Read: For Starters (Part 5)
It’s every parent’s dream for their kids to enrol in prestigious schools. For the parents of kids at the Sheng Kung Hui Kindergarten, it’s St. Pauls’ Co-educational College. Together with the Diocesan Boys’ and Diocesan Girls’ schools, the trio make the Anglican crème de la crème in the local secondary school world. The Reverend Liu, a family friend, joked, “Many Christian adults go to church three times in their lives. First, to get baptised; second, to get married; third, for their funerals.” Some join the church for easy access to members of the clergy who can help their children write letters of recommendations to prestigious Anglican schools, including kindergartens.
I was lucky to have attended primary school in Singapore. I was born in Hong Kong, but moved to Singapore, partly because Mom thought highly of the education system there. When I came back at 12, Mom enlisted the help of the clergy to get me into St. Stephen’s Girls’ College, which is quite prestigious. During my first interview (ever), then-vice-principal Mrs. Chan asked me if I was a native English speaker. I didn’t know what that meant, so I said “no”. “Do you even know what ‘native’ means?” She raised a brow above her gold-rimmed glasses, revealing a sliver of lavender smudged harshly across a crepey eyelid. Her burgundy lips pressed together in a thin smile.
Well, are all of your students native English speakers? “No”, I said.
“I see. What sort of musical instruments do you play?”
“I play the piano. I used to play the violin, too.”
“I stopped enjoying it.”
“All of our girls at St. Stephen’s must be familiar with at least one musical instrument. So, you’d better not stop enjoying the piano! Ha-ha-ha!”
Even in that quite-prestigious school, we were expected to participate in as many activities as we could to make our profiles look better. I was in drama, debate, choir, and participated in a number of English-language speech festivals. Don’t ask. At least I wasn’t one of those kid who opened their mouths so wide for “better enunciation”, they could engulf a toddler’s head. Still, I flunked my fifth form citywide Chinese exam and had to migrate to a different education system, which got me into university just fine. That was in 2010. Pretty much the only thing that nagged at my fellow Bachelor of Arts undergrads and me was, what if we spent three years of higher education just to score an average desk job printing YouTube videos of cats and investigating the mystery man in some colleague’s Facebook profile for our fifty-something supervisors who spent half their lives under the thumbs of their bosses because they never made it past upper sixth form? Of course, many of my peers participated overzealously in all sorts of nocturnal dorm-related activities (not orgies, unfortunately!) and marathon student society campaigns because our seniors told us that’s the stuff employers look for in our CV’s. Essays? Revision? Surely that’s not what university is for. A common complaint I heard, which, which will likely be here to stay for the many decades to come, is about mainland Chinese students snagging the top scores and occupying university places that rightfully belonged to other local students who probably managed to get into some sort of Higher Diploma or Associate Degree programme. Some girls from my quite-prestigious high school spent one to two years in those programmes before getting into “real” university programmes.
Most of us graduate underpaid and overqualified, holding on to pieces of childhood.
Graduation photographs come about six months ahead of the ceremony. Nowadays, it seems to come earlier every year. You kind of expect first-year undergrads to start taking graduation photos in their second semester. Social media trends dictate that every grad photo needs: a gown, a cap, a bouquet of flowers, a stuffed toy, lots of friends (a.k.a. props) dressed for the occasion, a cheap tripod you got from some mall selling tech stuff in Wan Chai, a DSLR camera your parents gave you when you got into university (not the best, but still better than your iPhone 5S), and, of course, your selfie stick. Girls bring out the eyeliner and false lashes and foundation that’s two shades too light, and boys make an attempt to upgrade their hair to something more grown up and manly. And everyone, I mean EVERYONE, cradles a stuffed toy dressed in graduation gear in their photos. Come graduation season, ads for customised graduation toys pop up all over Facebook and on campus—perfect for avoiding the who-wore-it-better’s. In those six months, graduates find more photo ops than they will ever find in their lifetime. When they already have a photo their favourite bathroom, they take their mission beyond campus. The world is their studio. Malls, parks, lampposts, monuments, churches, schools, and for the lucky few, in the middle of Queensway during Occupy Central. I “Like” graduation photo album Facebook uploads without even looking at them. Most of us graduate underpaid and overqualified, holding on to pieces of childhood.