I was chatting to a friend this morning about a cousin of mine whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in over a decade. The reason my cousin came up in conversation was because most people I went to school with know we are related. For a start, we are the same age and the same gender. Our mothers are sisters and we spent many a Saturday afternoon playing with dolls at my house after our weekly piano lessons.
What is less widely known is that we were also fierce competitors. Older by five and a half months, my mother never let me forget that I was supposed to be better at whatever we were both doing because I had come into the world first. To my mother’s disappointment, my cousin was on to her fourth Royal College of Music exam before I even attempted my first. What made it worse was everyone knowing I was perfectly capable of going for grading but I was simply disinterested. Hence, from a young age, I was labeled “lazy.”
Later, my brother would tell me that he’d overheard her mother telling another aunt that I was “difficult.” But not before my mother had already told me, some time in childhood that she wished my cousin was her daughter instead of me.
My cousin, having a six footer father, was bigger, taller, stronger, and with Punjabi blood, much more determined to succeed than me. As an aside, I’m convinced Indians have a natural drive few Chinese possess which explains why many Indian taxi drivers have doctors for children but only a handful of Chinese taxi drivers do.
I was Lex Luthor to my cousin’s Clarke Kent; small, skinny and forever sickly. I was the underdog our other aunts would occasionally rejoice over, because I was not expected to best her at any race. Where she was organised and determined, I was playful and rebellious; I was pound for pound as naughty as a puppy with a pile full of shoes.
I bit my cousin on the hand when we were both14 – she expressed surprise, then refused to talk to me for I don’t know how long. I think she did ask me why and I must have told her that I was angry. The next year she went on to another class and I, another school. My father had a transfer up north and I remember complaining bitterly all the way to our new home, how whenever she came to town, I had to be shoved in to some hell hole.
It turned out the change was good for me as after a year of readjustment, I became more studious. We both did equally well in our high school leaving exams and for once, the elders had nothing bad to say about me. Unfortunately, we both went on to do accounting at university. She, because she wanted to, instead of engineering. I, because my mother wanted me to, instead of mass communications. You can imagine how her being allowed to choose her field of study versus my being disallowed to choose mine, reflected in our results.
When we graduated, she easily found herself a job in one of the big accounting firms while I opted to work in Singapore, where I eventually meandered in to mass communications. The lesson for parents? Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be…
Our relatives continued to compare us, although less and less with each passing year. The last time I saw her was before I went to work in a TV company. She said, “Now I’ll be able to tell people I’m related to some minor celebrity in Singapore.” I have no idea if that was a compliment or an insult. Small matter for I soon found myself jobless in Australia.
I married and then she did too, on the same day, five years later. Her mother told mine it was because all the churches were booked solid on the other days. My mother told me, who had a registry wedding she never attended, followed by a three-table dinner in a nearby Chinese restaurant, my cousin’s wedding was graced by many Malaysian VIPS. Among them the brother of Najib Razak, Malaysia’s current Prime Minister.
By then, I was a mother so I was too sleep deprived to be jealous or to care less. In a few years, my cousin became a mother too. Like me, she had a girl. Our daughters have never met although family members love commenting on how tiny her daughter is – her husband is roughly my height, and how huge mine is. In a reversal of our childhoods where she was tall and I was small, she married someone family joke “is small enough to hide behind her” whilst I married someone big enough I can hide behind.