Monday, June 6, 2011

The anguish of a ‘forgotten’ child


By CHRISTOPHER FERNANDEZ

When children are neglected at home, they sometimes seek the company of other adults for parental love and guidance.

PEI PEI was over the moon. She had passed the recent SPM exams with flying colours and wanted to take me out to celebrate.

I was Pei Pei’s English tutor. I agreed to meet her at a shopping mall for an inexpensive meal. When we met for lunch at an eatery, she was gushing with enthusiasm over her results. This was another feather in my cap as I had tutored her from the time she was in Year Six.

As she began to unfold her plans for the future, I recalled in a little reverie how I had begun this project of getting her to excel in her English.

I was teaching at a language centre and Pei Pei’s parents were my students. They were seeking permanent residence status in New Zealand, and wanted to meet the criteria for English language proficiency by achieving a certain standard in the International English Language Testing System.

When they achieved their goal, they had insisted I tutor their daughter. I had no qualms. I proceeded to work with Pei Pei to brush up her English language skills. How time flies! She was now planning to sit for her pre-university studies at a local college and most likely move on to New Zealand for tertiary studies.

While she was unveiling her plans to me, my mind slipped into another reverie. I began to reflect on how the onset of teaching her unfolded.

Being rich, Pei Pei’s parents rewarded me handsomely throughout my six-year stint in cash and in kind.

But as I began to work with her, I noticed that she had a withdrawn nature. She went about her studies and her life at home in a blunt, almost expressionless way, devoid of any feeling.

This behaviour aroused my concern. Whenever I appeared for my twice-a-week, two-hour session, I hardly saw her parents.

They were the absentee parents and the role of bringing her up was thrust onto her grandmother and the maid.

Business for the parents who ran a motor spare parts factory was booming. Not only were several of their relatives roped in to assist in reaping the spoils, they ventured into distributing the spare parts throughout Malaysia and within the Asean region.

In the process of amassing their wealth, Pei Pei hardly saw her parents as they travelled frequently throughout the region. But they never failed to lavish her with all the material comforts they could afford her and she was growing up with a settled view that this was the way life for every child.

Missing parents

When I began to query her on missing her parents and their presence, she seemed quite indifferent and also somewhat uncertain as to her feelings over their constant absence.

Alhough she was a brave and stoic girl, I felt only sympathy for her.

On the rare occasions I chanced to meet her parents, I did not hesitate to voice my concern over the plight of Pei Pei and suggested to them to try and make as much time for her as possible.

My initial attempts were met with interest, but as time passed the parents began to avoid me and I think they thought of me as going beyond my position as tutor as to “interfere” in the affairs of their household.

But they allowed me to tutor her as she was beginning to make steady progress. But what I feared then began to take place, albeit, also in steady fashion. Pei Pei began to see me as a father figure and someone she could trust, confide and relate to as a responsible adult.

It came to such a point that the maid even began to insinuate that “I was the man of the house”. But it was a situation not of our making. Pei Pei began to grow and she also began to bond with me in a way that was unexpected.

Soon I began to feel like a thief as the remaining years of my service progressed. While I have no children of my own, I had not bargained to get into a situation such as this.

I felt I was robbing the parents of the exclusive filial devotion of their daughter.

What it evolved into was that Pei Pei quite happily paid lip service to her parents but kept the true communication with me. This “arrangement” seemed to go down well with her.

But it was an arrangement that came to the attention of the parents only towards the close of my tenure as tutor, and this was when they realised the bond that had grown between us was stronger than her bond with them.

It all seemed so silly to me. If only they had paid heed to me and taken my suggestions seriously from the beginning, it would not have come to such an awkward situation. I feel for children who are in the care of child minders and day care centres while parents try to pile up the wealth.

I can empathise with the fact that making money is very important in a world of rising inflation.

But to achieve the material gain and sacrifice seeing your child grow up – worse still, losing their filial piety to others – is a terrible and painful loss which can never be regained, as time has ticked away.

As I mused over my lunch, Pei Pei was as chatty as ever and carrying on with endless details of her future plans.

This was also something she never did with her parents; her tongue never seemed to wag and she always seemed to clam up in their presence.

I also observed how she spoke, her gestures and mannerisms, the facial expressions, her tone of voice and accent, the overall body language, and it struck me in a certain frightening way of how a tutor had such a deep impact and influence on her life.

The tutor obviously had overpaid his dues in the relatively short span of six years, or so I thought. It was just then that her phone beeped.

Upon answering, she told me her parents were waiting downstairs for us to finish lunch. It was just as well as I downed the last few morsels of my lunch and went downstairs to meet her parents. They looked sullen but greeted me politely and announced quickly that they had to rush off for another appointment, saying that they regretted not being able to spend time with me.

I thought, how ironic, that even throughout the years that their daughter was growing up, they also never had time for her. For some reason, this thought created a sharp tinge of pain in me.

My thought at this point was that there really must be more to life, and we must learn to create the space and time for people we like and love in our life.

Perhaps it all boils down to managing our time and sorting out our priorities so as to consider who and what counts and matters to us most in life. By now I should have thought that the parents would have realised that they can’t possibly have “everything” in life.

I suppose the world is not enough for people who greedily seek more and more. But watching the three of them bid me farewell and walk away, I thought to myself, again with a twist of irony, what more did they really need?

They had everything. But in the same ironic way it puzzled me that they were unaware and blind to this reality.

As I walked away towards the car park, I realised that I was like a godfather to Pei Pei.

As I continue my journey as a teacher to the young, I wonder if there will be other times when I will be called upon to play the role of a godfather.

Looking at the way our world is changing and the direction it is taking, I feel certain that there are students who share Pei Pei’s predicament.

These children who are neglected will always look elsewhere for love and attention.

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