The Amah's Revenge

No one ever called Mary Poppins the “Dragon Lady.” The most famous nanny of all time is a fictional character. My nanny, my amah, was not Mary Poppins. Her name was Jin Lee, and she was a Straits Chinese whose family had been in Singapore, far longer than mine. The only thing that Amah Jin and Mary Poppins had in common is that they both could fly. I knew my Amah Jin could fly because one day I heard my father refer to her as the “Dragon Lady,” and every child in Singapore knows that dragons can fly.

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Jin Lee was a small woman, about five feet two inches tall, although when I was very young she seemed much larger. She had long, black hair, which she always wore either wrapped up in a bun or in skinny pigtails. She had black eyes that were very deep and wise looking when they were not flashing with anger at some childhood stupidity of mine. They never, ever, twinkled with fun like Mary Poppins’ eyes, because Amah Jin had a great natural dignity and sense of what was socially appropriate. She did not consider fun to be appropriate, and consequently, she doled out fun in extremely small, carefully measured doses.

“Time to stop playing,” she would say in her strong ‘singlish’ accent, after I had spent maybe five minutes with my dolls, or reading a fashion magazine when I was older. “You have much homework to do, and your parents are having company tonight. You must bathe and dress and be a credit to them when you meet the guests.”

There was nothing more important to my amah than for me to be a ‘CREDIT TO MY FAMILY.’ Her persistence in communicating this idea and the fortitude of her voice still resonates in my mind today.

Of course, being young, I preferred playing, and I would complain that I did not want to be a credit to my family. I always stopped, however, when those black eyes started flashing. I knew better than to arouse Amah Jin’s anger.

“There is nothing more important than being a credit to the family,” Jin Lee would say with a fierce frown. “Nothing! Someday you will learn this, Rachael, and it will be easier to learn this now. It could be painful to learn such a lesson later.” Then, she would haul me off to my bath and later watch from the hallway as I met my parents’ guests. She would nod as I came away if she thought I behaved well, or scowl if she thought I had acted poorly.

Whether I got a nod or a scowl, I always muttered under my breath “I don’t care if I am a credit to my family.” I’m sure she always heard me, for she always shook her head as if in sadness. Still, this was my only act of rebellion against those dangerous eyes, and I was rather proud of it.

When I was about eleven, my parents let Amah Jin go. I was in sixth grade by then, and not home very often. My parents saw my good grades in school as a sign that I was becoming a responsible person, and they decided I no longer needed the supervision of an amah.

Amah Jin and I said our goodbyes one Saturday. I must admit that I was not sorry to see her go. I saw her leaving as a sign of growing up, but most importantly, as an indication that increased personal freedom was to come.

For her part, I suspect she was not sorry to leave. All her years of instruction had not given me any dignity at all, and I think she understood that I had never accepted her idea of representing the family in an honorable way. What she did not understand was that I was only eleven years old. Still, she gave it one last try.

“You are a smart girl, and find school work too easy. You must work harder in school and bring credit to your family from your grades,” she said to me as we parted.

Free at last from her power, I responded, out loud, for the first time, “I don’t want to be a credit to my family.”

This time it was she who muttered as she gave me a rather stiff hug. I believe what she said was “Then learn the hard way.”

About at least one thing Amah Jin was right. Schoolwork was unchallenging to me and did not demand much of my attention. I would exert more time and energy chasing the dogs around the house than I did perfecting my reading and writing skills. But that didn’t stop me from receiving the top marks in my class. I became somewhat vain about my grades, and treated them like trophies with which I could earn the respect and admiration of my fellow classmates.

I was, therefore, more than a little upset when a new girl came into school in the fifth grade and quickly started getting better scores on tests than I was getting. She was a Eurasian girl named Sarah Anne, and I came to not like her very much. She was thin, tall, and walked pompously through the hallways with her stick-straight brown hair resting on her shoulders. In class, she would raise her arms high into the air and answer questions with a confident smirk on her face. She studied during study periods, and even during lunchtime. This should have made her generally detested by all of the girls at school, but in fact she was quite popular, probably because she was a very nice person, although I would have completely denied this at the time.

Sarah and I had different groups of friends, and we did not often come into contact. But there is no question that there developed a competition between us over who would have the best grades.

At the end of the year we had Parents’ Day, and various students were given prizes for academic and athletic achievements. By this time, it was no surprise to me, or anyone else who knew her, that Sarah took a very large percentage of the awards.

What did come as a surprise to me was that my Amah Jin was in the audience. We had not had any contact since she left her position as my amah, and I could not really understand why she had come to the awards day to see me.

All was revealed after the ceremonies were over, and the audience came up to congratulate us. I stood there, next to my parents, with the smallest collection of awards I had yet received in a term. Standing nearby was Sarah Anne, clutching a handful of award certificates and ribbons, and ignoring my air of disappointment.

Amah Jin walked over to where the two groups were standing—I with my parents and Sarah with hers—then stopped and put her arm around Sarah’s shoulder. She smiled at me, and for once there was something like a twinkle of fun in those black eyes.

At that moment, I stopped being a bratty little girl. I can still feel the curious sensation, like my heart moving up into my throat, that those eyes gave me as Amah Jin smiled.

At that moment, something changed in me. It was as if all my experiences in the last eleven years of my life had, in an instant, culminated into an understanding of the altruistic temperament Amah Jin had tried to instill in me.

Amah Jin smiled again, and again her flashing dragon eyes showed amusement.

“I see you have met my niece Sarah,” Amah Jin said to me, very politely, hugging Sarah tightly around the shoulders. “She is such a credit to her family.”