When I was in high school, there was a girl in the class below me who ice-skated. Needless to say, she was one of those annoying people who got straight-As, and her parents were both surgeons.
Well, technically her mother was a surgeon in the sense that she actually cut into human beings, whilst her father was a tree surgeon (yes, that’s an actual thing) who made his fortune from the cyclones that would rip through Western Australian gardens every winter, but the way Swee Ling would go on about it, you had to feel sorry for her because she was obviously over-compensating.
Anyway, the point is, the girl was freakishly smart and gifted. And, as if life wasn’t already unfair enough, she had also hit the genetic jackpot by way of long legs, slender arms with delicate fingers, and a face so perfectly sculpted I swear people would, today, take a screenshot of off Facebook and bring to their plastic surgeon and say, “I want these cheekbones and that nose!”
As for her ice-skating… the girl was going places. Everybody said so. And by everybody, I mean her mother, Auntie Mui who was in my mother’s mahjong group.
“Swee Ling’s coach says she’s so gifted,” she would say, for instance, right after she’d pong-ed the whole table. “She’s almost perfected the triple salchow! The coach says that if Swee Ling hadn’t gone off to Paris during the holidays to practice her French, she would have landed that jump by now!”
It was the sort of child boasting you hear at every mahjong table around the world, but what made Auntie Mui particularly galling was the fact that the other ladies at the table had all, by some odd turn of fortune, given birth to children who’d done nothing but grow up and bring unending shame on the family.
Auntie June’s middle child, for instance, had just been diagnosed as a pyromaniac — a shocking diagnosis that Mother said made her glad we didn’t live next door. “This whole house is made of wood! Can you imagine?”
Meanwhile, Auntie Diana’s eldest daughter was dating the newspaper boy — something Auntie Diana put a stop to as soon as she found out, but she lived to regret it because 20 years later, Daniel became a super-rich hedge fund tycoon and named his mega-yacht after his mother-in-law. “That could have been me!” she would tell my mother who could only cluck in sympathy.
Meanwhile, my sister was going through her Goth phase, I had undiagnosed short-sightedness so I was always walking into walls and failing exams, while my brother Jack, at age seven, insisted he could see dead people. Which also explained why after a while, Mother’s mahjong sessions were always held at Auntie June’s house. Who could blame them when Jack would wander into the mahjong room and stare at a spot two inches above Auntie Diana’s shoulder and smile like he’d just bumped into his best friend.
“So what happened to this Swee Ling?” Amanda asked the other day at home as we all watched a replay of Nathan Chen’s short programme at the world championships. “My God, he’s so good!”
“His triple axels are flawless,” I said as I absent-mindedly dipped a hand into the bowl of popcorn. “Swee Ling? Oh, during practice one day, she attempted a quod, landed badly, broke her ankle, and that was the end of her career.”
Saffy gasped. She hit pause on the laptop and turned to me. “Oh my God! That’s horrible!”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t feel too sorry for her,” I told her. “Now that she didn’t have to spend three hours a day practising, she put all that extra time into her studies and graduated top of her class.
She went to Harvard and became the youngest partner in Morgan Stanley in New York. Then she married a plastic surgeon, so she’s going to look gorgeous for the rest of her life. And meanwhile, all her children are Mensa geniuses.
At least that’s what Auntie Mui tells everyone at mahjong.” Amanda sat back in her chair and pouted. “Seriously, who are these people?"
“I know, right?” I said, helping myself to another handful of popcorn. “I still take the bus!” Saffy had been silent for a while, staring at the frozen screenshot of Nathan Chen in mid-triple-lutz. “So how old is Nathan Chen?” she suddenly asked. “Is it just me, or is he seriously cute?”
As Amanda later said to me, this is exactly the sort of thing that people make award-winning documentaries about.