“Use your words”. Says Leanne to a sobbing Ashton
Our senses are bombarded by so much visual inputs during the light of day – that we have the luxury of just riding the wave of activity without any need for contemplation. It is when the light of day is taken away and darkness robs us of the delightful visual input, that the mind is forced to resort to touch and sounds.
Words have the unique ability to travel through the whole spectrum of our senses. We can see a word, hear that word, feel the word through its volume and intonation, eat (and taste) our words, and even smell it when words become ‘wordless’.
I don’t recall much of the flurry of activity that happened the day Wah died. But I remember the night. In the cramped room that was our family sleeping area, I had just inherited my baby sister for company in my bunk bed. She was taking Wah’s spot on the outer half.
It was a restless night.
Mothers have an evolutionary duty to produce and ensure the survival of their offspring. This perhaps explains why mothers (more than anyone else) feel the full force of the devastating death of a child. Ma did not get much sleep that night. I was kept awake by the sounds of loss coming from the next bed. Both Ma (the most distraught) and Pa were struggling with the impact all night long.
In the darkness, I could not see what was happening in the next bed. All I could do was listen to the sounds. There were sounds of emotions that words cannot describe. And there were words repeated that are destined to travel the expense of time. 44 years later, on her deathbed, Ma was compelled to speak the same words that I can remember her repeating over and over that night. Words are eternal and they glue the fabric of humanity.
“SCHOOL” was probably the first word that I became aware of. That word was printed on a piece of painted plywood that the bus driver would slot behind the windscreen. It was the way to separate the school buses from the ‘big people’ buses.
Memories are fickle. Only some choose to be retained, and my very first memory is my first day at school. Before that day and much of the years after, there are massive blanks.
I missed out on kindergarten. It probably made more economical sense for Ma and Pa to keep me in our farm for that preliminary year (where I was somehow productive) instead of sending me off to play school.
So, my first day at school was in class 1. Many of my classmates knew each other from kindergarten. I knew no one.
I don’t remember any trauma of that first day. The only segment that is memorised – has my elder brother Sum taking me by the hand and linking it with his friend. This was the buddy system before any school administrator had thought of it.
“This is Charlie” Sum said. “He will look after you.”
School is all blank until I got to class 4. I got mentioned at the start of class. I was the kid whose younger brother had just died.
There is a duel between the wish to forget and the wish to remember. After Wah’s death, Ma removed every single artifact that had his imprint. All his toys (even though I had claimed a share) went. There were enough artifacts to build a huge fire. Every family photo went in that fire. The only ones that Ma kept either had Wah cut out or were taken when he was absent.
I don’t know how well destruction of associations can remove memories – when many associations do not need physical status to be effective. Words have this effect. We can be ‘at a loss for words’ – but word association becomes indelible.
‘SCHOOL” for me was not the place where my teachers were. It was a sign that it was the bus that I needed to catch. Miss the bus and it was either not getting to school – or not getting home that day.
Encyclopedias were the printed attempt to use words to describe every single thing in the universe. An encyclopedia salesman walking into our farm may have been the chance event that altered the course of my learning. The eldest son of a fellow Chinese vegetable farmer, Peter had just finished high school and scored his first sales job. His pitch that day was 20 (Webster) volumes plus a two-volume dictionary, which would cost a fortune for my parents.
“You old folks don’t know a word of English – so what hope have you got of teaching your children. Invest in these educational tools and give your children what they need to become doctors and lawyers…”
I am not sure what other techniques Peter used to get my parents over the line. But my parents forked out. It was such a fortune that they had to pay by instalments.
For an awkward child who spent more time helping out in the farm than taking any interest in schoolwork, those printed volumes opened up a new world of learning for me. Soon, my school marks improved, and I was challenging the established super performers in our class.
Class 8 was the graduation year for our “Fiji Chinese Primary School”. Get good marks and we would be able to get entry into our preferred high school the following year. With these academic achievements well within my reach, my thoughts shifted to another world.
It was already 2 years since I had secretly fallen in love with my class 6 teacher in a one-way love affair, and I was now ready for finding fresh love with someone more in my peer group. I was planning to fall in love with one of the girls in my class…
“Tai Tau Pui” (translates as Big Head Pei).
Names either become descriptions with certain levels of ownership, or they get consigned to official documents. Ma called me ‘Big Head’. I never found out whether it was because I was a challenge to her birth canal or that she had hopes for my intellectual abilities. She could see that I was quite a few steps below my brother Sum’s academic prowess – so she couldn’t have thought that I was going to be a smart cookie.
