Monday 3 December 2012

I Cried A Tear

I have never been one to cry easily, not since I was caned as a kid for coming in second in an exam (in mid-term, I was first). I told myself then that it would the last time. No more tears. I swore all that standing on the back balcony of my Geylang Sims Avenue home at the time. A pigeon flew away as if to say, "Do what you want, kid. It doesn't really matter a coo to me." I imagined the pigeon dropping poop on me as the coup de grace, but it never did. It always happened to someone on TV at their worst moments!

So I stopped crying even when I was next punished. I also stopped crying at funerals. Not that I ever did in the first place. I just stopped trying. What's the point when tears don't come naturally?

In fact, my thinking then was that people should celebrate the dead, not moan. If I die, I would want people to have a party to start my journey on a positive note - not bawl their eyes out wishing I was still alive or something.

Well, that was all before I grew older and realised that people do miss people. I mean you would want people you like to live on forever. Your parents, for example.

But since a kid, I have always considered life on Earth as a journey. If we hung around for a while, fine. If not, "bon voyage" and till we meet again. It's the reason why, in the past, I seldom said my goodbyes at parties. It was a phase in my life. More about that later.

Just the other day, I was at my mom's place looking over some old photographs. There was this picture of my adopted grandma and her bosom pal, Ng Ku (fifth aunt), taken in a studio. They were young, in nice outfits and laid back on some lounge chaise. Their lives looked full of promise.

According to my eldest sis, the two ladies were rather inseparable. I believe that is what happens when you become sworn sisters.

Looking at the picture, I realised that the death of Ng Ku in her early 40s from cancer must have been hard for my adopted grandma. Doubly hard when she had to raise her sworn sister's seven children that were left behind.

In circumstances like that, you'd wish to have your bosom pal with you through thick and thin.

Will I cry if my bosom pal died? Will I feel as if I am left alone?

I did feel like that once when a good friend of mine left for further studies in the UK. I gave him something personal and precious to remember me by. Strangely, I did not feel compelled to correspond with him. So after some time, we lost touch. Maybe I was expecting him to do his thing and then return. More likely, I myself was being propelled along my own growing up path with studies, National Service, more studies, etc. What I learned is always give a thought to your friends, no matter how emotional independent they might be. They too can fall off the wagon and get into trouble.

This kind of expectation that friends would just return is the same reason why there was a phase in my life that I found it unnecessary to say goodbye to friends.

At parties, I used to just leave and not say anything. Not that I wanted to be rude. I guess it was to let the party host continue to enjoy himself/herself.  I did not want my early goodbye to ruin the atmosphere for the night. Considerate much? Yes. Odd? That too.

Perhaps if I had adults show me the way earlier on, I would have been more  typical in my social graces. Parents used to take the trouble to inculcate such social graces into their kids. How to speak, how to hold a conversation, etc. How to say goodbye.

During my generation, our parents simply left it to our own discretion growing up. They were too busy making a living. Sure, there was strict observance in the addressing of the elders, table manners, saying goodbyes, etc. but the rituals were mostly about the elders and not so much of our own peers. Perhaps older siblings could better point the way.

And there's also this struggle between Western and Eastern social graces. Still, redardless of which part of the globe we come from, good manners are good manners. And I also believe being able to make conversation is an important skill.

Another reason for me not saying goodbye was I thought we could always meet again, and it's true. I only did that to folks I interacted with often. Saying goodbye was deemed kinda unnecessary.

So, at parties I didn't say goodbye; at funerals, I didn't cry. It doesn't mean that I saw the events or people as any less important. It was just that whatever role I played in their lives, they could always count on me, come what may. I might have appeared flippant but what I wanted was for them to treat me like an old friend that could just waltz in and out of their lives. I'm casual like that. Does it make sense to you? Come to think of it, it is this one quirk of my personality that has enabled me to fit into a new environment very quickly, especially a new office. Two weeks in and people would think I am as old as the office furniture!

Maybe I am just personable and comfortable with whomever. Whether here or overseas, colleagues would naturally assume I've been part of the establishment for a long time. It could be the confident way I have always conducted myself. I think learning martial arts helped.

In any case, it was all a phase. After I worked more and became involved in greater social situations, all this changed. Also, friends would chastise me if I left without saying a word. One must thank friends like that who make you feel that you matter in this world, even if you yourself think your role is superficial like that of a journeyman's.


