Sunday, November 28, 1999

a second chance

One of my dear friends from high school, who happens to be a serial joke/inspirational e-mailer, recently sent me a joke. In Malay. Language of my country.

I was born in Malaysia and lived there for 18 straight years. So you would think that I speak fluent Malay, right? WRONG. I'm such a freak. An idiotic freak.

FYI, I got a D in Malay on my Form Five government exam. Which I always point out to everyone, that’s still a pass, < mumble > but no credit < /mumble >. My dad cried tears of joy when he heard the news that I passed my Malay paper, hence passing the entire exam. He was convinced that I would fail. Come to think of it, so did I.

So how did this freak start off? Well, my parents are of different nationalities and spoke English to each other. My siblings and I grew up speaking English. During my crucial developmental years, I went to a crappy Christian school who hired teachers on the basis of their religion.

I actually remember one year where we didn’t have any Malay lessons at all. We convinced the teacher to give us fun general knowledge quizzes. In English.

At age 14, I was finally sent to a proper school that had proper lessons. However, I think it was too late. I was way behind my other peers in terms of speaking Malay. Everyone in my new school spoke too fast for me to understand.

On my first day, two girls approached me (I was being ignored by everyone at that time) and kindly spoke to me. In Malay. I was so embarrassed because I didn’t quite understand what they were saying and I have been teased before by the way I spoke Malay (very haltingly with a Filipino accent), so I told them shyly in English, “umm.. I don’t speak that language.”

What I had meant to say that I’m too embarrassed to speak to you in Malay because I’m afraid that you would make fun of me.

That didn’t translate well. They gasped and turned away from me. From that day on, I had the reputation of being an ‘English snob’ who thought that she was too good to speak Malay.

Thank god I was then transferred to another class (that class had practically hated me from that point) where the people were a lot more understanding and friendlier. I managed my school years by copying friends’ Malay homework which was great in the short run but I’m paying for it now.

Of course, seeing that other classes were taught in Malay as well, I did so badly in school mostly because I had no idea what the teacher was saying. Most of the teachers hated me as well, particularly one Malay teacher (who taught Malay and was Malay). I think she also thought that I had thought that I was too good to speak Malay and she always found an opportunity to humiliate me in class.

Needless to say, I hated school. I didn’t know it at that time but I was so depressed. I dreaded going to school and I was always finding a way to be sick so that I didn’t have to go to school. I would cry and laugh unexpectedly, scaring my family to bits.

My dad thought that I was on drugs and started reading books with titles, “When Your Children Start Taking Drugs”. I laughed when I saw the books; I had thought that he was worried about my brother. I didn’t think it was me.

My sister, who was then studying in Canada, finally told me on the phone whom my dad was worried about. He even wrote her a long letter, telling her how worried he is about me. I think, out of my family, my sister knows me the best and knew somehow that I would never do that.

It was that governmental exam that was worrying me more than the cruelty of my teachers. If I failed my Malay paper, I fail the entire exam. I would have to go back and repeat a year. There were a couple of people in our school, who were doing just that. They were called “repeaters” and the teachers had undisguised scorn for them. They were always being picked on by the teachers and students mostly made fun of them. I was so worried that I was going to be one of them. I was already being picked on by my teachers. I couldn’t take it if all my friends graduated and I had no one to turn to.

I was so depressed that I started thinking that there was no way that I was going to take that exam. Because I was going to die. I wasn’t thinking of suicidal thoughts. At that time, it sounded so reasonable to me. Somehow, I was going to die before I take that exam. Maybe by car accident. I mostly comforted myself with thoughts that I would just die in my sleep. No pain.

Even my teachers were convinced that I would fail and told me so. They didn’t then sit down with me and say, let’s talk about why you’re doing badly in school. They stared at me in disgust and told me that I would fail.

Thankfully, I passed. My parents were so thrilled and so was I. I didn’t have to go back and face my teachers for one more year. I was leaving for Canada where they taught in language that I understood and the teachers didn’t just concentrate on the best and brightest students.

I had a chance to start over.


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