“You are such a freak!”
The words pierced my heart. I stood frozen in my spot while my friends laughed and moved on nonchalantly as if they hadn’t just shattered my heart.
The reason they were calling me a freak? My hair.
Dear madam toastmasters, ladies and gentlemen, have you ever gotten a very bad haircut? I have, many times. I was a nerdy and awkward kid in high school, and all I had ever wanted, was to fit in. The Victoria Beckham bob cut was all the rage at that time. All my friends had it, so I really wanted one too. But as fate would have it, nice hair, awkward high school kid, not meant to be. I walked in the hair salon full of hope, and walked out looking like someone had accidentally set fire to my hair. My friends were calling me a freak. I wanted so badly to belong, to fit in. But ended up as the odd one out, again.
So I did what I always do when I needed comforting. I went to my grandma momo. Grandma momo was born in China and arrived in Malaysia as a refugee during the second world war. She was widowed at a very young age. Through sheer grit and determination, grandma momo ended up owning a factory that produced chili sauce. Due to her work she always smelled like chili, but refused to put on perfume or anything that would make her “smell like walking soap”, as she would put it. At 145 cm tall, grandma momo was a tiny lady, with a big spirit. She was the bravest person I know, and we got along famously.
So I was pouring my heart out to her about my little hair drama. Grandma momo said to me,”My little chili padi (that’s what she calls me), hair grows back, fallen leaves will find their roots. All in Good Time.”
To be honest, I had no idea what she was trying to tell me. ‘Fallen leaves?” “Roots?’ ‘All in good time?’ What good time? I am having a terrible time, I have bad hair! But I did consider what she said about hair growing back, and thought to myself, maybe grandma momo thinks I should just, be patient.
Now patience is a peculiar thing. We all want to have it, and we want to have it now. Have you ever felt that way? And in the meantime, I was still struggling to fit in.
I left home at the age of 18 to study in Germany. My first year away from home was a disaster. I was in a foreign land, terrified of being a foreigner. I constantly felt that nobody gets me. The familiar voice sounded again in my head “I do not belong here, I do not fit in.”
Once again, I thought of grandma momo. I knew I had to talk to her. I called her up one day and told her about my problems of finding friends and fitting in, and again she said to me,“My little chili padi, let people see you, fallen leaves will find their roots. All in good time.”
Let people see me. That hit me hard. I think I am beginning to understand what grandma momo was trying to tell me all these years – understanding and acceptance take time. And not just time on my part, I have to allow other people time to get to know me too. The real me. No fancy haircuts.
Things gradually got better, and seven years later I met Glenn, my now husband.
The first time Glenn came to Malaysia my mom organised a family dinner for all my relatives to meet him. Halfway through dinner, mom stood up and gave a beautiful speech about love and loyalty. All of a sudden she turned to Glenn, and asked him “So Glenn, do you love my daughter?” Caught completely off guard, Glenn was stunned. In the most sincere and earnest way possible, he said, “I …. like her very much.” As you can imagine, that dinner did not end very well.
Later that evening, still dejected, Glenn said to me, “Your family is so different. Your values are so different. How would I ever fit in?”. I looked at him, and this time, knew exactly what to say. “Let them see you, fallen leaves will find their roots. All in good time.”
And they did see him. Even better, they saw, and loved him.
Today, whenever I am thrown into an unfamiliar situation and hear that familiar voice in my head, “I don’t belong here, I don’t fit in”, I remember grandma momo’s words. And for all of you who have ever felt like you are square pegs in a round hole, I would like you to remember those words, “Let people see you. All in good time.”
My grandma momo passed away three months ago. I was away for Christmas when she passed, and didn’t get to say good bye. But if she would get her way, and she somehow always did, she’d be here today, and I would tell her: the fallen leaves have returned to their roots. I will see you again some day, momo. All in good time.