Pretty

This is long, and sprinkled with f-bombs and other strong language. You have been warned.

Geylang East Public Library

I had my daughter Anya to myself pretty much all day yesterday, and we had a lot of fun. We spent several hours at the Geylang East Public Library, which she loves; I needed to return a few books, and I’d promised her a week ago that we’d come back (they’d been closed for the Hari Raya weekend, and I’d stupidly forgotten; duh, public holiday). We’ve been taking her there since she was only a few months old; it’s only a five-minute walk from our housing block. She even has her own library card. The children’s library takes up the entire first floor, and is well-maintained, brightly lit, very colorful, and has lots of seating and a really good selection of books.

The baby and toddler books are all along the rear wall near the big windows, and that was where we parked ourselves for a long time. Anya kept taking Chinese books off the shelf to look through, and narrating stories about them based on the illustrations. She’s gotten quite good about actually putting the books back on the shelf when she’s done with them (rather than just tossing them on the floor), and after a while she asked if we could look for some Thomas the Tank Engine books.

So we moved to a different area of that section and took a look at the shelves there. We didn’t find any Thomas books, but we did discover several Peppa Pig and Wonder Pets books; I also found a small Dr. Seuss board book called The Shape of Me and Other Stuff. We sat on the floor. She looked through them a bit and then asked me to read them to her. At one point, she sat in my lap and snuggled against me, just like she does every night at bedtime. While we were doing so, a kind, smiling librarian approached us, noticed the books we’d picked out, and asked if we wanted any Dora the Explorer books; I thanked her and said no, that Anya didn’t watch that show.

“Really?” she said. “Wow, a couple of years ago, all the kids wanted the Dora books. We couldn’t keep them on the shelves long enough!” She laughed, reminded us that they were giving away balloon animals if we checked out 12 books (which was far more than I wanted to cart home), waved goodbye to Anya, and stepped out of sight.

As I was finishing one of the books, Anya looked up and shouted, excitedly, “There! That one!” I asked what she was looking at, and she jumped out of my lap and ran the short distance to a low bookshelf, where a middle-aged Chinese woman was browsing by herself. Anya started to pick up a book that was lying on the top of the shelf, and the woman reached down quickly and grabbed it. I guess the woman had picked out that book for her own kid or grandkid, but the sudden movement startled Anya, and she ran back over to me with a frightened look on her face, bursting into tears when she got to me.

The woman, who I’m assuming realized that yanking a book out of a two-year-old’s hands kind of made her look like a dick, approached and tried to offer the book to Anya, but Anya only cried harder. It wouldn’t have done any good to try and explain that she’s highly sensitive to stimuli (as am I, part of our introverted natures), and that getting up in her face while she was upset wasn’t really helping, so I just said, “It’s okay, she doesn’t want it anymore, just take it, it’s okay, it’s okay,” while trying to soothe the thoroughly upset toddler clinging to me like a koala. The woman got the idea, apologized, and then went away.

When Anya’s upset, it takes her some time to calm down, like most children. After a minute or so, she sat back on the floor again next to me, and picked up one of the books we’d been reading, still crying, less intensely but still audibly. I stroked her back, handed her a tissue so she could wipe her eyes, and talked to her about the book, hoping to get her mind on something else. Then, as if apparating out of thin air, a different librarian in a tudung appeared, bent down, and in a loud forceful voice said, “‘Ey, where your mommy, ah? Where your mommy?”

Anya, jolted at the sudden utterance, went quiet for a moment, and then the wails started up again. The librarian repeated herself, “Where your mommy?” and I finally said, “Her mommy’s not here. I’m her father.”

Ignoring me, the librarian squatted down on her haunches and said, “You should not cry, you know. It’s not good.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, “she just got scared at something. Don’t say that.”

Still ignoring me, she continued, “Should not cry, make you ugly, you know. You cry and you not pretty anymore.”

Anya found her voice and shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” and exploded into a fresh batch of tears.

Out loud, I said to the librarian, who had stood up in surprise, “Okay, that’s enough, you should go, please, thank you.” And she moved off as Anya latched onto me again.

In my brain, I was shrieking, “OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK, LADY?!!”

I was only stopped from yelling this aloud by three things:

  1. I didn’t want to upset Anya even further by engaging in a shouting match right in her vicinity;
  2. There were lots of other kids in the library, it being a Sunday afternoon, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to either make a scene or use such strong language; and
  3. Misguided as the librarian’s execution was, she did have good intentions, and didn’t say what she did out of mean-spiritedness (at least, I don’t think so).

I’ve worked as a librarian, as part of my teaching duties at Hwa Chong Institution (the school where I used to teach), and I understand the impulse to keep the noise level down and defuse any overly vocal situations (although the children’s library was already quite noisy because of the amount of kids there yesterday), but this was absolutely not the fucking way to handle this situation.

First of all, it appears that the librarian in the tudung made the assumption that Anya was not my kid, and that the reason she was crying was because the big bearded ang moh had scared her for some reason. Not once did the librarian directly address me, or even ask if I was the crying child’s father. But then, after I told her I was, it seems as if she accepted the fact.

Secondly, trying to get a crying toddler to stop crying by scolding her is probably the stupidest tactic I’ve ever seen. Anya’s tall for her age (taking after her old man in that department too), yet she’s not even three years old. Trying to reason with her in such a forceful manner was the thoroughly wrong approach.

