My Parents: Old-Fashionedness and Exam Results (Non-Fiction Short Story)

So here is the piece that I submitted as my final assignment for my creative writing class (along with the Caramel Pudding piece). This was meant to be the first of a series of writings focusing on my parents, and while I had planned a few others (one particularly about their troubles with technology), this is the only one that has actually been drafted, critiqued, edited, and finalised.

I think a number of my classmates were quite enarmoured with this piece because of how relatable it was (a lot of the comments were “I totally get it!” and “Don’t worry, I feel your pain.”), while some were quite taken because of the rather tragic element mixed with a comedic tone (I had some classmates that couldn’t help but add a “Don’t feel so bad!” at the end, even though I’ve put enough emphasis on my recovery from the painful incidents). One had even went on talking about a research paper she read that discussed the culture of Asian parents that tend to be strict, and the effects of it — which was quite interesting, to be honest.

Hemingway Test:

Readability — 5th Grade

Est. Reading Time — 00:08:41

— -

Like many people my childhood is a blur, but one memory sticks out vividly like a stake in my mind.

It happened during one of my final months in primary school. The results for the PSLE prelims were just released, and we were told to bring our report cards home to be signed. I was quite proud of my results: not only did I score the highest in class (effectively becoming the teacher’s pet) I was ranked fourteenth in school as well. I had kept this news a secret from my family, hoping it would be a surprise; and now, with my report card in hand, I figured this was the best time to reveal it.

My parents were home when I got back, the two of them seated on opposite sides of the dining table as I came into the house. I set my bag down and turned to them, excited.

“I got my results,” I told them.

“Give me,” my father said simply. He sat at the edge of his chair, a hand on his knee with his legs apart in the stance of an emperor. He took the report card and stared at it with narrowed eyes. My mother bent over, looking at it over his shoulder.

“You have to sign it,” I said. He didn’t reply as he reached for his pen, and with a practiced flourish signed the bottom of the paper.

“That’s all you got?” he said, pointing to the paper.

Surprised, I nodded. “Straight As.”

He handed me the paper. “Get better next time.”

Well, next time would be PSLE, I thought, but I took the paper without voicing it. Feeling underwhelmed from their reaction (I had expected dancing and confetti), I slipped the paper into my bag and bit my lower lip. Then I told them my surprise.

“I’m fourteenth in the whole school.”

I looked up, hoping to see joy and excitement. All I saw were incredulous smirks.

“Fourteenth? The whole school?”

I nodded.

“Your school’s standard must have dropped!”

I can’t recall which of them said that. I suppose there’s no need to, because there seemed to be a consensus. Or perhaps I just didn’t care. It was a simple line, really. I never thought that it would have impacted me till now. From that one line I realised that my parents never once encouraged or praised me despite what I achieved. From that one line I learned that nothing I did would ever make my parents proud.

That was how I entered my rebellious stage.

Nobody is perfect, not even the adults who gave birth to us. But from the time when we were children they were the epitome of perfection: their every act was righteous, their every word the law, and their every kiss a blessing. This, of course, only lasted until we gained a certain sense of self-awareness, when all of a sudden our world opened up beyond our own family, and we saw, with some disgust, the imperfection of our gods.

It’s the worst kind of disillusionment, but it’s the first step to adulthood.

A child’s rebellious stage may be a horror, but it’s a necessary evil. Without rebellion a child would have difficulties learning to think for themselves or to exercise their independence. Without rebellion they would have a hard time figuring out their identity and values, which are all needed for them to mature into an adult.

But rebellion comes in many different ways. In my case, I took pleasure in proving my parents wrong.

The worst imperfection I saw in my parents was their stasis. They were painfully old-fashioned, unable to adapt to the use of technology, the changing cultures, or the Westernising of people’s attitudes. They once forbade me to go to an arcade with my friends when I was young. They were convinced that an arcade was where the ‘bad kids’ gathered, and if I wanted to be a ‘good kid’, I had to stay away from them at all costs.

A group of such ‘good kids’ happened to be my church-mates. My parents are religious people, and to them all Christian children must have had good upbringings because, well, Christianity could teach no wrong. So imagine my excitement when one of our church outings involved going to an arcade. I went home and announced it to their faces, “Good kids go to arcades too!” They couldn’t deny my words, of course, or it would be admitting the flaws in the values they’d upheld so strongly. So they looked away with pursed lips and I knew I had won.

But by the time I was in my final years of secondary school, my rebellious stage had worn off thanks to my growing self-awareness… Or it might be more accurate to say that I became distracted by the prospect that my national exam could affect my future, so I had something direr to focus on instead of the petty one-sided victories I was having over my parents.

After months of drowning myself in textbooks, assessment books and worksheets, the exams came and passed, and the time to receive the results arrived. My sisters were incredibly excited about it — especially my second sister. “Send me the results once you get them!” she said. My parents, on the other hand, feigned apathy, dropping hints of concern in the midst of their routines. On the days leading up to it they would check with me, again and again, when I had to go to school to collect my results.

“Do you need to wear your uniform?” my father asked.

“They say no need,” I replied.

“You need me to drive you there?”

“I’m going with my friend, so no need.”

“Okay.” He walked away, then returned a few hours later. “What time you need to get there?”

