If childhood were a film in which our parents, friends, classmates, teachers, and ourselves all played a character, it would be a montage film with a nonlinear narrative. Different lines of narrative would be woven together into a web of events that seemed to be following an order that might not have made sense in the moment. But one day, without one knowing, they would give way to the logic of the future.
I am here to show you a patch of memories embroidered in that montage whose edges are adorned with a silver lining I am only able to see today. The story is about how I learnt to lie as a child.
In the adult world, there’s a saying that the best and worst lies are the ones you tell yourself. We children knew it too—the very essence of lying, which was also how I began to acquire this quintessential skill for surviving in the adult world.
I must have been around 6 years old, as I remembered it was before I started elementary school and after I was returned by my grandmother to my parents in Shenzhen. I had been expecting the day to come for weeks. It was only because my cousin and his parents came to visit us from our hometown that we got to go to the Toy R Us store. Visiting Shenzhen meant nothing less than a chance to witness in real life the spectacle of the Western grandeur. So showing my cousin’s family to the Toy R Us store was a must.
I had a feeling that secretly my dad was looking forward to the day as well, and that we shared a tacit understanding of the significance of the occasion. So we dressed up for the day: I insisted on wearing my floral dress, Dad wore his good old white buttoned-up shirt, Mom cooked for all six of us a proper breakfast—everything was part of the ritual before a substantial family event. That morning my entire existence was absorbed in the expectation of making the foreign wonderland my realm, my own empire. My rivals were not my dad or my cousin, but rather the gaming machines themselves who, I was sure, would send spirits against me to prevent me from rescuing the dolls locked behind the show window. When we arrived at the Toy R Us store, my dad led my cousin and I to the counter where he exchanged a bunch of gaming machines coins with cash, and split them equally among the three of us.
Between my cousin and I, he was always the one who would drink his yogurt bit by bit so that he could enjoy his yogurt for an extended period of time, and I was the one who would down my yogurt in the same way my future German fellows would chug a beer. Maximized pleasure in a flash. A philosophy I was too little to give it the proper name of “living in the moment.” So in the same way, my cousin used his coins one by one for a gaming machine that he did not particularly enjoy just so that he could practically play longer; whereas I with the mission of conquering the realm in mind went ahead to try to defeat all the gaming machine spirits, and before I knew it, my coins were gone.
As our teammate and at times game supervisor, Dad used up all his coins as well, so the two of us sat around and waited for my cousin to finish his game. All the while I was holding on tightly to the vouchers I had won, as they were the enchanting trophies with which I would be able to rescue my favorite doll from the counter. I was affected less by the impatience of waiting for my cousin than by the shock of what happened thereafter. The sequence of events that happened between the gift counter in the Toy R Us store and the corner of my bedroom in our little tin roof hut left such a strong imprint in my mind that for a long it remained a piece of the childhood montage that refused to yield to any meaning.
At the gift counter, we found out that only the three of us’ vouchers together would suffice to trade one doll. There were smaller gifts, but any doll would cost all of our vouchers, and my cousin happened to really like this puppy doll that was wearing a mint green shirt. After I ardently demanded a fair split of the vouchers between us, my dad decided to give all the vouchers to my cousin for the puppy doll he wanted. I was overcome by anger over what was to the six-year-old me the most unfair treatment in the world. The level of its unfairness was comparable to, or even exceeded, the unfairness of being left behind in Shaoguan by my migrant-worker parents, or the boy next door having eaten my pet chicken when I was away during the summer. It was as if I had vainly fought against the gaming machine spirits the whole afternoon. Now my empire was lost, and with it, the magic of the summer. My feeling of being done injustice to would have been less inconsolable had I gotten to keep the vouchers I’d won, because then I would have felt that I’d lost my battles gloriously, and would be determined to return to rescue the dolls some other day.
By the time we arrived home to our little tin roof hut, I had lost control over the tears streaming down my cheeks. I sat myself down in the corner of my room and started crying inconsolably, while gabbling on and on, “but it’s unfair…” Then suddenly, my dad entered my room, in fury, and slapped me in the face without saying a word. I stopped crying. That was the only time in my memory my dad had ever hit me—he had never hit me before, or ever since.
That summer day did not make sense to me for a very long time. When it did, that’s when the lying began. Years later, we were asked to write an essay about a meaningful incident between our parents and us in the elementary school. It became clear to me then that I had to write about that afternoon, as I felt that I had finally acquired the emotional capacity and maturity to comprehend its true meaning. I tried to slip into my dad’s shoes and deliberately called to mind those fragmented images before and after he lost his temper to me, the images of a loving and disciplining patriarch. Love and discipline, in the world I lived in, the two were always interdependent. At the end of the essay, I concluded that my father wanted to teach me the importance of generosity.
I guarded this lie for a very long time as if it was almost sacred, a missing piece that wove together the narrative of the montage film of my childhood. I truly believed in it, until the context in which this lie made sense vanished one day. After high school, I left China for the United States to continue my education. I went on to learn many things in life, big lessons, small ones, big regrets, and small ones, and then one day, it came to me that I no longer took the same values I have always taken for granted as the absolute anymore. All of a sudden, I could see the silver lining of that summer afternoon.
People say when you were deprived of something when you were a child, you will end up spending your whole life searching for that same thing. So I did, and I still do. At the university I went on to study women writers in Japan who were treated inferior to prominent men writers, proletarian literature through which workers expressed their anger against the factories’ unfair treatment, and the hidden inequality of the Capitalist system as explained by Karl Marx in Capital Volume One.