I’m not sure you’ll understand.
Do you know what it’s like? To be so afraid of people; to be so afraid of rejection, of sticking out, of being embarrassed or humiliated or laughed at. I used to think these problems were little things. I grew out of them, I told myself.
But do you know what it’s like? When I was younger, my legs quaked on days when we dressed up for school. They were mounds of rock upon rock, crumbling to powerless fragments as my body trembled. The epicenter. The focus. The pressure of the rocks pushing against each other every day, suddenly released— That was what these special occasions were. I was doing so well until now. There were days for coming in patriotic red and white attire for National Day, for coming in ethnic costumes for Racial Harmony Day, for coming in dressed as your dream job for Aspiration Day. I was there. I stood on the corridor outside my house, in the train station, outside my mother’s car. I was right next to my family, I was alone, I was so close yet so far away from safety. Nobody ever said anything; I had been the one doing all the talking. I was the one standing in that train station, back pressed against the pillar, fists balled, shaking, eyes closed, head lowered, telling myself, “it’s today. Today’s the right day. You didn’t get it wrong. You didn’t get the date wrong.” And I would see them; people from my school, going to my school, nonchalantly dressed in uniform. They did not do anything; I was the one who told myself, “why are they dressed like that? Did I get the date wrong?”
I never once got the date wrong. But every one of those days was a fresh new nightmare, and I cannot forget the feeling.
When I was younger, I was a feeble, scared little child. But wait– couldn’t you say your name? Couldn’t you ask for a toilet pass, order a snack at the coffee shop outside your school, talk to your friends? They tell me I was a shy girl. I was quiet, but I was sweet. I do not remember that account, but what I do remember is crying into my father’s arms on the first day of school. I remember wetting my skirt because my request for a toilet pass was rejected in favour of the spelling test. I remember deteriorating my vision when I was 10 because my glasses were hideous and everyone would call me ugly if I ever wore them and I remember how I could never read the words on the board or find my class in the morning, but it was okay, because my classmates welcomed me. They said I was pretty, and one of them even had a crush on me. What does one do to be accepted? What are the limits? When I malfunction, does anybody tell me? Do I wait for the cold sweat and tears to seep into my control board and electrocute me? Is that how I learn when something is wrong? What do I do then?
For every time I ordered something complicated, that usually involved at least two languages and more than two words, I repeated the order until I had it known by heart, and then some. Chicken rice, steamed, one extra egg, takeaway. No chilli. Chicken rice, steamed, one extra egg, takeaway. No chilli. Chicken rice, steamed, one extra egg, takeaway. No chilli. Wanton mee, black sauce, no soup, no chilli, takeaway. Wanton mee, black sauce, no soup, no chilli, takeaway. A cheeseburger, no pickles, no onions. And an iced milo, medium. Small fries. A cheeseburger, no pickles, no onions. And an ice milo, medium… The words got faster with my heartbeat. I had to slow my breathing, wipe my forehead, cup my hands around my elbows. The execution was less than perfect. “Chicken rice…um, steamed. Ah, ah– one extra egg. No…take- takeaway. No chilli. Please.” Every new order was a new battle.
I’ve outgrown this, I tell myself. I look in the mirror; now who’s the vice-president of Chinese drama, in the exclusive drama class, entrusted with the position of being class chairperson? Who’s the girl who can act anything from fear to anger to delusion? Who’s the overly friendly, strange while unapologetic, leader that everyone turns to for decision-making? For class spirit? Who drops encouragement letters out of the blue? Tell me, who? I’m like one of you. I’m okay, I’m friendly, I’m confident.
My voice never shakes. But being one of you is so exhausting. I throw out multiple baits to catch many fish, but I never have the courage to reel them in; I would rather stay on my boat and pretend that the silence of the night is louder than the live fish, kicking and squirming on my hook. In group conversations, I am fine. There is a revolving spotlight, and I can take the heat. But one-on-ones are different. There is a constant expectation to meet to keep the conversation going, like running on a treadmill that keeps increasing its speed. I fall short, and tumble into a polite silence, that could last for hours or days if it’s an non-face-to-face conversation. The overhanging cloud of a conversation in the process of crashing and burning not only permeates the air, but drags me down. It hangs on my shoulders, bringing me to my knees, while my hardened clay smile chips at its edges.
I cannot forget the feeling. It makes you want to recoil, withdraw into a corner, squeeze yourself into the smallest ball you can form, crush the life out of yourself. It makes you want to stay in the comfort of your room forever, to not reply any of your messages and let them accumulate, to read and write and never open your mouth. I cannot forget it, even if it doesn’t haunt me in full anymore.