My sister was amused at their behaviour, but at that point of time it was just adding to my anxiety. What’s done is done, I kept telling myself, but it’s quite hard to relax when you realise that your whole life might crumble from whatever will be written on that slip of paper.

The day arrived and I went to school with my friend, greeting all my classmates and teachers, crying and screaming and jumping in fright. We lined up before our form teachers, who sat at the front of the school hall with our result slips in a stack. When it was my turn, I sat down before them with cold limbs, hopeful but trying not to hope at the same time.

The next few minutes happened in a flash. My two teachers took a peak at my results, and their initial seriousness was blown away by a look of glee. “Good job!” one of them cried. I stared, my brain a second too late to process it. I took the paper from their hands and — Holy crap, a raw score of eight! I jumped from my seat before I even understood it, and cheered with my friends who stood behind me. We were just about to throw a full-blown party when my teachers, serious once more, told me I still had forms to sign.

I sent the full results to my second sister, but didn’t receive a reply for minutes; not that I cared since I was busy having a celebration with my friends as we hugged and cheered and cried.

My house was silent when I got back — so silent that I could almost hear ringing in my ears after the festivities in school. My mother was seated at the dining table, while my father was in the kitchen. I had anticipated at least some sort of party, but their lack of reaction caused me to recheck my bearings.

My mother turned to me. “You’re home.”

“Yeah… You know my results right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay…” Then why aren’t we celebrating? I thought. I returned to my room, turning back to check if I had been mistaken about my parents’ reaction, but seeing just the same uneventful house I had always lived in.

My second sister was in my room, and she looked up when I entered.

“Not bad aaaaah!” she exclaimed. “Your studying paid off!”

I dropped my bag and sat on the bed. “Is my score not good enough?”

She stared at me, her smile slanting to a half-frown. “Why?”

“Mom and Dad didn’t give any reaction.”

She burst into laughter, surprising me. “Haha! Please! When I told them your results just now, they cheered like madmen!”

My sister was probably unaware, but I had been living my whole life waiting for a confirmation like that, for a line that would cancel out the hurtful things my parents had said when I was younger. Yes, my parents had never given a single praise or encouragement. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t proud at all.

The funny thing about having old-fashioned parents is the fact that they might be the proudest of all parents, but yet still act as if they don’t care. When you’re unaware, they are off talking about your greatest achievement like it was their own, bragging about what you did just so to elicit envy from others.

About a week after my results, on a Sunday in church, out of nowhere the mother of someone I knew came to me excitedly.

“Your mother told me you did very well for your exams!” she said. “I heard you got many As.”

All I could do was stare at her, frown a little, and shrug. “I only got 5 As,” I said.

“That’s very good already!” she exclaimed and began to pump me for more details, even suggesting that I provide tuition for some of her friend’s children.

By the end of those thirty minutes I was giddy, but her first words echoed in my mind. Your mother told me you did very well for your exams! I was delighted. It felt as though my parents were praising me through a third party, as strange as it was. I had no way of confirming it with them without some sort of awkwardness, but it was relieving, somehow, to hear something like that from someone despite the embarrassment.

Weeks passed, and Chinese New Year arrived. As per the rules of tradition, my family visited my paternal uncle’s three-storey marble-made apartment, where I, still the youngest of all the relatives, had a hard time getting along with anyone. I was constantly being disregarded, and it was in my sensibility that I decided to smile, nod and reply only when spoken to.

A few hours passed and I ended up stuck in a conversation between my mother and my uncle’s wife. I sat beside my mother, uncomfortable to have been caught in something I couldn’t escape, when the topic of my results was broached.

“You did well in your exams, I heard,” my aunt said.

Considering the horrid relationship my aunt had with my family, I deduced the only way she could have ‘heard’ was if my father told my uncle, who in turn told her. As usual, I smiled and nodded, giving a little giggle for effect.

“Did you ask for any reward?” she said, but before I could answer, she continued, “When my son did well, we always gave him a reward. Like when he got into accounting school! He asked for a branded watch, and we agreed.”

My aunt was attempting to start a war: the bragging war of the aunties, notorious, all-accommodating, and very tempting. But my mother resisted from participating, perhaps because of my presence.

“Did you give any reward?” my aunt asked my mother, who shook her head with a smile.

My aunt looked surprised. She turned to me, her eyes wide. “You should have asked for something! Like, ask for a hundred dollars for every A you got!”

“Oh no, she got five As!” my mother exclaimed at the top of her lungs, holding out a hand with all fingers extended. I held back my surprise and embarrassment as she burst out laughing with a hint of haughtiness, and I realised that it was her most subtle way of entering the bragging war with my results as her pride. For the first time during that visit, I truly smiled.

It was then that I began to notice the irony that was my parents’ pride. They were so proud, but for some reason beyond my knowledge, unable to show it to me. Perhaps their parents never did, so they had no idea how to do it. Perhaps they were too shy or embarrassed to, since they rarely spoke words of love. Perhaps they thought it was for my best, that words of praise would make me lazy.

There were so many possibilities, but all of a sudden my parents went from being apathetic jerks to awkward child-like adults who were just as uncertain as I was. Old-fashioned? Heck yes. But unloving, apathetic? Not at all. And it took me sixteen years to discover that.

My Parents: Old-Fashionedness and Exam Results :: END ::

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