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April 29, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Naughty Girl’s Chair


When I was born, my father vowed that, unlike his own father, he would never hit his children. So instead, he invented the naughty girl’s chair.


It was a small wicker chair, the perfect size for a four-year-old’s body, that sat in the corner of our living room. Whenever I’d been naughty, my father would send me to the chair, to think about what I’d done. I would cry, and quietly meditate on my crimes, distraught that I’d caused any sort of conflict. But after a while, my mind would wander. It was hard to stop. I’d try to punish myself by feeling guilty, but soon slip away into worlds that I’d built in my head (mostly medieval ones, with an 80’s rock soundtrack), and go on grand adventures with dragons and knights and witches. It was so easy, and so difficult to punish me. I’d agree that I needed to be punished, and then would turn my punishment into a game.


Discipline wasn’t a big thing in our household, though. It didn’t need to be. To me, my parents’ word was law, and I never thought to question them. I was so determined to please that disobeying never crossed my mind. Not even in situations when I could clearly get away with lying.


“Are you allowed to have coke?” I was once asked at a birthday party, when I was four years old. I would have loved a coke. Like many four-year-olds, I loved sugar. The fizzing magic of soft drinks were intoxicating and heady, a young girl’s drug. But I couldn’t lie.

“No, my parents say I can’t.” I said religiously, and drank and orange juice instead, even though I hated orange juice.


My mum was so proud that I listened to her rules in her absence that she told the other mums all about it. “My daughter is so obedient,” she would crow, as if there were no other quality in the world that could measure up. I was obedient, and seeing how happy it made her made me happy.


It didn’t take long for me to grow out of the wicker chair. But I liked sitting in it anyway. Even though it was the designated discipline chair, I thought of it as ^my chair, and resented when others would use it. It was a good place to let my imagination run wild, and I was secretly proud of the fact that I was so clever I was unpunishable, but so obedient that I never needed to be punished. It was like there was an unspoken contract in place between me and my parents. I would be perfect, and they would love me. I would be everything they wanted me to be, and they would never punish me. Like all children, I thought my parents were superhuman, that they knew everything; and that if I followed what they taught me, I’d become the perfect adult with the perfect life.


The idea of cultural pride also became tangled up in this push for perfection. From an eastern perspective, children are meant to be quiet, obedient, hard-working and respectful, to a degree that stifles independence and creative thinking. To talk back to your elders is taboo. Butin a western country like NZ where independence and autonomy are prized, obedience was unfashionable. When I was twelve, kids started teasing me for not swearing, because my parents had told me not to. This wasn’t a good enough reason for a group of adolescents. Obedience was a weakness, and edginess was all the rage. One lunchtime, all the girls in my class trapped me up a tree and said they wouldn’t let me down until I said ‘fuck’. It must have been a funny picture from the ground—me lying on my stomach, limbs wrapped around a tree branch, holding on for dear life, with all exits blocked by a pre-pubescent horde chanting, “Say shit! Say fuck! Go on, say it! Say it!” We all stayed up there, locked in a stalemate, until the bell finally rang and we all had to go inside.


“I don’t know why you didn’t just swear,” Kimberley sighed.

“My parents told me not to,” I said religiously. And vowed to always keep her in my sight when up trees.


My parents views also dictated my boundaries, in ways I’d never considered: In my culture, beginning menstruation is a paradoxical event. You are now officially a woman, and we shall celebrate, but now that you are a woman, small freedoms must be taken away. Periods make you unclean, so you must be locked away from the rest of the world for the duration of your first one. You are also too dirty to go to temple, with some temples going so far as to ban all women between the ages of ten and fifty, ^just in case^. While my family were feminist enough not to segregate me, periods—and indeed anything to do with reproduction and sex—were a taboo subject, so my mum never talked to me about them until after mine had arrived. But while I wasn’t to know what was going on with my body, my dad was so proud that he rang all his siblings across the world to tell them the good news. And then we held a sadenge, a coming-of-age ceremony, where I got lots of money from relatives and we broadcast the fact I was now of “marriageable age”.

“Isn’t it a bit weird that everyone knows?” a white friend asked me. “That you’re bleeding?”

How could it be weird? My family were the ones who were shouting it from the rooftops, so why did I need privacy?


My sadenge was an exciting experience. I wore my first ever sari, and spent the ceremony proudly sitting in the naughty girl’s chair—I had to, in order to be low enough for my relatives to paint my skin with mangal, and circle my face with fire. My parents were so proud, ^so proud^ that their daughter was now a woman. I’d never experienced that level of pride in my life before, not for all my obedience, all my accomplishments, all my drive, my passion, my integrity. It made my heart sink to feel like my body was more important to them than my soul, but I believed that they knew what was important, and what wasn’t.


Then one day, when I was 13, I came home wearing my friend Jodee’s jeans. My own clothes had gotten soaked in the rain, and she’d been kind enough to lend me a dry set. I walked through the door into the kitchen, and stopped when I saw my father. His face was thunder. Without a word, he bunched up my hair in his fist and dragged me down the hallway to my bedroom. I don’t really remember what happened next. My memory has fragmented into little pieces, leaving me only with bits of truth. I know that I cried fat, ugly, desperate tears. I know that I begged. I know that I didn’t know what I’d done wrong, but my heart broke anyway.


I remember his remorse afterwards. He’d grown up poor, and seeing me wearing someone else’s clothes made him feel like he hadn’t provided enough. He accepted my explanations that here, in this western country, it was normal for girls to share clothes. He apologised. But it was too late. He’d already broken his vow, in the most horrific way possible. Not only had he punished me physically, but he’d hit me with abandon, without restraint, and without justification.


We never talked about it again.


We also never used the naughty girl’s chair again. It sat in the living room, growing older, gathering dust. It’s still there, whenever I go home. I sit in it sometimes, folding my 24-year-old frame into a four-year-old’s chair, and let my imagination wander, just like I used to. I go back to a time when I believed in dragons and knights and witches, and the words of my parents. And I wish that I didn’t have to open my eyes.


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