by O Thiam Chin
I was twelve years old, in Primary Six, when I saw the protests in Tiananmen Square on TV during the evening news.
Among the montage of surging crowds and marching rows of green-uniformed soldiers was an image that stuck in my head: a man, burnt to a hardened charcoal-black, tied to a smoldering bus, his wrists bound with wire, white plumes of smoke rising out of his body. His mouth was wide open, in a rigid state of screaming, his face lifted skyward and his eyes reduced to dark empty pits. Around him, a few people gawked and stared, but nobody thought of untying him from the bus.
I couldn’t understand what was going on, or what had caused this violence. I tried asking my parents, but they refused to tell me anything, except to switch off the TV and to finish up my homework.
The next morning, on my way to school, heavy with the images that I had seen on TV, I chanced upon a new scribbling on the wall beside the lift: FUCK. It was a new word I hadn’t seen before and I was curious to know what it meant. So I memorized it, tucking the new word into my head, and brought it to school.
During recess, I asked my good friend, Shi Hao, about the word. He laughed his head off when he heard how I tried to pronounce it.
‘No, you got it wrong. It should sound like duck, like F…uck,’ he admonished. I tried a few more times, but still, it came out wrong.
‘What does it mean?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘You mean you don’t know? It’s a dirty word la,’ he said, and before I could say anything else, our form teacher was standing beside us. With a daunting look in his eyes, Shi Hao dared me to say the word aloud. I uttered the word; my teacher heard it, twisted my ear into a knot, demanding where I had learnt such a word. Then she made me stand in front of the class the whole period, arms crossed, pulling my own ears.
As I stood there, shame-faced and scorching with a righteous rage, the image of the charred man at the Tiananmen Square, tied to the burnt bus, came to mind, and I wondered how he had gotten there, whether it was because of something he had said or done.
Maybe I thought, he had done something terribly bad to be punished in such a way; maybe, like me, he had learnt something new that he didn’t fully understand, and was compelled to use it, by force or circumstance, in order to test its meaning, to know the kind of effect it would have on him, or others.
It was only many years later that I got to know the answer that turned out to be closer to the truth I already knew in my heart when I was much younger.
O Thiam Chin’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body. His debut collection of short stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006 and his new collection of stories, Never Been Better, came out in 2009.