My life changed when Ah Yee, my mother, enrolled me in primary school. I was a ­fledging, slowly growing her feathers and preparing her wings for a long flight into self-determination and independence.

 

     Before then I watched with envy as droves of Tamil girls went to the school across from my home, to learn to read and write. They wore clean blue and white uniforms, carrying their school books in their shoulder bags, while I was the street urchin who remained uneducated, whiling away my time conceiving ways to play pranks on them.

 

     On our way home from Kong Ming Chinese Primary School, my second sister, Kuan May, who was two years older than me, occasionally took a shortcut through the Tamil Indian village. The Tamils lived in mud-houses next to a few open stalls where they kept their cattle and goats. The ground was always wet with cow dung and urine, and on rainy days, rivulets of animal waste filled the paths; we picked our way with great care around the puddles, trying to keep our white shoes white. The overwhelming stench defeated our effort of covering our noses with our handkerchiefs.

 

     The Indians’ houses were made of mud mixed with straw and cow dung. The women drew kolam early in the morning. After sweeping a patch of dirt at the front door of their homes and dousing it with water, they sprinkled finely ground rice flour freehand and with little hesitation created symmetric and geometric designs of vines and flowers. The kolam was a sign of invitation to welcome all into their home, including Lakshmi, the

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

Oh, to be able to fly

oddess of prosperity and wealth, and it prevented evil spirits from entering.

 

     A little Indian girl cared for her baby brothers, playing on a small patch of concrete floor at the back of their house, surrounded by dirt, dung, and mud. The Indian girl’s dress, brown with dirt, was missing a shoulder strap. It draped across her chest, barely covering her nipple. No sunlight penetrated the thick waxy foliage of a mango tree; her corner of the world was dark and dingy. She flashed a shy smile when we ran by. A woman, hair done up in a bun, hunched over a stove with blinding and choking fumes rising from the fire she had started with dried cowdung and coconut husks, yelled at the girl to fetch a pot from the house. Hidden in a forsaken corner of the earth, the government was not likely to discover a lone girl whose parents broke the law for not sending their children to the mandatory primary school.

 

     One day when we took this shortcut, Kuan May and I stopped in our tracks. The Indian girl was dressed in bright silk while her brothers remained in tatters. Her face was powdered white, her eyes were outlined in black kohl, and her fingers were stained with henna. A colorful and glittery scarf draped over her head and numerous gold bangles dangled from her wrists. Her feet remained bare except for encircling golden anklets and toe-rings, and her nails were painted bright red. Her resplendence contrasted with the dark, squalid ambiance of the back of the mud house. Despite the stench we stood transfixed, admiring her transformed appearance, unsure why she was so richly attired. The red bindi on her forehead gave her away. At thirteen, although she looked more like ten, she had become a married woman.

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

     By a cement tank outside the house, a grown Indian man splashed and poured a bucket of water over his curly black hair, taking his bucket bath. He had hair growing from his chest all the way down below his navel. Apart from a dirty loincloth, he was naked. We averted our eyes and ran past him.

 

     Was this grown man, twice her size, her husband? He could have been her father. Did he live in the same village and own many head of cattle? A good marriage for her according to the Indian tradition.

 

     Soon the little Indian girl’s belly began to swell. Less than a year after she was married, she cradled her baby while still caring for her younger brothers. All while Kuan May and I continued running back and forth from school to home. Her world remained the same patch of concrete floor surrounded by the cow stalls and stench, her baby in a pack on her back while she prepared the family meals.

 

     A frightening thought crossed my mind: What if my father decided to marry us off the same way? I shuddered.

 

     Ah Yee, my mother, certainly could not prevent this from happening. She could not stop him from giving her baby, Wan, away to his brother, even before the baby was weaned. She was not even included in the discussion and had no say whatsoever.

 

     I wanted to see the world and not be bound to a small forgotten fragment of the earth. I wanted to be free from the island’s traditional marriage role for women.

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

     I thought hard for days for a solution and concluded that if this was going to happen to me, I would run away. But where and how? Looming, troubling questions requiring urgent answers.

