The Girl Who
Taught Herself to Fly
Born into an impoverished Chinese family of two boys and ten girls right at the heel of the end of the Second World War and the Japanese occupation, in the British Straits Settlement of the Island of Penang filled with many Chinese immigrants, the author’s father considered girls as useless, as they could not carry on with the family name once they were married, effectively ending the family line. To the Chinese immigrants, educating girls was like throwing money away, and often they took them out of school to help the family earn an income, or to be married off through arranged marriages. These girls were soon burdened with child-bearing and rearing, with no hope of getting out of the status quo.
Her mother who was uneducated was married at age seventeen to her forty-five-year-old man through an arranged marriage. She was helpless in stopping him from giving away a daughter in exchange for a pair of gold earrings. Having lost his retirement fund to bogus investments, her father was forced to work long hours barely able to keep body and soul together. Despite that, he boasted about sending her to Australia for higher education as she was the smart one. Through her mother’s resourcefulness, the family was fed when money was scarce. Living with her, the author had more than a glimpse of the future awaiting her if she should marry like her, burdened with a burgeoning of children, housework, and constant worrying about where to get money to feed the family.
Her chance encounter with a Punjabi woman doctor and a Chinese woman university professor convinced her that with higher education, women could carve their own destiny and she had to depend on herself to get out from the cycle of poverty. Through sheer persistence and determination, she overcame years of family financial misfortune, social adversity, racial riots, the nation’s education policy in favor of one racial group, the Bumiputras over her own, and her fortuitous introduction to a free library in the United States Information Service led her to apply to US colleges. Wellesley College, a prestigious woman college awarded her a full scholarship.
In The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly, the author weaved in her family’s story of joy, sorrow, loss, and love in its constant struggles to overcome poverty and hunger while miraculously keeping every single child in school. She felt vindicated when her father saw her off at the Penang International Airport, boarding her first flight in her life to travel halfway around the world on her way to becoming the first child to attend college, proving to him that girls played just as an important role in enhancing the family line.