Excerpts from the Book

     My father had twelve children: two boys and ten girls and according to him big enough to form a football team. He was proud of the size of his family; perhaps it showed the world his prowess and fecundity as a man since he was still having children when he was well into his sixties.  He had proved his manhood. Nevertheless, the idea of a football team consisting of crawling babies, toddlers, teenagers, girls, and boys seemed absurd and often troubled me. We would surely lose to any team with players who were almost of the same age and the same gender.

     He always held the belief that women or girls were not of much use to him or to the family. Even as a young girl, I knew he needed my mother to have all these children but who dared argue with him. The boys were special in his eyes and as far as he was concerned, they could do no wrong. Fate was destined to spite him; his firstborn was a girl, my sister Fong, who had a temper equal to his. By all accounts, he doted on her and admired her courage to argue with him and to stand her ground for what she thought was right.

     Fong was born close to the end of the Second World War. Everything was scarce. He had to bike for miles to buy milk powder and condensed milk in the black market. Lack of food and stress caused my young mother to be unable to make enough milk to satisfy the baby’s hunger. In my mind, I conjured up images of him biking through Japanese sentries and barbwires and paying some shady dudes an exorbitant fee for the milk to feed her. We all knew about him scaling long distances, braving danger to get the precious milk for her because he took every opportunity to remind

Girls Were Useless

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

her of this whenever she angered him with her impudent remarks and rebellious behavior, and they engaged in fierce argument. He wanted to hammer that fact into her head, so she would be forever grateful to him. But that usually produced the opposite result.

 

     Then he was rewarded with an heir, his second born was my brother Boon, a cause for celebration. He announced his birth to the neighbors, giving away baskets of hard-boiled eggs dyed red, symbolizing good luck and prosperity. My mother was mollycoddled for a month when my father hired an Ah Mah to care for her, the baby, and to do the household chores. She ate rice fried in fragrant sesame oil and ginger to drive away the wind in her belly and drank a red wine specially brewed for postpartum women as a yin food to balance the yang built up in her body. At the end of the month, my brother's head was shaved, and the neighbors were invited to a banquet to celebrate his survival past his first month, the most dangerous part of an infant’s life. Unfortunately, it also signaled the end of my mother's brief pampered existence. The Ah Mah was sent away and she had to resume her chores of running the household. There would be no more special postpartum wine or fragrant sesame rice.

     Then for many years afterward, a succession of girls was born to torment him to the point that he refused to set eyes on the babies when they came home from the hospital with my poor mother. He placed the blame squarely on her. There was not much fanfare when the third child, Kuan May, and the fourth, me, arrived. We were mere girls, hardly reason enough for my father to open his wallet and splurge to announce to the world of our

Girls Were Useless

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

Girls Were Useless

arrival. We would not be able to carry on the family name and we were a constant reminder of his failure to produce another male child.

 

     Finally, my mother gave birth to a spare, her eighth child, my frail younger brother Beng. He went to the hospital to visit him, this time, he was not disappointed as he was with the succession of girls. My brother's name meant “brightness” as though he was thankful to be given a bright ray of hope after so many years of darkness, despair, and deep disappointment.

 

     Fong was feisty, outspoken, unafraid of him, and constantly argued with him. Despite the incessant bickering, my father had a lot of respect for her. For her alone, he changed his standard for his view on girls. He told her if anything happened to him, she and not Boon would be in charge and we would all have to listen to her. Stripped down to his boxer’s shorts, he made this pronouncement as he turned around in his chair, and looked at us sternly over the rims of his spectacles. We were then sitting around on the floor doing our homework since there was only a single table to accommodate a few of us and my father was taking up one of the few spaces.  When he said in charge, he meant she would be responsible for bringing all of us up and providing for us. That was not what she wanted to hear. With her sharp tongue, she wasted no time reminding him she did not ask to be born and she did not bring his children into the world; since he did, he was responsible for us even if he were dead. A shudder of fear trickled down my spine, waiting for his thunderous reaction.

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

Girls Were Useless

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

     There was none, just ponderous silence.

     Why were girls so dispensable to him? Why were we useless in his eyes?

     If we had the courage to ask him, he would stare at us with looks which implied we had asked a stupid question not deserving of an answer. An uneasy disquiet hung in the air as he turned his attention to what he was doing, playing solitaire with a stern concentrated expression of knitted eyebrows, taking meditative and deliberate puffs on his pipe.

