Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Out of Character

by Isa Ho

There was something wrong with her daughter.

Cheryl Chen knew this with an unnerving sense of certainty. She knew it with what she liked to call her "mother's instinct." It was the same intuition that woke her in the middle of the night when her daughter was six years old and about to sleepwalk out the front door. The same tickle in her gut that meant she could always tell when this child, who she had birthed from her very own womb, was spinning an elaborate lie.

She knew it because that morning Hui Min had not slumped out of her room, nor had she complainingly draped herself over several pieces of furniture, nor did she then shove a slice of toast into her mouth and bolt out the door just in time for the bus. Instead, Cheryl had knocked on Hui Min's door to find the room empty, the bed made for the first time in recent memory. Even the blanket was folded in at the edges in the way Cheryl remembered teaching her years ago, but so rarely saw put into practice these days.

She didn't think much of it, except to be pleasantly surprised, until she drifted into the living room to find Hui Min already at the table, drinking—of all things—coffee and reading a copy of Time Magazine. An empty plate sat in front of her, exhibiting trace amounts of smoked salmon and eggs benedict.

Cheryl had stopped short. "You're up," she said, her voice calibrated to deliver warm approval, and a hint of alarm. She didn't mention the coffee. It was a breakfast choice befitting an adult, rather than Hui Min's usual preference for sugary, fattening drinks like Milo or Ribena.

"Indeed," said Hui Min. She set down her coffee, pinched the corner of a page between thumb and index finger, and turned it slowly.

"Interesting choice of reading material," Cheryl said. Hui Min was usually glued to her phone if she even made it to a sit-down breakfast, thumbs flying across the screen as she Whatsapped her friends.

"No, but I suppose the current state of US politics is a horror in itself," Hui Min said, letting out a tinkling laugh. The sound was a few notes higher and lighter than her daughter's usual barking guffaw. Something was different about her voice, as well—she sounded more grown up, more refined somehow. No dropped syllables or staccato pronunciation to be found here. Cheryl had spent years, and no small amount of money, trying to train her daughter to speak proper British English instead of garbled Singlish. She wondered if those lessons from childhood had finally sunk in.

"Why are you up so early?" she asked.

"Oh, just thought I'd get a fresh start to the day. Can't be late for school!" Hui Min flicked the magazine closed and downed the rest of her coffee in a gulp. She rose in a graceful movement, collected her dishes and went to clank them about in the kitchen sink. Cheryl followed her trajectory with raised eyebrows, feeling a strange mix of pleasure and disbelief. Her daughter usually had to be snapped at not to sit like a trishaw uncle, but instead Cheryl had glimpsed her ankles crossed in perfect ladylike posture underneath the table.

It was only hitting her now, as she sat in a hard, plastic seat on the MRT home, pressed in on all sides by strangers. It was only now that she could parse what had most bothered her about the interaction. It was not just Hui Min's abrupt transformation from loud and brash to demure and composed, but the mannerisms that she had adopted, the posture, the way of speaking.

It was, Cheryl thought, her own posture. She should have recognised it immediately, although of course she had never seen herself performing it outside of the occasional mirror. The angle at which Hui Min had held her arm, magazine dangling from the end of it. The way she had hooked two fingers through the handle of the coffee cup. And her daughter, sweet-toothed as she was, appeared to have been drinking her coffee black—the way Cheryl herself took it.

The MRT doors slid open, letting in a gust of warm, humid air, as well as a flood of new passengers. An older woman inched through the crush of people, looking hopefully towards the reserved seat that Cheryl was currently occupying. She closed her eyes and pretended to be fast asleep against the glass barrier, although her thoughts continued to race. She would ask about the strange behaviour tonight, Cheryl decided. If there was something wrong with Hui Min, she would suss out what it was. And if it turned out that this was all a misunderstanding, and her daughter was simply making an exemplary effort to take after her mother—well, who better for her to emulate?

Satisfied, Cheryl spent the rest of the MRT ride with her eyes shut, ignoring the bodies that moved and jostled around her. There was either something wrong with her daughter, or there was something very, very right.


When Cheryl arrived home, it was to a blast of cool air-conditioning. Hui Min had always complained about wasting energy and chided her to switch it off, but Cheryl believed in being comfortable—and more importantly, presentable—even in one's own home. Sweaty, windblown hair was never acceptable.

She found her daughter bent over her laptop, typing with a fervour. Hui Min was dressed not in her usual school uniform, but in a silky white top and neatly pressed pair of capris. It was something Cheryl herself would wear. In fact … "Are those my clothes?"

Hui Min jerked her gaze up from the screen. "My goodness, you startled me."

"Dear, is everything OK?"

"Of course, Mother. You bought me these last year, remember?" Hui Min only ever called her Mother in a mocking way. Aiyoh, Mother. It's not the end of the world, Mother. "Anyway, I can't look like a slob today—we have a Model UN meeting outside of school."

"Since when have you been in Model UN?"

"I've been in MUN since the beginning of the semester. Honestly, don't you pay attention when I tell you things?" Hui Min said. "Now, if you'll excuse me." She stood, snapping the laptop shut.

Cheryl stepped into the room as her daughter began to gather her things. "But this morning, with the magazine, all your talk about getting an early start on the day …"

"What about it?" Hui Min asked. "I always get up early for some quality reading time. Last week, it was my National Geographic phase, remember?"

