Childhood Canings Cast Long Shadows

If you grew up in the 80s in a middle-class home in Singapore, you probably experienced the kind of childhood punishments that would make your Western friends clutch their pearls and gasp that no one called Child Protective Services.

Getting beaten with the cane or feather duster was par for the course; an open palm worked fine in a pinch, too. You might have been locked out of the family flat until you apologised for your wrongs, even if it was past midnight and you were wearing only pajamas. Maybe you made your mother mad enough to chase you with a sharp object from the kitchen or her sewing kit. (I knew two sisters who were routinely disciplined by being made to kneel on broken shells – and the only thing that struck me about this was that their parents actually kept broken shells in the house for the purpose.)

You might have compared battle scars while in school, and would have felt bad for the ones who showed up covered in purple welts the day after the semester’s report books were sent home for parents’ signatures. At some point in your teens or thereabouts, you quietly outgrew corporal punishment: maybe your dad felt ill-equipped to thrash a child nearly as tall as he. Then you became an adult or nearly so, started a life largely independent of your parents’, made contributions to the household bills and your parents’ upkeep, moved out and/or got married… You held up your end of the social contract, learnt to relate to your parents as people rather than authority figures, and the physical and emotional scars of your childhood punishments largely faded into the mists of memory.

These memories stay firmly in the past until you have a child of your own. No, it’s not like you look into the sweetly sleeping face of your baby and think, I’ll never take a feather duster to that little behind. None of this so much as crosses your chronically sleep-deprived mind – till your parents, now Ah Kong and Popo, first lay into you about what they perceive as your shitty parenting. “You’re too tense and impatient. You’re creating a negative atmosphere in the home. It’s unhealthy for her to grow up in this environment. It will seriously affect your family.”

And because you haven’t actually slept in 6 weeks – chain-napping might be a more accurate description of the quantity and quality of shut-eye you’ve had – your gut response is to curl up and cry. For about an hour. Maybe a bit more.

Afterwards, you stop being sad and start being awesome. (cf. Stinson, Barney) And more than a little angry.

You hit Reply – because it is such a passive-aggressive Asian parent thing to do, dishing out criticism over email rather than to your face – and calmly explain sleep deprivation to Ah Kong. You elaborate on how it feels to have had maybe 3 hours of fitful sleep every night before starting the day at 2 in the morning, followed by a 2-hour nap at dawn, for A MONTH AND A HALF.

Then you recount two or three of the more painful and humiliating childhood punishments you endured at his hands and your mother’s. You tell him that you’ve already forgiven him for being only human and raising you the best he could, while underscoring your conviction never to let your child endure the same hurts you experienced. And you express your belief that someday when your child is grown, she too will learn that her parents are but human, and that you hope that she’ll forgive you for having inadvertently made her sad or scared when you were upset or angry.

You take a minute to contemplate if this is what it means to fight dirty. You register that it’s 5 in the morning and that you’ve run out of fucks to give, and so you hit Send.

Only then do you look into the sweetly sleeping face of your baby and whisper: I’m sorry. I’m not perfect and I know I’ll make a lot of mistakes. But I’ll never take a feather duster to your little behind.

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