister!” I exclaimed. “Not the bit about having my own children, because I don’t, but that gun-zheong bit!”
“Yah, lah, it’s also because you are older! You start to see the world the same way! Now, hor, my mard-der and me, we are best fren! If she scold me, I turn around and scold my children!”
Saffy says she’s never heard of anything more horrific in her life. The idea of turning into her mother in any way fills her with terror. “She is so incredibly bossy!” she vented a few days ago. “Every little thing I do, she’ll find something negative to say. It’s why I only see her in a group now. That way, she can’t let loose the way she normally would. Amanda, that lipstick is not the right shade for you! Especially not with that outfit.”
Amanda paused on her way out of the bathroom. “But it’s Chanel!”
Amanda sighed and turned back into the bathroom.
Saffy turned to me. “So, what was I saying? Oh yes, my bossy mother. The other day, she said to me…”
Meanwhile, my slow transformation into my father continues. This morning, I found myself complaining about the loud music blaring through our neighbour’s window. “What rubbish are they listening to?” I asked Amanda who gave me a funny look.
“It’s Lady Gaga!”
I listened. “Ugh, that’s not music! That’s just noise!”
I heard my father’s voice even as I was saying it. But I think I’m OK with that. At least I’m not turning into my mother.