Cheryl frowned. She did not, in fact, remember. Last week, Hui Min had emerged from her room, hair and uniform askew, fifteen minutes after her first alarm had rung. She had limped into the bathroom, possibly fallen asleep on the toilet for a couple of minutes and then sprinted out the front door hollering about how late she was. No, Cheryl did not recall the National Geographic phase.

"I'm perfectly fine," Hui Min said. She hoisted the bag that had been sitting beside her chair, brushed past Cheryl—who caught a hint of Marc Jacobs' Daisy Dream, the light floral scent dissipating in the air as quickly as it had appeared—and made for the front door.

Cheryl said, "That's my bag."

"Oh." Hui Min laughed, again that high unfamiliar sound. She seemed only now to realise that the bag dangling from her hand was not her battered backpack, but Cheryl's black Kate Spade, one of the few treats she had allowed herself since the divorce. Hui Min swapped it out for the schoolbag, swinging it over one shoulder, where it looked blatantly incongruous against her pristine clothing. "Sorry about that. See you later!"

After her footsteps stopped ringing out in the hallway, Cheryl went back to her room and rifled through her drawers. She touched the tip of a finger to the small bottle of Marc Jacobs perfume that sat, seemingly untouched, on her vanity. She thumbed through all her shirts and pants, and then went over them again just to be sure. Sure enough, two pairs of each were missing.


That weekend, Cheryl found herself sitting amidst the bustle of the neighbourhood hawker centre, staring into a bowl of bak chor mee as if it held the answers to the universe. Her daughter's strange turn in behaviour had not yet ceased and attempts to get to the bottom of it were casually rebuffed. All Hui Min had done was somehow take every bit of advice her mother had ever given her and make it reality. Yet Cheryl still felt as if she were shrinking somehow, her voice and stature vanishing next to Hui Min's newfound, towering confidence.

A cup of iced coffee, attached to a hand sporting newly manicured fingernails, thumped onto the table next to Cheryl's tray, sending droplets of condensation across the scratched plastic surface. "Mother? I was just on my way out to an appointment, but I caught sight of you. What are you doing here?"

Cheryl had to squint against the sun to make out her daughter's coiffed, sunglasses-clad silhouette. "It's lunchtime, dear. I'm having lunch."

"Out here? At midday? Are you at least wearing sunscreen? You know I'd hate for you to get any darker. And what is that you're wearing?"

Cheryl glanced down at her t-shirt. "Well, darling, I'm afraid you seem to have exhausted my supply of blouses. I had to borrow something of yours to wear instead."

Hui Min didn't seem to have heard her. She went on, "You must get some nicer clothes. Those shorts are so short. I know I always say you should try to attract a new husband, but I didn't mean right here in the hawker centre!" Her laugh rang out again, and Cheryl felt her fingers curl into a fist.

"By the way," Hui Min was saying, "I wanted to run something by you. Instead of 'Mother,' what do you think about me just calling you 'Cheryl'?"

"What's wrong with 'Mother'?" Cheryl asked.

"Nothing, dear, but doesn't it just seem a little … juvenile?"

"But I am your mother."

"Of course you are," Hui Min said as if to a petulant child, laying a comforting hand on Cheryl's forearm.

Cheryl stared down at the glistening yellow noodles of her bak chor mee and took a deep breath. "No. Listen. This has gone far enough. I don't know if this is some kind of elaborate prank, or mental break, or poor attempt to undermine my authority, or—whatever. It ends now. You are my daughter, and I am your mother, and you will listen to me. You need to stop wearing my clothes and taking my things and explain to me exactly what is going on."

She had risen to her feet without quite meaning to, and her voice had risen accordingly in volume. More than a few heads turned towards their table in open curiosity.

Hui Min's gaze, still covered by her dark sunglasses, was unreadable. She had placed the middle finger of one hand against her temple and was rubbing it in small circles. Cheryl recognised it as one of her own tics when stressed. "You see?" she hissed, jabbing a finger in her daughter's direction. "You see what I mean? Stop, just stop impersonating me."

Hui Min sighed. "Cheryl, please. Don't make a scene. You're embarrassing yourself."

"Don't tell me what to do!"

"Cheryl, sit down."

Cheryl sat.

Hui Min leant in. "I understand that you are upset. That does not, however, give you an excuse to raise your voice at me in public."

As if transfixed, Cheryl could only repeat: "I am your mother. I am your mother."

"I know you came here for lunch, but you've behaved quite badly today. Bad girls don't get lunches." She placed two fingers on the tray and slid it away, across the table.

"I am. I am."

"I will cancel my facial appointment, we will go home and we will have a serious talk about this, do you understand?"

Hui Min extended a hand, palm upturned. Cheryl stared at it, wide-eyed, for a moment. Then she slid her hand into it. Those manicured fingers, cool and smooth, closed around her own. They stood and walked out of the hawker centre, wending their way through the brightly coloured tables. The mother held her daughter's hand all the way home.

ImageIsa Ho was born in Singapore and raised in Beijing. She graduated from Yale-NUS College in 2017 with a degree in Literature, and currently works as a Writing & Speaking Fellow at NYU Shanghai. She spent much of her time in college learning (and re-learning) the art of the essay in its various forms, from attending the Prague Summer Program to working in the Yale-NUS Writers' Centre as a peer tutor. She is passionate about cities, films, and the Oxford comma.


Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.