     His bent head with the pink scalp peeping through his thinning crown of salt and pepper hair, nodded rhythmically with the shaking of his legs, he grunted and snorted a reply, “I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice in your lifetime!”

     I had often mulled over what he said and imagined the enormous pile of salt that he had eaten in his lifetime to that of my small pile of rice in my short life and still had trouble comprehending fully what he was trying to convey to us. Was he trying to tell us we would never be able to achieve the height of wisdom he had attained no matter how long we lived?

     I had often mulled over what he said and imagined the enormous pile of salt that he had eaten in his lifetime to that of my small pile of rice in my short life and still had trouble comprehending fully what he was trying to convey to us. Was he trying to tell us we would never be able to achieve the height of

Girls Were Useless

wisdom he had attained no matter how long we lived?

 

     Once we girls were married, our children would take on the surname of our husbands’, virtually ending his family line. To him, this was tantamount to feeding us with what he called “dead rice”- money he spent on food that would not benefit him in the long run but only the family we would be married into- a tremendous waste.

     ...

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

A Summer Cloud

One day, my father announced that his older brother would be paying us a visit. This was the first time we learned he had a brother in Kuala Lumpur or KL, the capital of the country, a big and far away city. He asked Ah Yee to be sure to have baby Wan all dressed up. My uncle was a well-to-do businessman, he came with his wife and an older woman whom my father asked us to address as Ah Paw or grandmother. Dressed in traditional Chinese black silk sam foo, Ah Paw’s thin white wispy hair was pulled back in a bun with ebony pins, her face crawling with wrinkles and she could not be induced to flash a smile or utter a word. Having lost all her teeth, she drank mainly soup; her upper and lower lips pinched tightly on the rim of the bowl, sucking in the content with loud slurps while my aunt held onto the bowl. She spent most of her time sleeping on my father’s cot with her small bound feet showing through the blanket, her tiny intricately embroidered shoes sat on the floor. While she slept, I surreptitiously tried them on but I could not fit my feet in them. I preferred mine to her tiny ones, all crooked, broken, deformed, and smelly.

     ...

     My tall aunt was dressed in a floral sam foo. She had a broad face, a hoarse harsh voice, kinky wiry hair, and perpetually bulging eyes; eyes like those of a deer-caught-in-a-headlight.  Her features were coarse, not as refined and dainty as Ah Yee’s. Even though her hair had a permanent in the latest style, Ah Yee still surpassed her in beauty. She had long stopped buying herself Yardley Talc with graceful English women costumed in the style of Jane Austin’s characters or a cake of pink face powder with a powder puff in a

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

A Summer Cloud

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

box, its cover graced by a woman with permed hair and a face as smooth as silk and cheeks covered with rouge. In the evening when she had money to spare, she went through the ritual of smearing her face and sometimes ours with badak, a smooth paste of a white refined rice powder mixed with water, left it overnight and washed it off the next day; a local spa treatment to keep her face looking soft and silky.

     My aunt paid very little heed to us but indulged all her attention on baby Wan, cuddling her and smooching her thick wet lips on her soft pink cheeks. My uncle and aunt talked to my father in low voices but they did not include Ah Yee, always busy in the kitchen cooking one thing or another for them. They stayed in a hotel in Georgetown and treated Fong and Boon to lunch, making the rest of us intensely jealous. They had been married for a number of years but were not blessed with children. My uncle spoke to Fong and Boon in English and ignored the rest of us as though we did not exist. Fong said my aunt was barren, I envisioned her womb as dry as a desert, hostile to any kind of life.

     The day arrived for my uncle, aunt, and Ah Paw were to leave for KL. That morning, my father had Ah Yee dressed baby Wan in her best. We stood under the spreading arms of a rambutan tree by the flower garden to say goodbye. Ah Yee held the baby in her arms, picking up her hand to wave at them. At last, my father told her to hand the baby over to my aunt. Confused, she held onto her more tightly, my aunt reached over for Wan but she twisted her body and clung to Ah Yee’s neck, Ah Yee suddenly understood what my father was up to; he was giving the baby away to his brother.

A Summer Cloud

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

Wan started to scream when he wrenched her away from her grip. Relieved of her baby, she stood under the rambutan tree and began to cry.

