Say what you will about parents, but there probably isn’t a single father or mother out there who hasn’t, at one stage or another, been convinced that their child is a genius.In my family, first my sister, then me and finally my brother were held up as the modern equivalent of Albert Einstein.
When Michelle produced her first finger painting in her pre-school arts and crafts class, my mother told everyone from the gardener to her dentist that, finally, Leonardo da Vinci’s reincarnation had arrived.
But at the next class, Michelle squeezed an entire tube of blue paint into her mouth and then spent the next 24 hours sitting on the toilet pooing out blue-tinted poo. Mother’s sister Auntie Wai-ling asked archly if this was the sort of thing geniuses did, and was rewarded with three months of Not Being Spoken To.
When I was two, I was plopped in front of the piano. I hit the keys a few times with enthusiasm and was immediately sentenced to lessons on the electric organ on the basis that the noise I’d pounded out was, according to my famously tone-deaf father, distinctly the first two bars of Mozart’s 'Piano Concerto No.24'.
That all came to an abrupt end during a group recital when the teacher realised that though I was happily moving my fingers across the keyboard, my organ was making no sound at all because I hadn’t turned it on. Which, now that I think about it, bears all the hallmarks of creative thinking.
Meanwhile, until Jack was three, he spoke only in grunts and howls. My parents told everyone this was a sure sign of genius. “Michaelangelo didn’t speak till he was five,” my mother told the family pediatrician, who replied that there was absolutely no historical record or evidence for that statement.
The upside is that by the time we were all teenagers, my parents had more or less abandoned any pretense that any of us was ever going to amount to anything more substantial that slightly above average.
“Michelle is going to be an accountant,” Mother would say half-heartedly, hardly a ringing endorsement as any Tiger Mother would have immediately noticed she had not said chartered accountant.
“Well, at least she’s not going to be a nurse,” said Auntie Wai-ling, whose son was going to MIT to study engineering.
Normally, that kind of provocative statement would have earned her at least two months of Not Being Spoken To, but by then — following so soon after my decision to study law in Perth and not in Cambridge, which I couldn’t get into because my grades were so below par — my mother’s spirits had been crushed.
The nail was firmly smashed into the coffin of my parents’ ambitions the morning Jack came down to breakfast and announced, between noisy chews of his muesli, that he was turning vegetarian and would henceforth eat only tofu and lentils, and devote his life to making music to play to whales.
According to my father, that was the day my mother sprouted her first white hair.
“Boy, you guys were such disappointments!” Amanda said recently. “Not as much as my Harvard-educated cousin Eng Kiat who went to jail for embezzling!” I replied.
“Yes, but that’s white-collar crime,” said Amanda, Singapore’s Queen Snob, “which is not as bad as going to law school in Perth!”
From the couch, Saffy looked up from her iPad. “Did you see the story about this kid from Georgia? He solved six Rubik’s Cubes while he was underwater for one minute and 44 seconds! Six!”
Saffy sighed, though it was not immediately clear whether she was impressed by the kid’s intelligence or the pointless stupidity of the achievement. As Sharyn later asked, “Like that, smart meh?”
“I can’t decide,” Saffy admitted. “I’ve never been able to solve a single one and this kid did six of them in less than two minutes! So that should be impressive enough, but it’s the fact that he did it while holding his breath underwater that throws me. I mean, was there a need to show off like that?”
“Yah lor! If he can do six Loo-bik Cube in a pah-blik wet mar-cat toilet, den, okay lah. But hor, in clean swimming pool — no smell. So easy!”
“Are wet market toilets smelly?” Amanda asked, a question that caused Sharyn to break down into hysterical laughter. Amanda blinked. “What’s so funny?”
“You, ah,” Sharyn gulped. “Make me laugh so hard, later I get stomach ache! Aiyoh… can die!”
This story first appeared in 8 DAYS issue #1454 (Aug 30, 2018).