Monday, 12 November 2007

Miss Personality

Our eldest is what they call an Alpha type. This is a nice way of saying she's a bossy little so-and-so with a penchant for ordering others around.

When I was her age, I was unassertive and all too easily cowed. I would like to think that I was not the type who is easy to influence, but the awful truth is that I was so meek and shy, I probably would have been a follower if anyone had given me half the chance. No one did. I was so timid, insecure and slavishly humble that most of the time no one even knew I was there. I was easily offended and hyper-sensitive, and I might as well have worn a big placard on my back inviting bullies to come and give me grief.

I look at my eldest and am awed by her confidence. I was fully conscious when she was born; I saw them clamp the same bracelet I wore on her wrist and ankle. She looks just like my mother and she has my legs and thick, bushy hair. In short, I know she's mine: no one mixed her up with anyone else's baby. But in personality we are so different that I can only gaze at her in wonder -- and hopeless longing. I wish I'd had half her self-assurance.

When she was a toddler, she led her class at the nursery school, quickly monopolizing attention and making sure that she ran the show. At first, we thought she was merely capitalizing on being the odd man out -- the only Caucasian child in the entire school. But the teachers assured us it wasn't this. "Your child is a natural leader," one of them remarked. "When there's a fire drill, she helps us organize the others." Two years later, another teacher said bemusedly, "Your daughter even bosses us teachers around." I saw her in action once when I had come to collect her. There was a new teacher who was still unfamiliar with the protocol for putting away the bedding after naptime. I caught my daughter imperiously telling this woman exactly how it should be done and I didn't know whether to be proud or ashamed. Frankly, I was a little of both.

When she was four, we worried that she might be bullied, but her teachers laughed this notion to scorn. "She doesn't have much humility, but she's got a tough core," one pointed out. "And she knows how to stand up for herself, so you don't have to worry about that." Although our child's obvious lack of humility was mortifying, my husband and I were greatly reassured.

When she was around six, she suddenly realized that she was a big fish in a small pond. Her class was now old enough to go on field trips and my child quickly learned that although in her own school she reigned as queen, outside of our own neighborhood she was simply a foreigner. This took her down a peg or two and it was heartbreaking to see: when the others came back from field trips they were still happy and excited, whereas my daughter was obviously shell-shocked and reflective. "People cat-called her and pulled her hair," one teacher sadly reported. "And the children from the other schools talked about her in Japanese. They ran away when she tried to talk to them."

The transition from nursery school to elementary school was relatively painless, and during her first year our daughter did well. The fact that she was a head taller than even some of the children a year older didn't faze her in the slightest. On her first day of school, she proudly announced that she was the tallest and strongest girl: she could pick up every boy in her class. Better yet, she crowed, only one of them could pick her up. All I could do was stare at her in wonder. I had been the tallest girl in my class too, and this had mortified me no end. What I had seen as a humiliating affliction, she saw as a natural advantage.

During her second year, things started getting harder. Academically, there was little to worry about. Like most children in Japan, my daughter had learned to read the basic Japanese syllabary in nursery school, and she did well at picking up the more complicated Chinese characters. Socially, though, she was beginning to lose ground. There were other Alpha types, especially among the girls, and they vigorously competed with her for the position of class leader. Moreover, only a few of the children from her nursery school were her classmates, and those who had not known her from babyhood saw her as a foreigner rather than one of the gang. She had her work cut out for her learning to cope with those who bullied her and treated her as different. She became a little withdrawn and less gregarious.

Most of the time she kept all of this to herself. Like a lot of children who grow up in a foreign culture, she identified strongly with her peers and saw her parents as the true foreigners. "Don't say anything," my blonde-haired blue-eyed child used to hiss at me, "Or they'll know you're a foreigner." Gradually, the awful truth dawned: not only were we her parents foreigners, but she was one as well. My husband and I began to worry that she lacked the skills to cope with bullies and the children who shut her out, that her natural confidence and resourcefulness might never recover.

Then one day when I was walking her home from school, she started talking about all of these issues. Clearly she was being tormented by one boy in particular, a bully by the name of Hiroshi, and I was horrified. "He calls me gaijin!" she exclaimed indignantly. "And he claims I look funny!"

Wanting to offer her support and inspiration, I began a long-winded and impassioned story about Dr Martin Luther King, about the children in Arkansas who had been racially taunted and bullied by both children and adults and who'd had to run a gauntlet just to get to school every day. My daughter listened politely, then interrupted. "It's okay, Mom. I know how to take care of Hiroshi!"

Amazed, I stared back at her. "You do?"