 

     And I had none.

 

     From that day on, I worked doubly hard at school. Somehow my racked brain told me that to get out of a world where girls had almost no control of their future, I had to excel in my education; I had to dig myself out.

 

     Many women of my mother’s generation married through arranged marriages. The parents of my peers, especially those from the low-income group, took them out of school to help raise younger siblings and earn money, eventually marrying them off.

 

     Like Ah Yee, they were soon burdened with children. They lived with their parents-in-law and helped with chores, under the stern rule of their mothers-in-law. We counted ourselves lucky my father had not forced us to drop out of school to help him full time in his food stall. If he ever did, I hoped Ah Wee, my adopted brother, would intervene. By that time, he was working full-time and helping with the family expenses; he carried a certain amount of financial clout to sway my father’s decision.

 

     My mother was a very fertile woman; she was in a perpetual state of pregnancy, breastfeeding, or cradling a baby. No sooner had a baby been weaned from her breasts then she was pregnant again; sometimes she became pregnant even before the baby was weaned. She never had time to recover from her previous pregnancy and remained thin, always nurturing life in or out of

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

her womb, having hardly any surplus to fuel her fat reserves. She had so many children to take care of, a whole house to clean, laundry to be washed by hand and ironed with an old coal-fueled iron, and meals to prepare. Our stove was stoked either with coals or firewood which she chopped, and she had to boil water for drinking; laborious physical work that had to be done with a lot of planning. There was hardly any time left for herself. She warmed the water to bathe the children since she believed cold water caused sickness or could scare the soul out of a baby. One might as well be as good as dead with a soulless body.

 

     Ah Yee made diapers from linen or cotton sarong she bought in the market, cutting the material into squares and folding the squares into triangles. When she had no spare cash to buy new linen, she tore up her old sarong. She soaked the soiled ones overnight in a bucket of detergent. In the morning she hand-washed them and hung them on the lines to dry. Her hands became red, raw, and rough from all the hard work.

 

     With the first batch of babies, my father arranged for help around the house for a month so she could devote her attention to the baby and recover from childbirth. As time went on, he stopped getting her the extra help. We pitched in and helped with the household chores. She ate special rice fried in sesame oil and ginger and drank the red post-partum wine, but they no longer lasted for an entire month.

 

     One evening, as was typical, my father sat at the dinner table chewing his food, savoring the Tiger beer from a big mug, foam forming a mustache on his upper lip. Tapping his chopsticks impatiently on the side of a bowl, he grumbled as the specters of

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

his discontent happened to pass through the kitchen.

 

     “Gao liau bu-iong.” Useless lots. Although my father was Hakka, he spoke to us in the Hokkien dialect of Penang Island, the Chinese dialect of most of the islanders, the so-called Nanyan or the South Seas Chinese. The Hakka Chinese are largely descended from North Han Chinese in the northern provinces of China and migrated and settled in Southern China. In the nineteenth century, many Hakka and Nanyan Chinese, including my father’s parents, migrated to Malaya. Ah Yee was Teochew but she spoke Hakka and Hokkien.

 

     My father considered us girls Ah Yee’s children, and he had nothing to do with us. Whenever we did anything wrong, he said to her, “Lu eh cha-bó-kiá.” These are your daughters.

 

     It had been several years since my mother first gave birth to a baby boy, a ta-po-kiá, my brother Boon. He desperately wanted another.

 

     Throwing down his chopsticks on the table, he pushed his chair back and got up with a loud groan. He had lost his appetite after such an unappetizing monologue. Ah Yee seldom if ever offered her opinion. He said, “Chooi kam kim,” literally holding gold in one’s mouth, afraid to lose it if one opens one’s mouth to speak, referring to Ah Yee’s silence. Wobbling to the front porch, he took out his folding reclining chair, slowly lowered himself into it, lit his pipe, and began puffing. The drink took effect and soon he began to snore.

