By Clara Chow
When my son Julian was three years old, I signed him up for a group music class.
It was a popular programme at a reputable Japanese music school – the same one I’d attended nursery and kindergarten at, and where I’d taken weekly piano lessons well into my teens. As we waited for the class to start, munching on kaya toast at a nearby coffee shop, I filled Julian in on what to expect. He listened and nodded excitedly.
We held hands, skipping to the music studio. “Yay!” we chanted. “Music class! Music class!”
Then, once in class, he froze and turned sullen.
He refused to join the other kids in the songs and movements. He refused to clap out the beats under the teacher’s encouragement. He refused to go forward to collect stickers.
It was as though someone had swopped sons with me the moment I crossed the studio’s threshold.
“I don’t get it,” I told my husband when we filed out after the session. Julian was right as rain; completely cured of his sudden-onset petrification. He remained tight-lipped when I asked him what had come over him but asked to go back for another lesson. Yet, when the next lesson rolled around, his bizarre metamorphosis from boy to statue happened again. And again.
“I don’t understand,” I repeated, shaking my head. “I don’t understand him.”
It has been a refrain in the seven years since. Toddler or pre-teen, Julian is often an enigma to me. I have since realised that his behaviour often follows a logic generated by his deep and intense personality. I doubt my son – a seasoned choirboy who performed a few months ago at a Kagoshima youth arts festival – remembers his odd musical debut all those years ago, but I finally recognise what I, as a borderline-exhibitionist extrovert, failed to then: stage fright and shyness. What I took for capriciousness had merely been an acute attack of self-consciousness.
Still, each day brings new instances in which I fail to “get” my first-born child. His declared dislike of all animals except turtles (taking him to the zoo is torture). His preference for 1950s-style polo T-shirts in sombre colours (I finally wised up and let him buy his own clothes). His hatred of 3D movies (I love them).
The thing is, I find my younger son Lucien, seven, as easy to read as an open book. He’s straightforward, communicative and sociable, like me. We are eccentrics, always up for impromptu late-night karaoke sessions. He is comfortable articulating his feelings: “I cried from happiness at the end of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, when everything got fixed”, as opposed to the monosyllabic grunts I get from his brother. Unlike Julian, who began forming strong opinions early in life, Lucien is pliable. He can be persuaded to accompany me for hours on plant-buying sprees, stoically fending off mosquitoes on orchid farms and displaying polite interest.
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