She nodded eagerly. "See, no one is supposed to call me gaijin. But I don't want to be a tattle-tale, so I just pretend I can't hear him. That irritates him and he gets louder and louder until he's actually shouting. And then the teachers hear him yelling gaijin and he really gets it." She smiled happily. "He's not all that smart, so he hasn't figured it out yet."

I decided to save my lecture for later. I knew her teacher was right: what my child lacked in humility she more than made up for in confidence. She really didn't need my help at all.


Merry Jelinek said...

Oh, that's too funny, "he's not all that smart, so he hasn't figured it out yet..." Ha!!!

It gives you a real respect for the difficulties faced by any transplant to a new culture - especially with language issues thrown into the mix.

My daughter, too, is my polar opposite. I'm mediterranean looking, except for the light skin, my daughter has light hair and pale blue eyes... Personality wise, we couldn't be more different. I was painfully shy as a child - I got over it in adolesence and adulthood, but I still carry a very real aversion to speaking in front of a group, even a small group - my face turns bright red and there's not much I can do to control it.

My daughter, on the other hand, has sought the limelight from birth. She has an amazing sense of humor, loves to make people laugh, doesn't mind looking silly in front of large crowds if it means they'll get a chuckle (when she found out that you could actually make a living by being a comedian, she jumped around excitedly for days)... She writes her own movies and cajoles friends into acting them out, makes up her own songs when she's done with the regular piano practice... and when her friends found out she was transfering schools they lined up eagerly so that she could bestow the title of 'funniest girl' on another student to carry on her legacy... she's ten for God's sake.

We are both creative by nature, but all of my creativity lies behind the scenes. I don't want direct attention, I love to write and draw and I love to know that people get something out of it - from far away, not in front of applause... my daughter can and will turn her creativity into a public performance, because that is her gift... she can impact people in a personal way and she's not at all shy about it. God bless her, I couldn't fathom doing some of the things she does, but it's wonderful that she wasn't burdened with my shyness, she would have missed a lot of her fun.

Brian said...

My son was chosen captain of his Primary School. When he moved up to the newy opened High School, he was its first captain -- for its first four years . They gave another boy his chance in the fifth year, but reverted to my lad in the sixth form,
Each of my daughters was girls' captain of her primary school , and each went on to be captain of her respective High School.
An interesting family record .They must have taken their leadership qualities from their mother , who was captain of her school too.

Me ? lol, I never even made prefect !!


Eryl Shields said...

I, like you, was extremely shy as a child and very passive. So it fills me with joy to hear of children who have the confidence your daughter does. I was in my thirties before some of the shyness lifted and to this day I am always surprised when people are nice to me, even though, intellectually, I know people are generally nice and that I am no less deserving of niceness than anyone else.

Carole said...

Hurray for your gal. Brains over brawn any day of the week.

Kara said...

i was a lot like your first born...only not as good. my poor mother...must've been tough coming to school to pick me up every day and finding me in the "time out" corner for refusing to shut up.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

Ha, what a wee star! That's a great story.

One of the harder parts of parenthood is having to watch your kids mess up sometimes and to resist going charging in to fix it all. which of course it doesn't. They have to find their own ways of dealing with stuff - you're wee one sounds like she's well on the way to figuring out her own way in life.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh, good for her! I LOVE dealing with this type of girl. They never take crap from boys and they help show the other girls how to handle life.
But don't say she doesn't need you. If she didn't feel loved and supported at home, she would never have this confidence.

The Anti-Wife said...

You've done a wonderful job supporting her and allowing her to be herself. Too often parents rush in to "rescue" their children before they actually need it.

Kim Ayres said...

When I was visiting last week and saw your blue-haired daughter for the first time, I was struck by her presence - she does exude a self assured confidence

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- I've read a few of your comments about your daughter before, and thought that she sounded a little like mine -- especially the part about seeking the limelight. The one difference is that mine cannot bear looking silly in front of crowds. I'm fine with that: I've had lots of practice.

How funny that your daughter wants to be a comedian, and how sweet that she takes pride in writing her own materials and clowning around for her friends! My youngest has also established a reputation as class clown (not so much an action clown as a word clown) and takes great pleasure in studying the methods of stand-up comedians, Eddie Izzard being a firm favorite.

The fact that your daughter actually passed her distinction on to another girl in the class is just marvelous. I hope there was a crown to go with it! Not a proper crown, of course, but something silly. And I agree with you: although I took it as a given that my kids would be shy, I'm so glad they aren't.

Brian -- Wow! What are your children like as adults? Do they still find themselves leaders, or have they now changed? I try to imagine what mine will be like in ten years time and it isn't easy.

