For those of us in senior societies, we partake in a heralded tradition of giving “bios,” shorthand for biographies. On Thursday nights, in the dim lighting of our tombs, houses or reserved rooms, we are invited to share — truly share — who we are, where we come from and where we are going.
I am from Singapore, a city of lush trees and bus rides. I started to love creative writing when I was 12; a teacher told me I could write so I did. I spend most of my time at college being obsessed with my major, philosophy. After college, I plan to work for a few years, and then maybe go to law school. I want to write a novel one day. It will be set in Singapore and it will be about all the lives I will never lead. I am a cat person. I cry easily but can also be very detached.
But it isn’t this easy, is it? Let me start over. It started on a rainy Wednesday morning in January 22 years ago. A woman started to bleed a month and a half before her baby was due. It was scary, I imagine. But then I emerged, wailing.
But it really started long before I took my first breath. When a man and a woman met in the halls of their architecture school in Singapore. I do not know this part very well. I do not know it at all. I wonder if they knew when they said hello what was in store for them. I wonder if they knew that hello was my beginning.
But was it?
We trace our stories in firsts: first words, first toddling steps, first period, first kiss, first time failing an exam, first concert, first time saying “I love you,” first trip out of the country, first heartbreak, first time watching a loved one die. We tell our stories in critical moments: Here, I met my best friend; here, I moved; here, I discovered Richard Linklater movies; here, I read my first philosophy essay; here, I met him, I met her, I met them; here, I fell out with my best friend; here, I got into the college of my dreams; here, I disappointed myself; here I got drunk and he kissed me; here, I cut off all my hair; here, I grew up.
What about the moments at the edges of our memories? The moments whose outlines are blurry, ones we will never revisit. Remember that Wednesday night, plodding through a hundred pages of reading, the rain staining the glass windows of Bass Library? Remember when you sat across from a friend, both of you on your phones? Remember walking to class in the snow, your bag heavy on your back, sleep still rubbed into your eyes? Remember that dinner with your family, the same as every other one, where you barely tasted the freshly cooked fish your father caught? Remember brushing your teeth and watching your morning eyes in the mirror? Not firsts, not lasts — these moments make a life.
Mine is a story of contingencies. But so is yours. What if my mother had not walked into the architecture hall that day? What if my father never said hello? What if you had not crossed the street? What if she had looked away? It all started with: a cup of coffee. A bird with a broken wing on the ground. A prime minister crying. Two sisters painting their bedroom wall. A doctor who went above and beyond. A “yes.”
There are parts of ourselves no one will ever see. When we are alone in the shower, when we dream, when we look in the mirror, when we touch ourselves, when we use the bathroom, when we cry in a movie theater, when we dream of someone else’s skin against ours.
The woman sitting across of me has rainbow streaks in her hair. A potbellied man at Grand Central Station has the mandarin characters “永生静心” tattooed on his calf. A bald man on Santa Monica pier searches for something, maybe a coin. People pass through, walk by, lives unwatched. I do not know them, but I remember them.
In our first society bio I look around and my chest wells up. How amazing it is to have people to tell our stories to, to have people who are listening, who take us in.
I think of my grandma and think of how much I do not know about her: an entire universe of unknown. I think of the is-ness of things. How everything is happening right now. There is no past or future, there is just this room and 16 strangers-turned-friends huddled together, knee-deep in our youth, listening to one of us tell his story.
In my head there is a girl sitting by a drain in Singapore, looking at black guppies swim around the rainwater. A boy sits across from her, his arms patterned with tattoos. He is going away. The girl looks at the sky and then back at the drain water. Her face in the water ripples and distorts as the fish swim in their whole world.
In my head there is a girl watching her cat die. Regal, ash-furred Persian, body collapsed into ragged breaths, eyes barely awake to the world. Eyes closing. That moment when life leaves.
In my head there is a girl who sees herself refracted through a thousand panes of glass. In each pane: a gaze, a leg, a body splintered. She breaks each pane into further splinters. How can she put herself back together?
In my head there is a girl naked in a forest. She looks around and there is no one but trees in sight. She calls out and no one calls back. She laughs and no one hears her. She parades her body for no one to see. The trees look up but not at her. For once, she is free.
Outside of my head there is a woman on the streets, or in a crowded room, or in an empty room, or in a courthouse. She looks around but there is no one in sight who would listen. She calls out but no one calls back. Someone laughs and she hears him. The buildings look up but not at her. She does not dare to dream.
Have you ever experienced a tropical rainstorm? It is torrential. Not at all like New Haven rain: soft, indecisive. It pours down on you, the sky’s vehemence. She has so much to say. Drains flood, guppies dart, plastic bags full of mangoes tear, schoolboys with no umbrellas get drenched. As it rains, I get off a bus and walk home. At a hospital nearby, a mother holds her newborn and watches the sky.
Kit Lea Cheang | firstname.lastname@example.org .