Ok, so I wouldn't cry easily as a kid and as an adult. But things would change dramatically when I hit my middle-age in the 40s. And when my hormones started to mix in new and surprising ways.

I was watching Afteshock, that 2010 Chinese movie about the big Tangshan earthquake in China in 1976. More precisely, it was about its aftermath and the despairing choice a mother had to make in the rescue of her children. Which kid to pick if one has to die? And so the mother picked thinking her other child had died. But miraculously, that child did survive. However, she would grow up bearing a grudge - that lump of hatred stuck in her throat that became the proverbial big rock in the stream diverting her fate as well as that of her mom's. They would later meet in the most heart-rending manner.

But that's not the saddest part. The most heartaching part came in that scene where she thought her only child would be taken away by her in-laws. When that mother cried out, my tears just came.

Not small tears but uncontrollable ones.

I glanced at my movie companion to see if she noticed my crying. No, she was too wrapped up in that moment of the movie and her own copious tears. Surprisingly, I did not feel ashamed like I would be when I was younger. I just let the tears come a little longer, for my eyes to "empty out". Of course, I did scold myself for crying afterwards. Men don't dry, they rationalise!

That scene in the movie was not the only one that brought on the tears. More scenes would follow. It's one of those movies where revelations upend your preconceived notions. Yes, it was indeed a five-hanky weepie! And I've never cried so much in a movie nor in a situation since I was a kid home with an irregular report card.

Since Aftershock, I began to get more emotional watching movies that touched or moved. The tears would come involuntarily. I began to wonder which prior movie I have seen that would move me as much, that I might now cry.

How about Mon Rak Transistor? That Thai movie about a young farmer who sought the bright lights of a singing career only to leave behind his young bride and child in the most unanticipated fashion? Events that conspired to have him end up poor and running from the law in the city. Perhaps I could shed a tear for his young wife who was left defenceless and in a difficult situation (pregnant) back in the countryside. Even her journey to look for husband was fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Or how about Melody? That cult movie from 1971 that features a poignant Bee Gees soundtrack and two in-love 10-year old runaways. Would I shed a cynical tear for their innocence about love and marriage?

There are a few more moving movies I can name, especially those weepy ones from Korea such as Il Mare, A Moment To Remember, You Are My Sunshine, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, The Classic, CJ7, etc. Or what about Jap ones like the Grave of the Fireflies (animation), Nada Sou Sou, I Give My First Love To You?

A movie that really moved me one time was this Chinese story set in ancient times. A town physician was tricked and betrayed by someone in the royal court and beheaded. Helped by the kind executioner, he was able to use a prayer-chant to guide his own spirit back to his village. At home, his wife thought he had returned from the palace, not realising that he was now nothing but a living corpse. As days passed, the physician decayed a little by little. All the while, he was trying to finish his encyclopedia of medical knowledge as well as endeavour to be with his wife, child, and wait the birth of his unborn child. ('Try' because slowly but surely, he was beginning to smell like the stinking dead!) But unbeknownst to the good physician, palace henchmen and an evil Taoist priest were rallying to finish him off. If they get to him, then he would never ever reincarnate again. He would be sent to eternal damnation so the royal court secret would be kept secret.

Faced with the tough choice of helping her husband finish his work, keeping him by with the family for as long as possible, and making sure he would reincarnate, the wife had little choice but choose the latter. But to do so, she would have to relinquish her love for him and call him "to return to the other side." You can imagine the tear-jerking scene: Wife kneeling and wailing out the chant; husband most reluctant to go. All the while, the bad guys on horseback are trying to get there fast as they can to do the dirty deed.

I remember that scene very well and it was utterly heart-wrenching, not unlike that scene in Aftershock. I only wish I remembered the Chinese title of the movie. Back then, I didn't cry. I couldn't. I was brought up to be tough. And watching TV as a kid, I took examples from idols like John Wayne, Chuck Connors, Mannix, Paladin, etc. Or super suave spy James Bond who faced everything with a steely eye, stiff upper lip and a corny joke.

So, maybe if I watch that Chinese ancient story again in my middle-age and stirred up hormonal state, I might just cry non-stop. And unlike other bodily changes during this phase of my life, it might not be such a bad thing. Just pray I don't go effeminate and become a sniffling aunty crying buckets into her hanky at the next movie!

Link to 1971 Melody movie here

The next story: Singapore's First LARP

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