When I think about my life, my teenage years are always first to arrive on the red carpet that is my memory.

I was loud, bold and crass, and had a devil-may-care attitude that both amused and frightened my peers, bewildered my teachers, infuriated my father, embarrassed my mother and angered my younger sister because naturally, she bore the brunt of my bad behaviour as the more unruly I became, the stricter my parents were with her.

But while I had always been rebellious and precocious, it was when I’d turned 16 that things began to really happen, for Form Four was, as our old disciplinary mistress Mrs Choo told us, a honeymoon year. Right after SRP and right before SPM, it was the year you could do nothing wrong.

And everything wrong.

I had my first kiss at 16. He was a Malay boy who always seemed to have sex or at the very least, breasts, on his mind. I was the first Chinese girl he’d dated. It happened at an afternoon ‘tea dance’, and I remember walking away that afternoon, thinking that kissing was the most unsavoury act between two people who were supposedly in love. His lips were chapped and he needed a mint. Perhaps, so did I. I’d hoped it would improve with time. Fortunately, I was right.

16 was also the year my mom became more lenient with me, oddly since I’d never deserved more trust. I guess they sort of realised I was growing up. My curfew hours started later, at 10pm, and she’d drive me to dates and back (since she did not want all the boys I went out with to know where we lived).

16 also became the year I’d stopped talking to my father. Oddly, I cannot remember exactly why, but it had something to do with why he never really talked to me. Things had always been tense at home between my parents, a common trait in below-average-income families, but I remember something happened. This something is now deep in the recesses of my subconscious, hopefully never to be excavated. The silence bore no ill feeling. Or perhaps, no ill- er feelings. We’d just drifted further apart by unspoken mutual consensus. And then something happened about five years later, and we were talking again.

If I could step back these past 18 years, I would perhaps wait at the bus-stop where my 16-year old self would alight every afternoon, and walk the last three miles home even in the rain because she’d so loved the rain, the smell of it and how the sidewalks and roadsides became mostly hers because of it.

I would tap her on her shoulder, and ask to walk with her, to which she would flippantly answer, “Whatever.” I would then tell her how thin she was, how absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous she was and how smart she was. I would tell her that she didn’t need to prove to our father how much like him she was, or wasn’t, because it had never really mattered, that he was who he was and nothing she could do could change the way he felt about his children.

I would watch the brow, furrowed with indignation, and then a pimpled smirk. Next, I would tell my angry, insecure self, that loving myself would be the most important thing I needed to learn to do. I would tell myself that I had a virus in my body that fate had put there – not our mother or the lack of medicine – and that would be why I needed to take the greatest of care.

I would tell the me, in her half-zipped school pinafore and rebelliously filthy canvas shoes, that she would need to keep dancing or skating or swimming, to keep reading and reading and reading, all the things she loved so very much.

And most importantly, I would tell her to listen to our mother, no matter how uncool or frumpy or jaded she was.

Because, 16-year old Jenn, if you are looking for a parent who can love you the way you deserve to be loved, it is our mother.

And then I would give her a kiss, and tell her a heartfelt ‘thank you’. Because even without the sage advice of a 34-year old me from the future, my 16-year old self gave me some of the best years of my life.


If you could travel back in time, what would you tell your 16-year old self? This was a question posed to me by my friend Li Hsian a few months ago, as part of a theme of a book she is writing, exploring what it means to be 16 in Malaysia.

Li Hsian has asked me to invite all of you, that if you feel up to it (the journey can be emotionally tiring!), to email her (lihsian [at] gmail.com) your stories. And if you do know any 16-year olds today, send them her way!  


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