Why did I feel like running away from home? When I was in the third grade. I ran away from home. Or at least, I tried to — I didn’t quite get past the front door. It was a Chinese exam that had motivated this, or more specifically, my father’s reaction to it.

Upon laying his eyes on my score, a side of my father I had never seen before came to life, as playful teasing gave way, in an instant, to judicial terror. My sentence was Chinese vocabulary: between the time my father finished dinner and midnight, I would be grilled on phrases and words I should’ve known and didn’t know. With words alone, my father instilled in me the fear of God.

Three days into this new regime, I formulated an escape plan. I decided that one day after school I would go to the local library and read until closing time. When a librarian told me it was time to go, I would tell them that I had nowhere to go. Perhaps they would drive me home. I hoped that letting my father know that he had hurt me would make him kinder. It was a terrible plan and was executed even more terribly.

I wiped my tears dry and, like the days before and the days that followed, studied Chinese vocabulary with my father when he came home. He scolded me for not knowing, I did not know because I had not studied, I had not studied because I was too busy failing at running away from home. Returning to my room at midnight, I sat on my bed awake.

At one point my father opened the door and sort of stared at me for a few seconds. Then he closed the door and left.

I’ve always found myself inadequate when speaking in Chinese. I think it was the hopelessness of never being able to express myself properly that made me believe that my failure in Chinese was permanent.

I came to expect the month or so of nightly Chinese vocabulary with my father that followed every failed exam, and instead of studying on my own beforehand, I would tell myself that my failure was inevitable and that there would be no use in studying. I buried the memory of almost running away from home deep within me.

I felt defeated and inadequate

It was only as of recent that that memory rose to the surface. I would recall it with perfect vividness, along with the defeat and helplessness, and inadequacy I had felt in that moment. I began to see the repercussions of that night in my every characteristic. I’m terribly quiet. I spend a lot of time in libraries. I’m always trying to find the right words to express myself. There is still a door between my father and me.

Sometime in the ninth grade, I started taking initiative with my studies, Chinese included. I would spend my break-times and lunch-times studying. I would study in the two hours between finishing a gym session and Track & Field training, whether that be at a hawker centre, on the train, at a bus stop, on the bleachers. Soon my father realised that he wouldn’t need to discipline me in Chinese, or any subject for that matter — I’d do it on my own. I’d like to think that I had become enlightened. Really I was just lonely.

Studying, for my father, was an act of survival. A university degree had bridged the gap between his childhood, characterized by shifts at his father’s business of selling salted fish at a wet market, and my own, comparatively much more comfortable childhood. Discipline was his way of motivating me to move past complacency, of making me realize that education was not something to be taken for granted.

In the years after I tried to run away from home, however, I saw my father only for the fear he struck in me, not even considering what his intentions could be.

In later years, my father would convey the importance of education to me with much greater clarity. He would do this not with scoldings but with stories.

He would recall memories of his father’s business going bankrupt, and how he had to miss meals and even miss school for a period of time, and I truly believe that it was these stories, more than any night of Chinese vocabulary, that contributed to the self-discipline I eventually gained.

My father never learned Chinese himself. I recently learned that this was because it had been banned in Indonesia. The same day I learned this, he told me that he was proud of me. There is still a door between my father and me, but it is gradually opening up.

A muddled mess of tears

I have written this essay three times now. It was initially for a (failed) scholarship application. The first time I wrote it, I pushed out a spew of earnest, occasionally grammatically disordered words through a muddled mess of tears and Radiohead songs.

I latched on to the “describe a personal life experience” part of the prompt and didn’t quite get to the “insights and understandings” part. After receiving feedback from no less than four friends, one university advisor, and one literature teacher, I revised it several times to give myself the illusion that I had written something profound. My coda boldly read:

“Entire cultures, experiences, and lives are invalidated and suppressed through the restriction of language, and so many doors are closed because of this. I know that people yearn simply to be heard, for the freedom to be vulnerable, for doors to be opened. I had once ran away from my open door, now I hope to be the one that can open such doors.”

That first line might’ve read as something other than bullshit if I was going to study Linguistics or something. But no, I am studying Engineering. Do I really know what people yearn for? No, not really. Will I really open doors for the less fortunate? I hope so, but frankly, I don’t know yet. I still have my own door to open.

I feel I can strive within any environment I exist, but I cannot strive between two worlds.

Inevitability, the notion of studying in high school for the sake of higher education did not come naturally to me.

I spent much of the past two years in aimless university advising meetings, convincing myself that I wanted to be at places I knew nothing about, wearing other people’s dreams as my own.

He said he “I’m sorry”

I told myself that having a direction that I would later fall out of love with was better than having no direction at all.

I sought focus incognizant of a focal point. I convinced myself that the blurred, dim light before me was a bright, open door.

In Jakarta in December, I confronted the insurmountable task of showing my father this essay, so that he could give me a number for the application question “how much will your parents, guardians, or other family contribute each year while you are at university?”

He told me he was sorry he hurt me and that he didn’t know he had hurt me and was glad that at the very least I understood his intentions: to teach me that “life is hard.” He gave me some tough feedback and a hug, said a prayer with me, and left.

I prefer my first, confused draft immensely more than what I submitted on the 15th of January 2020.

I’ve restored most of it here, integrating the few parts of my submitted version that I feel hold at least a little bit of meaning.

I’m not sure if writing this will open a door for anyone. But I do know I have opened one for myself.

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