Learning to Smile

(Warning: This one is long!)

When I was a kid, I didn’t know how to smile. I had feelings, but I didn’t know what they were. I did a lot of wicked things; can’t really explain why. I laughed and I cried and I got angry like everybody else, but I can’t say I really had a grasp of my emotions until I faced some real adversity. Until then, I kinda just ran amuck.

For example, when I was in preschool, I used to take advantage of all the kids who had less-developed brain power and motor skills. On the playground, I rarely lost any game against kids my age. I never lost a foot race, nor did I lose in games like “tag” or “hide-and-seek” – not that the other kids were even aware they were losing at that age. Even if I lost or came close to losing, I would change the rules on everybody and convince them to agree so they would lose anyway. Sometimes I tricked other kids into giving me their toys or candy by offering something inferior in trade, allowing them to believe they were getting the reverse.

You know how most kids don’t speak in complete sentences until they turn 12? This might be an exaggeration, but to the best of my recollection, I never had that problem. My earliest memories are from age three. I asked my parents to verify, but you know how parents are – they exaggerate about their kids’ greatness. They would have you believe I spoke perfect English at age one.

As a kid, my intelligence allowed me to function as a sort of mini-adult. Sure, I wasn’t very mature. (Frankly, I’m not very mature now.) But being a child with the mind of an adult had its advantages. For one, I became keenly aware at a very young age that no matter how intelligently I spoke, adults always treated me like a little child. I also became aware that little children get away with things that they would otherwise be held accountable for had they only been older, had they only known better. That means if I wanted to be a thief or a pervert or if I wanted to blackmail someone three or four years older than me, I had the ammunition – and I frequently took advantage. I also became very good at crying any time it suited me to do so. Crying will get a little kid out of all kinds of trouble with your garden-variety adult.

In many ways, I was still very much a kid. I peed my pants. I cried at home when I didn’t get my way. And I was probably only good at duping others because I got duped by older kids. My older brother and I used to have these teddy bear (piggy) banks. He told me to collect all the older, more valuable, and therefore brown-in-color coins, and to just give him all the silver ones. It seemed like a good trade at the time. Of course, when it came time to open the piggy banks, and it became apparent how badly I got ripped off, my parents made him split the money with me.

I might have become a fully-developed, Satan-spawn sociopath if I wasn’t humbled by a series of unfortunate events as I got a little older. I was smart (had the gold stars on the teacher’s wall to prove it). I was well-spoken. I read way ahead of my age and probably better than many remedial high school students. I was actually really athletic. But I was the shortest kid in the class. I was also one of the only Asians in a predominantly white and Mexican school.

Nobody cares how smart you are in elementary school. Being clever doesn’t get you picked for the soccer team at lunchtime. It doesn’t make you friends. Being different doesn’t make you unique. It gets you excluded. It gets you bullied.

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t get bullied all the time, and I wasn’t ever in physical danger. I always had friends. It’s just that I also had enemies. It was those times when I got caught alone and outnumbered by boys bigger than me who thought it would be funny to insult me with racial slurs that made it tough. Also, remember how uncool it was to tattle in those days? I kept my mouth shut.

I felt trapped. There was a stretch of several months where I didn’t want to be on the playground with the other kids. I was allergic to grass at the time. I’m not sure when I outgrew it, but my eyes used to turn red and itchy at unpredictable intervals. It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t endure it, but I found a way to use it to my advantage.

I used to go into the school office on an almost daily basis during this time, complaining that I didn’t feel well. Even when I wasn’t allergic, I would rub my eyes until they were red and complain that they were itchy. I also complained that my stomach hurt when I wanted to throw in a little variety. You can’t prove a child is lying if they say they have a stomach ache. Most kids are stupid about the lies they tell. I wasn’t.

It shocks me that nobody told my parents. It was a textbook child’s cry for help. Then again, I have this theory that most of the adults that I encountered in the ‘90s weren’t very emotionally intelligent. Not a single call was made to my parents, but if one was to be made, it probably would have went like this:

“Hello, Mr. Geluz? Your son has been in the office complaining about being sick almost every single day for several months. What’s that? (*pause*) Uh huh. Yes, that’s right. Several months. It’s unusual for any child to be sick so often, and he only seems to get sick at lunchtime. It’s possible he might be getting bullied or excluded by the other kids. How’s your communication at home?”

Nope. Like my allergies, I eventually grew out of it.

Things were mostly good at home, but we lacked in many areas. My parents loved me. There was no doubt in my mind about that. But my mother worked late and traveled frequently. My dad was mostly emotionally unavailable for most of my childhood, chasing money in various business deals. He always picked me and my brother up from school really late, dropping us off at home, and then leaving again to chase the next deal. My grandma, who watched us at the time, was missing a few screws after an unfortunate anesthesia mishap. Basically, my brother and I were being raised at home by a Nintendo. Any contact with my parents was some type of lecture about why my A-minus wasn’t a 100% (figures – Asians).

I used to get really bored at school. The material was always extremely easy, and I hated having to sit through class, waiting for others to catch up. I remember getting in trouble for going ahead of the class and finishing a week’s worth of homework on the first night of the week. Yep – lectured at home for getting a 96% and discouraged at school for finishing my homework early. The roots of procrastination began to fester.

When I was a kid, I had ridiculous insomnia. I used to be up at eight or nine o’clock playing video games when my mother would scream at me to go to sleep. Of course, she didn’t actually scream. You know how parents have a certain tone that carries weight when they speak? To her, it was probably just the right tone to get me to do what she asked me to do. To me, I associated that tone with getting in trouble – so it made me afraid. She used to tell me, “You better be asleep by the time I come back, or else you are going to be in trouble.” Of course, she made this threat night after night, but not a single time did she check up on me.

