Monday, July 26, 2010


As a self-proclaimed loner and the only daughter who got the room to herself growing up, I did encounter some difficulties adjusting to a roomful of girls in the first year of university. Although we started synchronizing our menstrual cycles, our personalities weren't always as harmonious. Of course it didn't help that I was still in my "Greenpeace activist" mode that almost always alienated people.

Sue* was a quiet, unassuming girl pursuing Food Studies. Sleeping on the upper bunk above Sue was the vivacious and carefree Valerie*. On the bunk below me was the delicate and highly volatile Grace*. Of the 3 girls, I hung out more with Valerie. Of the 4 of us, I was the odd Chinese girl who could barely piece Mandarin sentences together.

Valerie was in a tough engineering course by accident. Back then we chose university courses the same way we picked flavors of bubble gum in a candy store (um, the pink one looks good). I remember her poring over thick computer programming textbooks or on the phone asking a coursemate about a tough mathematical problem. Grace was in Business or Economics course, I can't be sure. What I do remember was her insistence that any boyfriend of hers must be an engineer-to-be.

So there we were, the 4 freshmen who are as different as spring, summer, autumn and winter who eventually adjusted to one another's quirks and habits. Of the 4 of us, Valerie was the only one with a car so she had fully explored food options and enjoyed social outings in the adjacent university areas and made trips to the city. I was still cycling while Sue and Grace walked or took the bus (when it appeared). For a while, it felt as though guys were swooping down on us first-year female students, baiting us with rides on their bikes in exchange for dates.

I never thought it was possible to have imaginary walls in which each of us could retreat into for some quiet time. At least that was how I coped when Grace got into one of her moods and pretended that none of us existed in that room. I learned to study and relax on my bed; the only space in the room that was truly mine.

The following semester, Sue, Valerie and Grace moved out but I kept in touch with Valerie. I would chat with Sue when I met her on campus. Somehow I never saw Grace again even though I took classes in her faculty. My new roommate Laura* was a teacher pursuing an advanced degree in education. She was staid, quiet and also cycled to campus. I thought we might get along somehow but the hill leading up to our college was too steep for her so she relocated to another one on lower ground. So voila, just like that and without wishing my roommates away, I had a room to myself for a semester.

In my second year, I moved to a newly-built residential college and shared the room with two first-year Business and Economics students: Marie* and Candace*. Either I have changed or these girls were more receptive of my odd ways; the 3 of us got along fairly well. I felt sisterly towards them, giving encouragement and maybe even some unsolicited advice. We would buy snacks or (illegally) cook instant noodles for each other. Marie was especially endearing to me because she bridged stereotypes of "Chinese-educated" VS "English-educated". I was thoroughly sick of being alienated by my Chinese peers all these years for being a "banana" (outwardly Chinese-looking but inwardly Western-minded), but Marie helped me get over my bitterness and resentment. She was tolerant of my stereo blaring loud grungy music although she did once comment on how unbearable Pearl Jam's 'Do the Evolution' was. Candace was a carefree soul with a penchant for sweet soups (tong sui) that she made with her slow cooker. I adored her creative cooking skills and crooked smile.

In my final year and into the first year of my post-graduate studies, I shared a room with Evelyn*. This time it was a bungalow just outside university grounds that we shared with 9 other girls. I had ditched my bicycle for a second-hand Honda EX5 that served me well. Evelyn and I already know each other since first year and were members of the Volunteers of AIDS Club. I'm not sure if we had synchronized menstrual cycles, but Evelyn and I got along very well. Two years my senior and pursuing Community Health Studies, Evelyn is a person of many interests: she knits, speaks French, and saves stray animals in her free time (I adopted a kitten I named Shelly Rosebutt because of her), among other things. She is one of the kindest, gentlest human beings I've ever known.

While it's a pity I never had the experience of sharing a space with girls of other races or the opposite sex during these first few years away from my family home, female roommates are plenty to deal with on their own. It is true that our bonds were fragile, transient and mutually beneficial at a specific space and time and that I sometimes wished there was something more. But still I am glad to have known these women who contributed subtly to who I am today.

*names have been changed to protect privacy