HERE’S an invaluable tip for anyone who occasionally spends time in the company of children. If a little one is patently shy and a trifle nervous, it’s not the wisest course of action to bend down and bellow: “You shy ah? Don’t want to talk to me is it? Why you shy ah? No need ah! Relak lah!”
Surprisingly enough, this unexpected shock therapy doesn’t cure my daughter’s shyness. On the contrary, the sudden interrogation and mild rebuke has her disappearing up her father’s trouser leg like a rat up a drainpipe.
In such harrowing moments, my girl attempts invisibility. She treats my legs like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She dashes through in a dramatic effort to escape the stranger and enter a stress-free magical land of peace and freedom. Of course, she doesn’t end up in Narnia. She ends up facing the strange man again, still shouting: “Hey, why you shy ah? No need ah!”
Since becoming a father, the often hilarious – and occasionally irritating – lack of EQ when adults and children meet each other is surprisingly commonplace. When I greet students or grown-ups at talks and book signings and it’s immediately obvious that they are introverted, I don’t ruffle their hair and bark: “You shy is it? Don’t worry. I’ll soon remedy that by eyeballing you whilst smiling maniacally and pinching your cheeks.”
This is considered unsociable behaviour among adults. But it’s OK to do it to a petrified pre-schooler.
My little girl is her mother’s daughter. She’s uncomfortable among strangers, enjoys her own company and is not naturally gregarious. The poor child struggles to walk that tightrope between being recognised as shy and being unfairly labelled rude.
It’s a constant battle on buses. At the risk of shamelessly blowing my daughter’s trumpet, she can look impishly cute in her pigtails and little school uniform, her legs swinging gently beneath the seat. Like a deliriously delighted dog flapping his tongue about and wagging his tail, my daughter looks deserving of an affectionate stroke.
So kind, well-meaning aunties do stroke her hair and pinch her cheeks without invitation.
Had my little one been a high-spirited, outgoing individual, she might have been equipped with the social tools to cope with an unknown woman confusing her long hair for a Cocker Spaniel’s coat.
But she isn’t. She is painfully shy. So she doesn’t so much smile as she does freeze, capturing that split-second of confused terror when roller-coaster riders begin their descent.
She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t complain (she’s always unfailingly polite to people). She doesn’t scream. She tries to be brave and it’s heartbreaking to watch. She just stares, wide-eyed and scared as she mutters: “Daddy … Daddy … Daddy.”
She’s waiting for Daddy to extricate her from an uncomfortable social situation. But what should Daddy do? There is a certain clash of cultures here. In the West, rightly or wrongly, touching a strange child has become almost verboten.
But in Singapore and East Asia generally, there remains a certain level of innocence towards children in such instances. The aunties invariably mean well and can be endearing. (In Hong Kong Disneyland, on the other hand, Mainland Chinese tourists grabbed my terrified daughter by the shoulders and spun her round to take photos of her. The ignorance was unnerving.)
So my daughter and I are both learning to walk that line between being respectful to well-intentioned strangers and not punching a guy in Hong Kong Disneyland who crouched down, squeezed her tightly and flipped her around to face a camera phone.
On a bus trundling along Marine Parade recently, a couple of lovely chatty aunties took turns to stroke my girl’s hair whilst muttering: “piao liang, ah… so piao liang (beautiful).”
As usual, my daughter froze. One of the aunties smiled at me sympathetically, as if acknowledging my little’s one incurable disease, and said: “Shy ah? She very shy ah.”
Well, yes, that’s part of the reason why she turned into an Edvard Munch painting, performing a silent scream. But the over-riding factor might have been two chuckling strangers taking turns to tug at her hair.
Of course, I simply whispered to my daughter: “Come on, what do you say?”
“But Daddy, I don’t know who they are and they’re pulling my …”
“Just say thank you. They said you were Beautiful.”
The grateful expression in Mandarin usually does the trick. The aunties released my daughter back into my custody.
So we are working on the shyness together. It’s a work in progress. She accepts that when strangers kindly greet her or pay her a compliment, she should try and reciprocate.
She’s getting too big to keep hiding between my legs.
About the Author: Neil Humphreys is one of Singapore’s best-selling authors. His works include Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island: A Farewell Tour of Singapore (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His latest Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island, is a No.1 national best-seller. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Men’s Health and Young Parents in Singapore. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.
First published on 19-09-2013