Looking at my primary school photos, it looks like my head was disproportionally large. So, maybe it was just the right name to describe me.
My sister was named “Choy Kwai” at birth, but Ma always called her ‘Mui” (translates as Girl). With two boys and a girl (just over 3 years between us) and overloaded with farmwork, Ma might have had difficulty remembering our names. That is probably why my baby sister was simply called “Girl”.
Girls were in short supply in class 8. There were only 12 of them and we had 24 boys. But since I figured that all the rest of the boys were not that interested in the girls, my odds seemed pretty good. I started in alphabetical order and listed their names. They all got scores. Finally, I settled on a girl down the alphabet. She was going to be my primary school love.
In 1970, pen and paper were the tools of courtship and words were the medium. My parent’s investment in those 20 volumes and the two-volume dictionary paid off big time. I wrote a note (it took a few edits – since my grasp of words were rudimentary), snucked back into the classroom during recess, lifted the lid of her desk and tucked it into the corner.
Notes grew to letters that were regularly secreted into our student desks, and she became my secret girlfriend that lasted until the start of high school.
High school separated us physically and marked a major shift in our identities. I changed my name and she changed hers. The letters ended abruptly.
Segregation was imposed on the African American population because of the slave culture. The small Chinese population in Suva, with the help of catholic nuns, chose to self-segregate and created a co-education primary school just for the Chinese.
We were all Chinese kids running around with our birth given (and weird sounding) Chinese names – except the growing number of baptised ones who started sprouting ‘English’ names. Rumour amongst the senior students was that having an English name was to become mandatory in later life.
It seemed like the only way for my peers to get an English name was to get baptised. I had a vague idea what baptism involved but had no yearning for the procedure, nor would there be any parental support. So, I stayed “Pei Shon” until the end of primary school.
My high school was a catholic institution run by Marist Brothers who taught boys how to (hopefully) become men. But every year, the first day of classes meant an influx of about 100 new faces who had to be assigned names. The Fijian and Indian kids continued the colonial tradition of common first names which were easy for the teachers to work around. The Chinese kids were the challenge. Our names originated from family descriptions whose phonetic translations twisted the British tongue wickedly.
So, on the first day of high school, the kids with weird sounding names were given the option of choosing an ‘English’ name. Since I didn’t have any warning of this option and I was not given much time to think about it, I wrote JACK (the first English name I could think of) on the class roll.
It worked like magic. Suddenly ‘PEI SHON” was confined to official documents, and everyone began calling me JACK. Often, I have wondered if I had chosen the right name – as if a name can define a person.
I have been called by many other names since that day. One memorable occasion had a gang of Fijian youths singing “Ching Chong Chinaman…” after they spied me helping my parents weeding the dalo plot in the valley below them.
When I close my eyes and think of BANANA, a picture comes to mind. There is a soft spotty one in my fridge. Then there is a hand of them in a fruit bowl, just starting to spot dots and If I get close enough, I can smell it. It also suggests “Coffs Harbour” – a coastal town in New South Wales where there is a big plastic BANANA in the middle of town. And as I am writing about my early farm years, I remember the way we used to let the bananas ripen on the tree and have running battles with the birds. The birds often won, and we only managed to scavenge the half-eaten ripe bananas before we cut down the whole bunch for domestic ripening.
There is even the concept of BANANA as a name. Born into a culture where British values dominate, and now firmly entrenched, I have even gotten used to calling myself a BANANA. Yellow on the outside and white inside seems a fair description of my current culture.
The challenge for every parent is finding the right word to name a newborn. Every single name is tainted by an image of someone else with that name. I had the extraordinary option of choosing my own name. Yet, on short notice, all I could think of was the boy who climbed the giant beanstalk.
The power of a word is in its ability to transcend the senses to conjure up a reality. That is also its limitation. It can conjure up multiple realities that are completely subjective to the receiver. I spent my youth in catholic institutions where the bible was the WORD of God. But the WORD never conjured up a reality that made sense to me.
Australians love nicknames. They form unique descriptions that often hit the mark about the object. I am often given ‘Happy Jack” as a nick name.
I chose Jack as my name. The ‘happy’ part came about as I went about living my life. Since the receiver takes every word that wants to be absolute and filters it through qualifiers, my name is a better description of me when it comes pre-qualified.
I own up to HAPPY.