YN: In hindsight, a year of high school was probably the better entry than going straight to university. I went to a foreign students' high school. It wasn't unusual at that time, and I think we didn't know how to get into the public system, so it had to be a private school. All of us were foreign students, and in a way it was good. Good for the student – probably not as good for the parents because what ends up happening is, basically, when away from home for the first time, all the kids go crazy. My parents are very strict. They also don't have a huge experience of living abroad – my father lived abroad briefly, but he was an adult. It's very different to be a teenager, with a bunch of other teenagers and without parental supervision.
As we were driving along the Gardiner Expressway from the airport, the phrase that came into my head was, “You made a mistake.” I thought, “I can't tell my father I chose the wrong place to come to …” but everything was white and brown, dirty brown, on the highway.
Once in school, I found the system here easier, and high school was a breeze. I basically didn't study very much – most of the subjects we'd already covered, and it was a lot simpler. I did okay.
But this agenda of management study was interrupted by a couple of friends who knew I wanted to dance – I never really let that go. In all the countries that I researched, I knew there was dance; I had done my homework. I knew where there were universities with dance programs. I didn't know where things were in relation to one another geographically, but I knew that York University had a dance program and was in Toronto.
When I was graduating from high school and applying to university, one of these friends encouraged me to apply to York. She said, “If you never apply, you'll always wonder.”
I applied, auditioned and got in. I thought, as there was no hotel and catering management program at York, I'd study economics. I told my dad I'd been accepted at York and was going into economics. He said, “What about hotel and catering management?” I said, “Economics first”. In those days there was no email, so you did everything by phone and letter-writing. They had to trust you; at a certain point there was no option but to trust me – and unlike my elder sister, I was pretty obedient. The reason my parents were so strict was because my sister was a bit wild. When they got to me, they became stricter; my life was quite sheltered.
I received early entry into the Department of Economics. The semester began in January and I did all the compulsory courses. It gave me time to get up enough confidence and also to get back into dance. I had quit dance completely because of my dad, so when I decided to start down this dance path again, I had not practiced for over a year. I had no idea what the scene was like here.
I took classes downtown – I went to Randolph Academy and studied ballet with Maureen Consolati. She found out I was going to do the York dance audition. At that time you had to create an audition solo, and she helped me. She said, “Don't worry, just come up with something.” She trained me and gave me tips; she really paid attention to me in ballet class. I didn't do any contemporary or modern dance – I didn't know what that was then. I'd seen pictures of Martha Graham … but I really didn't know about it. Modern dance companies rarely toured to Singapore, and there were none working there. In my mind, modern dance was really modern ballet – using ballet vocabulary in a more liberal way.
At the York audition, we first did ballet. Then the modern teacher, David Wood, said, “Take your shoes off.” I remember being horrified: naked feet? We did the modern part. Then I showed my dance. I remember some of the questions from the interview. They didn't tell us right away about acceptance. But I got in, and I didn't tell my parents. I was so freaked out. I thought, “Oh my god, I can't believe I just did that. I can't believe I got in not only to York but to the Fine Arts Department. They'll disown me.”
I went home that summer. It was the worst summer ever because I couldn't address my decision. I didn't know what to say. As a foreign student, I was relying on them for every penny. In my time at York, we weren't allowed to work; the Immigration Office kept changing the rules about when foreign students could work – and where, on campus, off campus. In hindsight, I truly couldn't have worked; the schedule was too full. When I was at York, I was in so many pieces – we'd rehearse from eight in the morning until ten o'clock at night. I still had homework to do, and we didn't have computers. On the weekends I was so tired – all I wanted to do was sleep.
Finally I wrote my parents a huge, long letter. I didn't hear anything from them for a long time, and then I got a phone call. My mother does all the talking … my father's very quiet. If he wants to talk to you, you're in trouble. He got on the phone and the first thing he said was, “So, you've thought about this.”
He asked me to explain the course and the program. When I was accepted into the program, because I was so terrified, I decided to pursue dance therapy. In my research I had come across dance therapy, and it was an area I found really interesting and appealing – working with people, integrating dance in ways other than just choreographing, performing or teaching. York was offering dance therapy then. So I said to my dad, “I'm going to be a dance therapist.” He asked what that meant. His most pressing question was this: “You get a degree, right? In what?”
I said I'd earn a BFA, and I'd probably have to go on studying, since dance therapy was not a real major then. We finished our conversation with him saying, “Fine, you can stay.” I really thought he was going to say, “Come home. Now.”
A year passed, and Mary-Elizabeth Manley encouraged me to audition for the performance stream. Professors can't know what students go through on the family side – I thought, “I can't do that; my father really will disown me now.” But then I decided to audition … and I got into performance. At that point I actually chose not to tell my parents. I stuck to some of the dance therapy courses, as well as performance. In my third year, my dad phoned again. I was doing pretty well at school. He asked, “Are you happy there?” I said yes, and he asked if I had considered staying in Canada. I said I hadn't, and we talked a bit more.
Then he said, “I'd rather you be happy and poor in Canada, than unhappy and poor in Singapore.” I think he understood there was no life for me in Singapore; the arts scene was really not very active, almost non-existent. If I'd gone back, I'd have pretty much been on my own, saying, “Here's modern dance!” It had never occurred to me that I could stay in Canada; I never thought about the long-term future, being caught up with school and so many immediate things to attend to. From that point, I started thinking about what was down the road. It was hard, because what that meant was he was essentially giving me permission to relinquish my filial piety to the family. In fact – we talked about it later – he was saying, “You don't have to come back. You don't have to worry about us anymore.” That's the thing with Asian kids – we are the investment for our parents. A lot of us are sent here to get some fancy degree so we can go home and take over our parents' business, or go home and earn a lot of money – filial piety, you know. My father was saying, “You don't have to take care of us; Mummy and I are fine.” He didn't offer to help me, so I knew I would have to figure it out for myself. I hung up the phone. It was very weird. When I recall it now, I want to cry, thinking of the wisdom of what he did.
You know, it's sometimes said … if you let children go, they will find their way back. Now, if anything happens at home, I'm back. When they downsized, I went back to help them move; when they want something, I'll go home and do it for them. In some ways, it is ironic.