“You! Go up front,” barked the teacher as she pointed with her chin for me to join the half-dozen children milling at the front of the cramped classroom. I shuffled from my seat toward the group. We were the kids who had failed the fingernail inspection. As we faced the class, the seated students broke into a derisive sing-song chant.
I was five.
I was new to the class, to the school, to Hong Kong, and to the Cantonese language. Our family had just illegally crossed the Communist Chinese border into British Hong Kong. I didn’t need to understand the Cantonese words to understand what was happening. I was humiliated.
My nails looked okay to me. I wished I knew what about them offended the teacher. They were too short to have Mom cut them. That would hurt. As the day went on, I forgot about my nails. I didn’t give my nails another thought … until inspection the next day. I was paraded to the front again.
I was reminded of this episode from seventy years ago while watching the Swedish movie My Life As a Dog on TV. It was directed by Lasse Hallstrom and released in the US in 1987. Every time I’ve viewed this movie, memories and emotions of my childhood burst out.
Twelve-year-old Ingemar tells the story. It takes place in the late 1950s. He is emotionally younger and more naive than most twelve-year-olds today.
As in my childhood, normal events unexpectedly turn disastrous. What starts as his wish to cook pancakes for his mother and older brother ends up with flour and batter splattered all over themselves and the kitchen. The scene ends with the dog gobbling out of the bowl on the floor.
Another scene has Ingemar wandering in a trash dump. Worried that his dog is cold, he starts a small fire. Then another pile of trash catches fire, and the next. Suddenly, huge flames shoot up.
Each of these episodes just ends, fading out without resolution. Ingemar’s life rolls on. Mine did too. After some weeks or months, Mom moved me to a Catholic school taught by nuns. We wore uniforms. Mom wanted a better education for me. I hoped for nicer teachers.
The strongest memory of my early school years, however, was of my class lining up to enter the building. Using shoulders, elbows and knees, the other kids shoved me back to the end of the line. No matter how I tried, I wound up at the end. Well, the second to the last. Always the same girl was behind me – the only one I could bully.
The feeling of being edged out comes back at strange times. Bill and I take a group dance class. We park ourselves in the middle of the line where we can better see and be seen by the teacher. Then other couples step into the center like they own it. We are pushed farther and farther into the periphery.
Ingemar soothes himself by comparing his situation to bits he has heard in the news: the would-be Tarzan who was electrocuted when he swung on a live wire; the people killed in a train crash; the man who was surprised to be impaled by a javelin as he took a shortcut through a sports field.
Ingemar thinks most about Laika, the dog sent into space in a Sputnik capsule. She died in space as the Russians didn’t retrieve her. They hooked her up with wires to monitor how she felt. Ingemar says, “I don’t think she felt so good.”
While Ingemar felt sorry for Laika, I felt sorry for Hong Kong’s beggars. They were everywhere – under bridges, at the ferry, on the streets. They were young and old, silent or confronting, all wretched. Their clothes were rags, and they were so dirty. I wanted to give them baths.
So many people were poorer than we, even though we were refugees and much reduced from our previous circumstance. We lived in a fenced-in compound. One time, my friends and I threw our toys over the fence for the poor kids. Boy, was Mom mad!
Neither Ingemar nor I could share our troubles with our moms. Ingemar’s mother was dying from tuberculosis. My mom was coping with finding a place for us to live, a school for us to attend – on a tight budget – in a foreign language – and dodging authorities who could send us back to China. (Dad was already in America, our final destination, where we would arrive three years later.)
I wasn’t aware of her stresses. Either her demeanor signaled that I shouldn’t bother her, or I lacked the self-confidence to press my grievances. I was afraid that if I complained, mom would think less of me or even blame me for incompetence. Ours was a family of victory, not of complaints!
In any case, I didn’t have the words. I didn’t know how to express my feelings. I’m not sure if the cause was changing languages, or something intellectually or emotionally deeper. It occurs to me that this may be the core reason I write. I have the words now.
Eventually, if we are lucky in our emotional resilience, we learn to connect. Even tiny, tangential tendrils can anchor firm attachments.
My Life As a Dog ends with seemingly everyone in Sweden listening on their radios to the 1959 title bout between American Floyd Patterson and the Swedish challenger Ingemar Johansson. With the radio on, Ingemar has fallen contentedly asleep on the couch alongside Saga, a girl classmate. When Johannson knocks out Floyd, the announcer says, “Ingemar didn’t let us down.” It feels like he’s referring to our Ingemar as well.
Only in retrospect have I appreciated my childhood piano teacher, Miss Burke. She was of indeterminant age, wearing practical laced shoes with wedgy heels in summer white and winter black. She awarded her students little busts of the composers. Mine gazed at me from the top of the piano. One day, she pointed at one and asked who it was. I panicked. Then, I noticed the name “Bach” written on the bottom. I answered, “Batch.” She corrected me. “Bock.” She didn’t even crack a smile. And I love her for that.
Tell me: Tell me one thing about your childhood.