1. No teeth
I had not learnt any English before entering kindergarten. Hence, during English class, I found all the students and teachers speaking a strange and incomprehensible language. I spent most of the class gazing out of the window, my daydreaming only interrupted by those brief phrases of English which I understood.
One day, I realized that my classmates were raising their hands. Although I had no idea why they were doing that, I, too, raised my hand, waving it around for maximum effect.
The teacher pointed at me.
“No! Don’t pick her,” a classmate protested. “She is very no teeth.”
I ran my tongue over my teeth surreptitiously. There they were. Why would she say that I have no teeth? Unfortunately I did not know how to tell her that in English.
(Only with the benefit of hindsight did I realize what the word my classmate said was. It was naughty.)
This incident motivated me to work hard at learning English, so as to communicate with my classmates. I started reading English books. I also wrote short stories (complete with illustrations) in exercise books. An additional benefit was that writing, which used to be a chore, became a hobby.
I saw the poster, glossy and bright-colored, at my high school. It was recruiting volunteers for a community health project, to distribute FIT (fecal immunochemical test) screening kits to residents aged above 50 and to raise awareness about common types of cancer.
The organizing process, as well as the event itself, was hectic and exhausting. There were pamphlets to be printed and schedules to be coordinated, among other things. For that week, we spent 8 hours per day talking to residents. To ensure more accurate test results, we also advised them on how to correctly use the FIT screening kit.
Despite the hectic schedule, I felt it was a valuable lesson about the logistics of organizing such events. Through my interactions with the residents, I gained more communications skills such as how to effectively answer their questions and empathize with their concerns.
After this experience, I decided to choose a healthcare-related major in university. I feel that working in the healthcare industry is in some ways similar to the volunteer event, in that one can interact with and help others. Later, I started volunteering at other occasions, such as hospital visits or a HIV awareness week at my university.
Each event has its difficulties and is far from being as perfect as the glossy poster that I had first seen. Nevertheless, I feel that the benefits (such as promoting regular cancer-screening) outweigh the difficulties.
I had always found snails scary. The sight of snails crawling in the rain, leaving a glistening trail behind, was enough to make me shiver. Even more horrifying was lifting my shoes off a squashed mess that had once been a snail, with bits of shell, insides and other unidentifiable substances stuck to my soles. On rainy days, I walked along all pavements with great care, almost paranoia, afraid to hear the much dreaded ‘crack’.
Then, my family visited my grandmother who lives in a rural town. One of the dishes prepared for dinner was a plate of snails. Without shells, stir-fried with garlic, just waiting for us on the table.
Grandmother left out no details about the dish. She described how she caught the snails in the vegetable fields, cracked their shells with stones, washed them and got rid of their mucus with salt. By the time she finished, it was an effort to continue eating my dinner.
When she placed a snail in my bowl, my instinct was to push it away, but my mother’s glare stopped me.
I stared at that dead brown thing, while my stomach churned and twisted.
Perhaps I could drop the snail onto the floor? But that meant I had to touch it physically.
I breathed in deeply, and tried hard not to think about brittle shells shattering or their insides being removed. Mustering all my courage, I picked up the snail with shaking chopsticks and…
…squeezed my eyes shut…
…and refused to think about anything except chewing.
The adults smiled and resumed their conversation. I took several gulps of soup.
I never acquired a taste for the chewy and salty snails. However, now that I could finish a bowl of snails, I found them less scary. Perhaps certain things become less frightening if you confront them with a combination of determination and perseverance. I still feel pity while looking at the tragic remains of a snail, but not the urge to scream or jump in fright.