 

     While Ah Yee never argued with him when he blamed her for

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

birthing the girls, my oldest sister Fong, his first-born, was not so reticent. Her nursing school education taught her the sex of a baby was a contribution from both parents. Their argument often got heated, but through it all, Ah Yee remained taciturn.

 

     Finally, the heavens must have heard my father’s prayer for whenever he could he went to the temples to burn joss sticks and incense, praying to the gods to bless him with another boy. Ah Yee’s eighth baby was a ta-po-kiá, my brother Beng, born when I was eight years old. Happy at last, he celebrated the occasion with a bottle of Guinness Stout while it was Ah Wee who bought a bottle of postpartum red wine for Ah Yee. Father bragged about his ta-po-kiá to all his friends.

 

     As a baby, Beng was prone to asthmatic attacks and frightened us when he experienced difficulty breathing. Such attacks always happened in the middle of the night. Ah Yee held his limp body, screaming. One night his asthma was so bad all we could hear was the loud wheezing, he looked exhausted and blue. Kuan May and I ran to the sundry store to wake up the shopkeeper, he owned a Ford. Ah Wee carried Beng to the car and they drove to the hospital. He ended up hospitalized for over a week and did not outgrow his asthma until he was much older.

 

     When Ah Yee became pregnant for the ninth time, she consulted our neighbor Fat Choo who loaned her money during hard times, wanting to know how to get rid of it.

 

     Snapping green beans at the kitchen table, she said to Ah Yee, “Jiak ong lai,” Eat pineapples. Apparently, she believed that eating anything sour would cause the womb to contract and push the

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

baby out.

 

     In the fruit orchard, a few anemic pineapple bushes grew under the dense shade of the rambutan trees, but they failed to produce any fruits. Ah Yee had to spend what little she had to buy them from the market.

 

     One day, waves of abdominal cramps overcame her. She lay on the floor next to my father’s cot, groaning. Thick dark slimy fluid oozed between her legs and through her sarong. She asked Kuan May to hurry and fetch Fat Choo. Fat Choo came running in her wooden clogs, her bosom heaved and bounced below her sarong, “Aiyo, lueh bui see?” You want to die?

 

     She washed Ah Yee and tucked her in bed while I prayed to God to spare her life. Ah Yee rested in bed for a few days, then got up and wobbled to the kitchen to resume being our mother again. She had lost that baby, but a few months passed and her belly grew big again. Alas, it was another cha-bó-kiá, a girl!

 

     Upset, my father stayed away from home till late, returning drunk. Skipping dinner, he changed into his sarong, went straight to bed, and never once took a look at the baby.

 

     Ah Yee did not try to get rid of her subsequent pregnancies after the scary attempt.

 

     Perpetually short of food, we were often hungry even though my father’s share of dinner was always plentiful. Each night one of us placed a stake for his left-overs which invariably there would be, for he was a small eater. What with snacks at the toddy shop or

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

kopitiam, coffee shop, and more drinking at home, his belly became full quickly. Just as soon as he left the dinner table, we all partook of the leftover food like vultures.

 

     “Iao lau kao.” Hungry monkeys, Ah Yee called us as she eyed the dishes with longing but she never touched a morsel. When Ah Wee worked late, she set aside a generous portion of the dinner for him. He often ate at work and because he had a delicate stomach, eating before bedtime caused him heartburn. Ah Yee left the best part of the meals for her children and her husband, eating the least desirable parts of a chicken such as the head, neck, feet, and the bishop’s nose, the head of a fish or the fatty part of pork when we had meat in our diet, which was rare. She became increasingly thin and malnourished.

 

     In the Malay house, my parents slept in the same room with us. I slept on the floor directly next to their bed. Their rhythmic lovemaking often woke me up, watching the wrought iron bed and its canopy rocking synchronously with their bodies. Many nights I lay awake waiting for my father to get up from the cot, hitching his sarong as he picked his way over our sleeping bodies to go to Ah Yee.