My daughter has tried for these positions here, but the fact that we moved here when she was over ten did not work in her favor. Power lines were already well established when we arrived and she has encountered numerous obstacles. In a way, this is a good thing. It's helped her acquire a little much-needed humility.

Eryl -- Most of my worst shyness was gone by the time I was 25; the residual slipped off by 30. I am now fairly confident, but amusingly do not give this impression. (A lot of people equate a sure, bombastic attitude with confidence.) I am not exactly surprised when people are nice to me, but I have learned not to take it for granted and I always appreciate it.

Carole -- I like girls to be strong, too, and am proud of my daughter's sturdiness. But I do wish she'd learn to put away her damn boots and remember to clean her hair out of the bathroom drain.

Kara -- I'll bet that you were a fun student, though. I used to teach a group of kids who had some real talkers among them, and while they could be a handful, they were always fun to teach. And I can picture that you actually had things to say. The worst combination a teacher can get is a chatterbox with nothing at all to say.

Sam -- I'm glad you are also a believer in non-intervention. There are a few mothers around here who seem to eagerly wait for the chance to intervene in their children's petty quarrels and feuds. This is bad enough when you've got boys, but with adolescent girls, an interventionist mother would get absolutely nothing done. She would also create kids who, at the age of 30, would be calling her up and whining about how so and so in accounts department did such and such. And God forbid.

APW -- What you wrote is very much the case. My daughter, to my amazement, really does show other girls how to handle life, and she takes no crap from boys. She enjoys telling them all about how to load and clean a rifle. You are the sort of teacher she would work very hard to please. As her life support system, I know I have had something to do with it, but there are times I think she'd be a lot happier running the whole show.

Anti-wife -- Knowing when to get involved and when not to is hard. My own philosophy is to give the kid skills to cope with bullies and monitor the situation closely.

Kim -- I'm trying to remember if she was in boss mode when you came over! She tends to tone this down a little when we have company, so imagine what she's like when it's just the two of us. God.

Christy said...

I just love what Sam said. "One of the harder parts of parenthood is having to watch your kids mess up sometimes and to resist going charging in to fix it all. which of course it doesn't." It is SO hard to swallow that mama bear who rises up when your children are threatened in any way, even a minor one. And yet, it is so important to give the kids room to grow and find solutions for their own problems. So much of parenting is breathless waiting.

Your daughter sounds lovely. She's going to carve herself an exceptional place in life.

Erica Ridley said...

Wow, what a great story! Your daughter sounds awesome and full of confidence and courage.

Ello said...

That was a great story! You have an awesome kid, I hope she never grows out of her smarts and self assurance! You must be so proud of her.

A Paperback Writer said...

She might want to run the whole show, my dear, but without the safety and security of a supportive family, she probably would've turned out vicious instead of self-confident. I've seen it in other kids from less-functionaly homes.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. What a smart little gal. I hope my daughter (heck, my son too) have that confidence.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- You are right: it is so hard not to interfere when you feel your children are being threatened or treated badly. Because they usually deal with things on their own, I try to limit my involvement to when the situation is very serious.

I appreciate your kind words about my daughter. Right now she is hogging all the hot water in the tank, just one of several of her little flaws...

Erica -- In some respects, my daughter is very courageous -- much more so than I. It is only when faced with a toilet brush or a really filthy shower stall that she begins to tremble.

Ello -- Most of the time I am proud of my eldest. But I really should blog a little about her foibles, just to show everyone what a paragon she is not.

APW -- It is scary to imagine that with the wrong environment, my eldest could have turned out any more assertive than she already is. Honest. I'm picturing Margaret Thatcher, perhaps, or maybe Condoleeza Rice. Ewwww.

Riley -- Just hope that your kids don't end up with any of her arrogance! She's fearsomely strong, but it isn't all sweetness and light.

-eve- said...

Very humorous and insightful post. Reminds me of the problems kids face with being transplanted. I wish I was like your daughter; I was a loner in school, and yet, when my dad wanted me to change school at the age of 10, I was crying and trying to reason with him, asking him, "If you didn't have to fetch me so far to school, could I stay at this school?" (the school was 30 minutes away, and he wanted it to be 5 minutes away). Got a huge scolding for that, but didn't have to change in the end, because we moved house ;-)

Good thing your daughter adapts so well; she sounds like a popular girl :-) And she has to be tough, being a foreigner... has to be strong and hold on to her identity, 'cos it's inevitable that some will call her gaijin... :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Eve -- I was a loner at school too, and yet I would have found changing schools traumatic. Sometimes I think that having looked so different gave our daughter an advantage. I believe that she had to work a little harder to assert herself and that in the end, this was more character building than a conventional school experience might have been. But I will never know for sure!