     My aunt held the crying baby who was still leaning over to Ah Yee, with her free hand she handed her a pair of pierced gold earrings. Distraught, Ah Yee sat down, and let her tears flow down her cheeks. My father took the earrings and told her to have pity on a woman who could not have children of her own; she had so many she should be able to part with one, his brother was doing the family a favor by helping to raise Wan, there would be one fewer mouth to feed. To him, she was just another baby girl who could never carry on the family name, not a great loss, but to Ah Yee, she was her flesh and blood, and she was still breast feeding her. The sudden separation was too much for her.

     ...

     For many days after they left, Ah Yee’s breasts were painfully engorged with milk. Squatting on the kitchen stone steps, she manually expressed her milk to relieve her discomfort, letting the milk drip away along with her sorrow. She never wore those earrings. They made their way in and out of the pawnshop during times when we were short of money and these occasions were too numerous to count.

     ...

Against All Odds

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

     I told Sue of my plan to visit the USIS after school to find out more about American colleges and universities.

     ...

     At the USIS, my heart sank to see that the librarian was a stern looking woman outfitted in a cheong sum just like Ma Ooi who ruled the girls with an iron fist and they were about the same age. Her sleek black hair was combed back smoothly into a bouffant, her reading glasses hanging from her neck. Her office was encased in a room whose walls were half made of glass so we could see her clearly. Staring at the woman who returned my gaze over the rim of her glasses, I timidly told her our wish to apply to American colleges and universities and asked her to direct us to any reference books.

     There was a long pause when she gave us a steely stare, sizing us up to see if we were worthy of her attention. We fidgeted. She stood up, walked from her desk across the room to the row of bookshelves behind us and with her long fingers dug out two volumes, each was at least three inches thick: The Complete Book of Colleges: The Mega-Guide to over 1,000 College and University Admissions which listed all the colleges and universities in the US by states in alphabetical order.

     We followed her out of her office to the children’s reading room as she plunked down the heavy volumes on the round table. Sue and I settled down with our notebooks and each took a volume and perused through the fine prints. We agreed we would start 

Against All Odds

from either end of the book, she from the state of Alabama and I from the state of Wyoming and meet in the middle. After spending some time flipping through the books, we decided there was too much information and our method of searching for suitable colleges to apply to was too tedious; it would take us forever to find what we wanted. We had to set some criteria for our search.

     We carefully avoided the big universities and concentrated on small colleges, afraid we would be lost in them. We looked for colleges that offered scholarships to foreign students. During my secondary school years, I elected to study the geography of the US over Europe. I learned that the northeast had many colleges and universities, in particular my textbook singled Boston out as the hub of education. I told Sue I would concentrate my search in the northeast, Massachusetts in particular.

     ...

     We worked for several hours that afternoon. My stomach growled, my piece of bread with jam that morning was long gone, I wandered to the drinking fountain to fill my empty belly.  Soon we learned about the Ivy League Schools and the Seven Sisters Colleges. The Ivy League Schools were mostly all universities. We were interested in smaller schools so we did not look further into them. Whether it was because of our persistence, the librarian brought us to her office and showed us specific college catalogs stashed in her bookshelves; catalogs from some of the Seven Sisters colleges, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, but she had no catalog from Wellesley College. She informed us we had to sit for

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

Against All Odds

he SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) before our application for college admission. I worried about the money for the examinations.

     ...

     We wrote to the various schools for application forms and catalogs. I borrowed money from Ah Yee to buy aerograms, the cheapest way to send a letter overseas. On the square blue piece of paper, I cramped in as much fact as possible about my background and why I wanted to go to school in America, making grids on the aerogram to display my secondary school marks. Finally, and most importantly, I also asked to have my application fee waived.

     ...

     By March after school, I waited anxiously for the young Indian postman delivering mail on a red postman bike still emblazoned with the crest of Windsor, a remnant from the old British colonial days. He arrived around two in the afternoon, at the peak of the heat, and rang his bell. By now I learned that a thin letter meant rejection and good news came in the form of a fat thick envelope. Marygrove College accepted me with a partial scholarship, without a substantial financial assistance I could not attend any school. Mills College accepted me with no financial aid, this was equivalent to not being accepted. I was crestfallen. Two of the St. George’s girls were accepted by these schools the previous year and their parents paid their way.

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

Against All Odds

     Then the middle of March came. I remembered that afternoon well. It was as sweltering as every other afternoon. The postman handed me a thin envelope. I opened it without much hope of any good news.

     But it was! I was accepted by Wellesley College with a full scholarship, complete with room and board.

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

Against All Odds

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

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