Thirdly, hoping to appeal to Anya’s sense of vanity was equally stupid. She’s two. She doesn’t have a sense of vanity yet, and I’m hoping to prolong that for as long as I can. When I talk to her, I ask her about the activities she does or the books she reads or the things she learns; I don’t talk about appearance ever. If I have to put up her hair, it’s so she’ll feel cooler in Singapore’s equatorial heat, not because it makes her look cute (although it does).

When she shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” (and I can’t tell you how proud of her I was for doing that), it wasn’t any kind of comment on vanity either. When she’s distressed, the Don’t Wants come pouring out: “Don’t want milk!” “Don’t want shirt!” “Don’t want Thomas train!” “Don’t want Daddy!” Even “Don’t want Anya!” In this case, she was trying to communicate that she didn’t want to have anything to do with what the librarian was saying, and that she wanted to the lady to just go the fuck away.

Fourthly, crying is a perfectly natural human reaction to being upset (and it’s a physiological way to relieve the stress of being upset). As we get older, we get better at suppressing this action out of embarrassment of making others feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s a natural instinct, and does serve a bodily function. When I was little, my parents bought me the record album Free to Be… You and Me, and my favorite song was “It’s All Right to Cry.”

Kids cry. It happens. The librarian could obviously see that I was calming Anya down, but either it wasn’t happening fast enough for her, or she wanted to somehow swoop in and save the day by getting Anya to stop crying herself. Either way, she fucked up big time, and ended up making everything worse.

Fifthly, has anyone ever told a boy to stop crying because it makes him look ugly? (It immediately made me think of misogynist spy Sterling Archer saying something similar to his mother’s secretary Cheryl on the animated show Archer.) Boys are told not to cry because boys (and men) don’t do that sort of thing; crying is relegated as a feminine action, and so boys who cry must be “pussies” or “pansies”. But then girls and women are told not to cry because crying makes them “ugly”. What the fuck is up with any of this logic?

It’s true that when we cry, our faces screw up, and we become less attractive, but so the fuck what? What is this need to force girls to quash their emotions so that they’ll be “pretty” all the time?

I’m sending a strongly worded letter to the National Library Board about this incident. I don’t expect or even want an apology, but I’m going to recommend sensitivity training for their librarians, especially the ones working in the children’s libraries. This could have been handled so much better than it was.

Thankfully, Anya didn’t take too much longer after Mean Librarian Lady went away to calm down again. We read some more books, and had a potty break (both of us), and wandered around a bit upstairs in the Big People Library before checking out the books we’d found and then walking back home. We played some more when we got back to the flat, watched some DVR’d episodes of Denise Keller‘s Passage to Malaysia, and ate some Koka mushroom-flavored ramen for dinner (the only instant noodles we’ve found that don’t contain MSG, and actually taste better for it). Anya was slightly subdued, but she seemed to have put the incident behind her. I gave her a bath, and then got her ready for bed, hoping that she’d konk out quickly; she fell asleep as I was reading her Dr. Seuss’s The Sleep Book (awesomely appropriate) right around 9 p.m.

I lay in bed for a long time last night, thinking about the incident in the library, wondering if I’d done all I could have as a father, still upset myself that it had happened at all. I worried that Anya still might be troubled by it today, but when she woke up this morning, having slept almost twelve hours (more than she’s slept in some time), she was back to her normally happy chirpy self, giving me a big hug when she came out of her room. None the worse for wear, but oh, my heart.

Anya Reads at Home

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7 Comments

Filed under Introversion, Parenthood, Public Libraries, Reading, Singapore

7 responses to “Pretty

  1. Elise Morris

    That librarian certainly needs some training – and also a bit of counseling herself. I hated her entire approach. You were a great dad and did the very best you could in such a situation. Ugh! Good for Anya – “I Don’t Want Pretty!” – a seriously important title for something, writer dad.

  2. Maria Lundberg

    This breaks my heart. You’d expect that people who work in a chiildren’s library would have training on how to deal appropriately with little ones. I hate to hear how upset Anya was. It’s part of life that kids cry. And you did your best to calm her, like a loving, caring daddy. It’s a shame the librarians didn’t react in a compassionate way and only made it worse. Glad she forgot about it all by the next morning. Give her some kisses from her Yiayia.

  3. HelloGoodbye

    I think I need to put some perspective here. I’m currently in my mid-twenties and hey, when I was growing up here in SG, that was how adults usually react. It’s part of the culture. You say you teach at HCI, try asking your students or the local personnel whether they’ve faced such a scenario. It’s no big deal, for us, its sort of a method to placate or sooth a child by distracting him/her from what she was crying. To put into context, cajoling, if I may say. Like how my elders tempt me with a few hours of cartoon time if I read a few books when I was younger.

    If that librarian was middle aged, I’d understand why she did so even more.

    We see this being done in TV series, we see this being done in Kindergarten and yes, our teachers have even said the same thing.
    I’m not trying to justify that it is not wrong but I’m going to tell you, it is a HECK lot better than people just striding by and not giving a hoot.

    You’re kicking up a mountain over a molehill by being overcritical, dissecting all sorts of reasons to paint the picture gray. Your reaction to this entire matter is only going to enforce many sentiments:

    (Off the top of my head)

    – Foreign dude not assimilating with the locals
    – The librarians are probably going to take this as a lesson to never butt in to anyone’s matter ever again.
    -Crying is a natural reaction, OF COURSE, but you my dear friend, are giving off the vibe off the cuff that you are overprotective (That’s not a bad thing at all actually) but you’re mollycoddling.

    Oh well. you may not agree with what I have said but again, I beseech you to go chat with locals.

    Just ask, how the older generation in SG react to situations like these.

  4. Pingback: Pretty Redux | Jason Erik Lundberg

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