I was a 16-year-old with big dreams. I had read about manicured university lawns, giant lecture halls with stadium seating and attached right-arm desks, and Nobel laureates for professors. I dreamed about ivy-covered walls and libraries that went on for miles, I fantasised about frat parties and wearing school colours. I watched so many movies about college in the United States — including American Pie, which, as it turns out, was not a good barometer.
I was also a 16-year-old without funds, from a public school in Malaysia. My parents did not have the means to send me to college in the Ivy League halls I dreamed about. This was not to say I was underprivileged. I knew I could always stay local, work a little, work my way through school, as many of my peers did. But I had to try. There was a way, an opportunity — very remote, but I wanted to take it. I had to win a scholarship from the Malaysian government.
In Form 5, the final year of secondary school, Malaysian students take a general examination graded on a national curve. The rare scholarships from the Malaysian government required I score at least 10 A1s in this examination (A1 being the highest mark one can get) from 10 different subjects. But schools did not teach you 10 subjects. They taught you nine, which, while more than enough to build a solid learning foundation, was not enough if you wanted more. So I needed that one more class, that one more grade A1, but I didn’t quite know how to get there. I needed a teacher, a syllabus and a proctor.
Heroes do not always wear capes and drive Batmobiles. Mine was in his 70s, white-haired, with a terrible sense of direction, who drove an old red Nissan Langley. It was my grandfather, and he found me a tutor, Mr Leonard, a friend of his who taught English literature, the extra subject I needed, out of a spare classroom in a school in Kuala Lumpur. Every week, come rain, shine, hail or storm, my grandfather would start up his Nissan Langley, manual transmission with no power steering, and pick me up from school. We would drive 90 minutes in peak hour traffic, stop, stop, go, as the clutch protested, the sour smell of my teenage sweat in school uniform, competing with the juddering air conditioning. In fact, that car, sold a couple of years ago, had a ring-shaped stain in the front seat: my sweat, dripping its legacy.
We would get to Mr Leonard’s, and my grandfather would wait the two hours in the tropical afternoon heat for the lessons to pass. It wasn’t enough time for him to drive home before he’d have to leave again to pick me up. What did he do to pass the time — did he get lunch? Did he nap in the car? Did he try to air the car out so it wouldn’t smell like sweaty teenage girl? I don’t know — but after the class, my grandfather would drive me back through two hours of evening peak-hour traffic in the same red Nissan Langley. Sometimes we’d discuss what Mr Leonard had taught me about Lady Macbeth’s motivations. Sometimes I’d (mis)quote the “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” soliloquy to him. Sometimes we’d just sit in silence. Sometimes his stomach growled, sometimes mine did. He never complained.
Eleven months later, I sat for the general examination. Fifteen months later I learned I had scored 10 A1s — one of those A1s for English literature. Eighteen months later Mr Leonard passed away. Twenty-four months later I discovered I had won a full scholarship from the Malaysian government, to spend the next four years fully funded at a US university. On my first day at University of California Berkeley, I remember standing at Barrow lecture hall, staring up at the all right-hand desks, terrified and awed, a little girl whose big dreams had become something more.
Ten years ago, I graduated with honours from UC Berkeley. I sat in many classes taught by Nobel laureates. I learned how to navigate those right-arm lecture seats — it turns out they’re very uncomfortable. I visited all the libraries of UC Berkeley and smelled the beautiful musty smell of so many books, the like of which I’d never seen before, outside of the library from The Beauty and the Beast Disney movie.
Five months ago, my grandfather passed away.
I owe my grandfather the best years I’ve had, and the life I’ve built in San Francisco. I owe my grandfather all the hours he spent driving me back and forth to Mr Leonard’s English literature class, all the stomach growls, all the sweat-infused air. I owe my grandfather that last A1.
I am the little girl with big dreams who owes my grandfather every dream that I — no, we — have managed to realise.
Vanessa Chan is a Malaysian writer living in the United States