When I Grow Up
NTU Creative Writing Competition
Kong Xiang Ting is twenty-one.
She has pretty hair, pretty eyes and a wardrobe of floral dresses and soft cardigans. On top of managing a double degree at NUS, she works as a freelance stylist on weekends and fights actively for animal rights in her spare time. Her boyfriend is a NUS Law Dean’s Lister who likes giving her family expensive gifts.
Xiang Ting is everything Xiang Le should want to be.
Kong Xiang Le is seventeen.
She has average hair, average eyes and a wardrobe of darks and pale brown potato-sack uniforms. On top of trying not to fail her promotional exams in Jurong Junior College, she has to beg her parents for pocket money and mooches around on social networking sites when she isn’t doing anything else.
Xiang Le’s friends think she hates her older sister. Xiang Ting’s friends don’t talk about her little sister. Xiang Le runs from her problems. Xiang Ting doesn’t have problems. Xiang Le slams doors and throws books and can go for days in that wretched household without saying a word.
Xiang Ting opens the door and picks up the books and asks her what’s wrong.
Xiang Ting is beautiful. Xiang Le is not.
Sometimes Xiang Le wonders if dichotomy between siblings is irony or nature. She would write poetry about all the things she hates about Xiang Ting if she had the patience. At times she wishes she could rip pages out of time, correction tape out history and rewrite everything so that she was the one who came four years earlier and stole all the good genes.
It’d taken Xiang Le seventeen years to learn, and now she deliberately javelins her faults into the yardstick that’s been lovingly constructed in the centre of their home, just to watch the way they bounce off. She was five when she’d stood crying in the middle of the void deck, because she could never be fast enough to catch Xiang Ting when they were playing with the other kids. Their mother had hurried over, distressed, shushing her because they’d just moved in and the neighbours might get angry.
(Xiang Ting didn’t make it obvious, then, but she always ran a little slower after that.
Xiang Le wishes she hadn’t.)
Xiang Le wishes many things.
So she comes home and scrounges for leftover coins from this week’s $25 allowance again, before slotting them carefully into the battered teddy-shaped piggy bank on her bedside. She counts the money out sometimes, and marks days down on the grotty AIA Life calender that’d come with her parents’ bank subscription on her bedside till she has enough.
On the day marked with an “X” in purple highlighter, she goes out with the coins to Guardian and searches. The lady asks her what she wants- she shows her a picture of the Maybelline Baby Lips® Very Berry Spring Ltd. Edition lip balm, hastily snapped on her phone in semi-darkness, and is told that that’s long run out of stock. Xiang Le refuses when the lady offers her the Rose Rush flavour instead, and leaves.
Xiang Le goes to Watsons. She goes to Sasa and Tangs and combs the entire of Orchard Road, until she comes back home after four-and-a-half hours, plastic bag with the lip balm folded and tucked neatly in her hand-me-down Jansport backpack.
Then she takes out the shoebox from under her bed containing the DollyWink False Lash mascara, the Dr. Q Magic BB cream, the Etude House Lovely Cookie blusher, and carefully drops the unwrapped lip balm amongst the other barely-touched makeup products, another secret twin to the neatly mixed and matched set in the next room, (the prettier room). She watches it roll around in the box, the sound like the marbles that she and Xiang Ting used to play with had made on the ceramic tiles of their old house back in Hougang.
Sometimes she applies the makeup, clumsy hands making big, ugly marks on her face, like how she’s trampled through society, completely missing her sister’s dainty tread. Sometimes she steals the blue dress with the black cardigan from the washing machine and tries it on too, her arms and legs bulging and vulgar under the soft material. Sometimes she stands and stares at the mirror and wonders and wonders and wonders-…
“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Their mother snaps across the kitchen, high strung from rushed preparations for the looming Chinese New Year reunion dinner and the fact that Xiang Le has once again accidentally snapped another gold chain necklace.
Their father conveniently disappears back into the living room, well aware of the storm about to break and the possible repercussions, and Xiang Le stares at the broken chain, splayed across the ngoh hiang on the discoloured green chopping board she’d been told to cut up. The gold winks dully up at her, as if asking her why?
“Ma,” but then it’s Xiang Ting, walking over from the rice cooker, hands behind her neck, under her long, straight black hair, like calligraphy on the silk of her pale lilac cheong sam. Xiang Le watches coldly as her sister unclasps her own necklace, before looping it gently around her neck, in place of the broken one.
Her sister’s voice is warm but quiet, almost like in that moment, she’s speaking to herself.
“I think Lele’s fine as she is.”