I lied earlier when I said I didn’t grasp any of my emotions. I knew one very well: fear. Every night I was afraid. I used to lay in the dark pretending to sleep, glancing over at the clock occasionally. 10 o’clock. 11. 11:30. 12. 12:30. 1. 1:30. I didn’t know why I was so afraid of getting in trouble. It’s a little insane, even as a child, to be unnecessarily afraid.

I remember always being late for school. I certainly didn’t wake up on time on my own, given the hours I fell asleep. Usually I would wake up to my dad pressuring me to wake up and get dressed. “Hurry up! We’re late! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” He always repeated “Let’s go!” three times in succession, like some type of cadence. Usually I got up quickly to throw my clothes on (I went to a private Catholic school, so we wore the exact same uniform every day) and stumble into the car. You know that stereotype of crazy, Asian drivers? My dad was the epitome of crazy Asian driver. It was like riding that Star Wars ride at Disneyland, except in real life with closer calls and more serious consequences if we crashed. We would speed to school, weaving in and out of traffic (very often into the turning lane and sometimes into the lane of opposing traffic, but never running red lights), breaking multiple laws on a daily (no exaggeration here) basis just in time to get to school about 15 minutes late.

I knew this wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t until later on that I knew why. When I stayed over at a friend’s house, I noticed that they woke up early, showered, brushed their teeth, ate some breakfast, and then left in time to get to school. I didn’t really start getting to school on time until my parents paid someone else to pick us up in a carpool arrangement.

My teachers and the school administrators rebuked my father frequently. He often got mad and retaliated by sending them angry letters, threatening to sue the school. My mother always apologized on our behalf behind his back.

As far as everyone else knew, everything was fine. And in the grand scheme of things, we actually had it really good. We didn’t get abused, physically or emotionally (not by our parents at least). We never lacked for anything financially. Our grades were always good. Every single year until high school, we both finished in the top three of our classes. My parents made a lot of money. My brother and I had all the toys and books and video games we could ever want. I always believed my parents loved us, despite their flaws. And my mother was very affectionate – though that would change soon.

When I turned nine, my parents separated. I still remember the night my mom sat us down and told us they were going to get a divorce. It was the summer after third grade. “Your dad is seeing another woman. He isn’t going to live here anymore.” That night, we helped her pack all of his clothes into trash bags. We stuffed them in our white Toyota Corolla. When my father got home, she met him at the door and refused to let him in. That started an entire different chapter in my life.

Before the separation, my brother and I used to fight all the time. He was four years older, and he used to kick the crap out of me. Then again, being the little sociopath that I was, I usually deserved it. But after our parents split up, we never fought the same way again. It’s kinda funny, but we actually became more like a married couple. We would fight verbally, and apologize later and go to the mall or play video games to make up.

Sometimes, my brother and I would stay up late talking. I would lie next to him on his bed and we would pour our guts to one another. One particular night, we got to talking.

“Mom and Dad are splitting up,” he said. “That means that you and me have to stick together.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see how it is. She’s always angry now. Dad isn’t even allowed in the house.”

“So what do we do?”

“I can’t wait until I turn 16. Then I’ll have a car. I’ll always be gone.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you hear what I said? It’s just you and me now. We have to take care of each other.”

“…”

“…”

My mom thought it would be a good idea if my brother and I went to counseling. Twice a week, we would get pulled out of class to talk to the school counselor with a group of other kids. I was the youngest one there, and probably the easiest to get to open up. I got very good at being completely honest about my emotions. I also gained empathy for others.

“Ryan, there’s one thing I need you to know,” the counselor said. “This isn’t your fault.”

“What? My fault? Why the hell would this be my fault? My dad’s the one who cheated.” Being a smart-ass would become a recurring theme throughout the rest of my childhood.

It was around this time period that I started to take notice of my feelings. I found that it hurt when I was bullied. That I felt abandoned when my father turned his back on our family. That I felt angry at my mother’s bitterness. That I was sad when I didn’t fit in with the other kids. That I felt disconnected from having zero meaningful conversation at home, except occasionally with my brother.

At the counselor’s office, they used to have all the children sit in a circle, introducing ourselves and talking about our problems, preparing us for an inevitable future of 12-step meetings. The counselor would ask us questions about how we felt, and usually everyone was pretty quiet. Not me though.

“How does it make you feel when your dad picks you up late all the time?”

“I hate my dad. He’s a hypocrite.”

“Wow,” an older kid would chime in. “You’re really smart for your age. I didn’t know what the word ‘hypocrite’ meant until I was 12.”

The counseling sessions went on for less than a year. My mom got into a series of arguments with the counselor. Apparently during their last conversation she tried to convince my mother to spend more time with my brother and I, to which my mother promptly ended the conversation and pulled us out of the program. After all, my dad was the one to blame. Wasn’t he?

My dad and his girlfriend (now ex-wife) thought it would be a good idea for her to take my brother and I out to lunch to get to know us. It didn’t go so well. For one thing, after she got back from a visit to the restroom, the lady that was sitting at the table next to us ratted me out for spitting in that home-wrecker’s drink. She started to cry, but I wasn’t feeling very compassionate at the time. I mean really, what the hell did she think was going to happen? My brother couldn’t stop laughing.

Naturally, I started to act up in school. I’d get in trouble, get sent to the office, and the emotionally clueless adult they sent me to would shout and threaten me in some way to try and get a response. Failing to do so, they would eventually call my mother and she would shout or threaten me in a different way. However, this time around, I wasn’t afraid of their empty threats.

I started to develop a personality. And a spine. I stopped being the class outcast. I stopped being the teacher’s pet. I actually learned how to smile for the first time in my life.

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