“Who are you?” they ask.
“I am Yu En Ian (卢毓恩), but you can call me Ian,” I hastily answer before they started fumbling with its pronunciation. It means “God’s grace.” It certainly is a far better name than what my siblings intended for me: Bassoon Loo. I then proudly claim that I am from the humble town of Malacca in distant Malaysia. They are pleasantly surprised.
“You speak good English,” the Americans remark.
I reason that I attended international school for 12 years and developed an acute interest in reading since young. At the cost of my Mandarin tongue, my lips became English, as Enid Blyton, Dr. Seuss, and Derek Landy were my tutors. Mr. Joseph commends my writing in 7th grade and recommends me to the local newspaper’s short story competition. I draft a piece about five superheroes. Then another, about four superheroes dealing with a betrayal. A dystopian story about a feeble resistance against an alternate United States is my third. I pick one of them, believing them each to be well-written. I do not win.
“What is an interesting fact about yourself?” the ice-breaking session commences.
My mind races through a thousand things. I consider telling them I am a violinist. Yuen Liang from 1st grade inspired me to pick it up with his performance, and so I did. I feel special, as my siblings and cousins all play the piano. I pass my first practical exam with little obstacle. Ms. Tan jokingly mentions she is going to stab me with a knife when I do not practice. She begins to raise her voice as my bow slides off the strings, screeching as it does so. Mr. Alex is my new teacher, and he sells me my first full-size light oak violin from a master maker in China. I score distinctions for my exams, and he offers me Strepsils when my chest wheezes from asthma. He leaves for the army, and Mr. Tan is my new teacher. His brow scrunches in frustration, as my bow lags behind the piano accompaniment. He slams the piano keys suddenly, and my throat croaks as my eyes struggle to withhold my tears. I fail two exams, and decide I want to perform in orchestras instead. Mr. Tan obliges happily as a fellow orchestra player. He would clap as I finished my solo piece with two errors at most, and proudly introduce me as his student at the concert’s end. I consider again, but decide I was not that good of a violinist.
I think of telling them I used to be a competitive swimmer. Sundays after church were the worst. For an hour at the club, my arms flail against the water, my mouth gasping for air as it surfaces, while my legs kick with a short-lived ferocity before they feel heavy like lead. The water is cold, but my torso and neck burn. I take pride in my breaststroke, for it is my only technique capable of keeping up with the top brass of the class. I then join the school’s swimming team. I stay late after school, and willingly submit myself to two hours of training. My arms flail again, swimming a lap behind the rest of the team. I never compete and leave the team after a semester. My breaststroke was good, but I was hardly competitive.
Perhaps I should mention I learned tennis for 4 years. It was to improve our hand-eye coordination, my father affirmed. Coach Ash was friendly, always keen to tease my little sister Elisa. He would first train me, then her, as I had swimming class afterwards on those dreadful Sundays. Under the sun, the undersides of my shoe grew sticky from stepping on the hot green clay. As I bent to pick up the ball, sweat rolled off my brow onto its hairy exterior. Serving the ball to Coach, it would brush against the net, bouncing, before landing an inch away from the outer line. My shoes stuck each step as I once again went to retrieve the ball. All I ever did was hit the ball and run. I was stagnant as a player. Coach pulls me aside one day, and tells me, “Some kids are natural athletes, but you are unfortunately not.” I pause, ponder, and agree with him. I stopped my tennis lessons a year later, to focus on my pre-university education. Peculiarly, after four years, I still do not know every rule of tennis.
Coach’s words stuck with me. My sports house captain looks at me, and decides it is best I work with the design team. Tug O’ War and marathon running were not where he needed me, in the best interest of the house. I sit on the moist grass, my shorts soaking through, as I spectate my friends playing a soccer game. When they call me to join as a goalkeeper, I defend the posts as valiantly as I can, before cowering from the powerful right leg that strikes the ball. The ball goes in, and my friends reassure me it was a tough one to block. It happens again. And again. I want to go back to the grass.
“I was an actor and writer for a YouTube channel before,” I settle on, to the slight nods they give before shifting their attention to the Brazilian freshman next to me.
Sean and I are to be an iconic duo in the Malaysian YouTube scene, where ridiculous skits are our trademark. He is the visionary in charge of cinematography, while I head up acting and writing. I am the Caine to his Nolan. I have acted since young, firstly at a church play about the doom of Everyman. Our first video is a war involving Nerf guns and soccer. It is ridiculous. Our second is a how-to video for the impossible, like turning invisible. We turn off the lights, now we are invisible. We chuckle at our genius. Years pass, and we are the kings of cinema among our peers. We have the cameras, the boom mics with their fluff, and white lighting with various color filters. The quality of our production is unmatched. For Sean’s final middle school project, I willingly lend my expertise once more. I play the rebel, angsty younger brother. He plays the working, tired older brother. He dies, as my parents had, in a heroic sacrifice of his heart to be used for my surgery. Typical of a teledrama, yet our friends cried. Our acting and cinematography surpass the sheer absurdity of the plot. We take a bow at its premiere, and I do not act again.
Silence ensues. Everybody ponders. Some already know what they have in mind but wait. Some wish they had more dramatic stories to share. I ask, “Which one?” within the confines of my head. My mind races yet again. Do I mention the violin exams? Do I elaborate on my ostracization on Sports Day? Then, my freshman year of college comes to mind. I am pursuing computer science. It is the first live coding exam. My gaze wanders over the rows of eager students, all twitching to begin. I lift the laptop’s bulky cover with effort, log in my details, and watch the timer on the projector screen begin ticking. “I am ready,” I convince myself. As my eyes scan the letters, my mind is suddenly wiped blank. What are “loops”? The hall is cold, but my hands are drenched in sweat. I curse myself under my breath, blankness twisting into rage. My vision blurs, and panic grips me. I am frozen. Time runs out, I succumb to cruel fate, and they collect the laptops. They ask me, “How was it?” and my throat croaks in response.
“How have you failed, and how did you overcome it?” I hear, as the hosts of the circle attempt to disarm us.
I share that story. I tell them how I committed every living hour to perfecting my understanding. I recount the small sighs my peers exhaust before they repeat their answers to my multiple questions. Perhaps I should have pursued art. When we were younger, my father would randomly ask us logical and mathematical questions. Elisa seemed to get it. I, on the other hand, paused for a moment longer, my head a pool of swirling percentages. “I need paper,” I finally admitted. A world of numbers and computation is foreign to me and requires translation. Quite illogically, I now find myself working every day with logic. Writing or acting seem mighty attractive now. Yet, in Hollywood fashion, my hard work pays off, and I conquer the next exam. And the next. I end with how I am now more confident in my coding abilities.
They snap their fingers as a polite response, intrigued by the underdog story. They await similar tales.
Two people share a death of a close friend, and their failure to prevent it. Another shares the first exam they failed in college, despite a life of academic distinction. Anxiety is reiterated umpteen times. We snap our fingers with smiles of encouragement. I think about how I do not face such tragedy. I also think about how intelligent and brave they were. Should I be grateful? Should I be spiteful? Their stories are beautiful. Their anecdotes are sorrowful. Mine are mediocre at best.
“That’s time,” the hosts say as they stand up and brush off their jeans. They thank each of us for our time and vulnerability. I smile slightly and shake their hands. “I would love to watch your videos some time,” says one of them. I shrug and tell them, “It isn’t the best, but I would be happy to.”