 

     Even in my young mind, I knew that was how my parents made their babies. Later in our home at Hye Keat Estate, my parents had their own bedroom, the wrought iron bed took up most of the floor. It fitted snuggly with its three sides against the walls, leaving space on the fourth wall for Ah Yee’s wardrobe. My parents continued to sleep with the youngest baby. I did not have to witness them making love anymore. But since Ah Yee continued to be pregnant, it was certainly still happening.

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

     At eighteen, Fong had had enough. She asked my father to curb his sexual appetite and reminded him of his parental responsibilities of child-rearing. He was well into his sixties by then. Fong asked Ah Yee to stop having babies. Ah Yee gave her a blank stare. All her life she could never say no to my father when he came to her at night.

 

     In nursing school, Fong had learned about the birthcontrol pill. The good news was Ah Yee could get it free from the local government clinic. The pill, she told her, would stop her from making any more babies, and she need not have to tell my father about it. Fong accompanied her to the local clinic, but she became pregnant again, much to my brother Boon’s consternation. Boon was her first son who was also training to be a hospital assistant in the same nursing school as Fong.

 

     He asked her, “In hô tōa-pak-tó?” Why does your belly continue to get big? Ah Yee admitted she had forgotten to take the pills. The family planning nurse came for a home visit, fortunately, my father was not home.

 

     When she reached term with her twelfth and last baby, she experienced contractions during the day but continued her chores until evening. Only then did she pack a small bag and Kuan May and I walked her to the bus station, a mile away. She boarded the bus; there was no money for bus fare for us. I felt a deep sadness watching her climb up the stairs into the bus alone. Where it dropped her off, she had to walk another mile to reach the maternity hospital, all in the midst of her labor pangs.

 

     In the evening my father came home and learned that Ah Yee

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

was in the maternity hospital. He ate his dinner by himself and drank his Tiger beer, we all stayed away from him. The next day he biked to the hospital to visit her. To his great disappointment, she had another cha-bó-kiá. When he returned at the end of the day, the glum, drawn look on his face told us all too well he had not gotten his boy.

 

     Ah Yee came home with Ean. She walked with her legs spread apart in obvious discomfort, having to deal with fresh wounds from the delivery, never once complaining about my father or getting mad at him.

 

     Ean means swallow in Chinese. Ah Yee’s last baby became her favorite. My father wanted to give her away, but the older siblings intervened. My mother used her savings accumulated through the years from her other working children’s financial contributions to put Ean through university. She became the first child to receive a university degree in Malaysia.

 

     With the birth control pills, Ah Yee was free at last from the burden of perpetual pregnancy. My father never suspected his daughter and son had sabotaged him. He had attempted birth control before—I had found a condom in the fruit orchard many years before. Boon was already in nursing school and said it prevented babies from being made.

 

     In my early teens, I made up my mind not to submit myself to living a life like Ah Yee, completely financially dependent on my father. Although given the choice and the right circumstances, she would have loved to find herself a job and be rid of her dependency. Her lack of education hampered her, and she was

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly

overburdened with too many children. She tried hard to be financially independent by raising her brood of fowls, but that was fraught with uncertainty. I remembered the little Indian girl living on a small forgotten patch of the earth. The solution for me to escape the cycle of poverty was to get a good education, a career, and not be financially dependent on a man. Even if I did get married I would have a say in what I could and could not do.

 

     When I was six, living in the orchard with the wild fields at the back of our house, I watched the swallows, or the burung layang-layang, flying excitedly in the evening, swooping fast and low with their tuxedo scissor-like tails temptingly close to me, teasing and challenging me to follow their lead. It was then Ah Yee asked us what we imagined ourselves to be if we could change into an animal. I told her without hesitation I wished I could fly as free as a swallow. This thought stayed with me, and it spurred me to pursue a drastic course to leave my loved ones, my home, and my country to fulfill my dreams. I fell in love with the idea of being free, independent, and the one to steer my own destiny. I wanted to be like the swallow, the burung layang-layang, I wanted to be able to fly.

 

     I never asked Ah Yee what she wished to be. Did she also dream about being free to choose, and oh, to be able to fly?

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly