In my deep memory, I see the picture of a little girl surrounded by her classmates. She is crying while the others keep laughing.
“Please let me play with you. I promise that I will be silent.”
“Whether you open your mouth or not, I still find you stinky.”
I used to be bullied by my classmates back in primary school; the reason was simple: I had dental issues. This made me desire to have a true friendship but also became a barrier preventing me from making friends.
I used to be very socialized. I could become friends with another kid that I’d only met once. When I moved to my first grade, it only took me one day to know all of my classmates. However, the improvement of my social skills was inverse of the condition of my teeth. I ate tons of candies and rarely brushed my teeth, so they started to turn black and were filled with holes. I refused to go and see the doctor, so it turned worse and painful. However, what hurt me most was not my teeth but the fact that my friends started bullying me because of them. I came to the school one morning to hear my seatmate teasing: “Your mouth smells so bad.” He yelled it out loud so that the whole class heard it and burst out laughing at my humiliation. During the next days, weeks and months, all of my friends suddenly turned their backs to me. They did not let me play with them and avoided me as much as possible; even my best friend refused to walk home with me. They said: “We don’t want to have dental problems like you. Stay away from us.”
When I recalled their words many years later, I laughed out loud. They left me because of a small flaw that nearly every child has and that cannot even be spread. However, at that time, I accepted what they said without considering how unreasonable it was and believed that I was the one who’d made a mistake. Everything did not stop there. During classes, whenever the teachers did not notice, a piece of paper would be passed to my seat. On the paper, there was a drawing of a hideous mouth, which I could not bear to look at for over a second. One time, the teacher saw me weeping quietly after reading the paper so she asked to know what happened. I, who still held the belief that telling the truth would mean betraying my friends, lied: “Everything is okay. I just miss my mom.” My lie eventually created a new nickname for me: “Thi, The Silly.” Memories from elementary school further increased my yearning for a true and sincere friendship as I moved to middle school.
As I grew up, the condition of my teeth improved so my classmates no longer bullied me. Despite that, the past still obsessed and created in me an inferiority complex. As I moved to middle school, my life was more peaceful and fun. However, it was also filled with many regrets. In order to protect myself from more intimidation, I set some rules for making friends. I imagined a social hierarchy and only dared to play with people at the bottom of it. These people were likely to be inconspicuous, shy, and kind, and did not have the courage to bully me. However, I did not feel completely comfortable and happy being with them. To gain their friendship, I put on many different looks and personalities other than what I truly was. For some, I appeared to be kind and gentle, whereas the others saw me as mature and solemn. I always felt worried that if they found out my true self and my past, they would disregard and leave me like my old friends had. Therefore, I rarely talked about myself or shared my secrets with them. Instead, I was willing to listen to their complaints and agreed with whatever they said, even if they disagreed with my opinions. This young version of me justified herself by believing she was a good listener, but she was actually only good at flattery and willing to do what others said in return for their friendships. The growing desire of having friends had blinded her eyes.
The rules I set effectively prevented me from being bullied, but they also restricted my circle of friends. I tried to avoid beautiful, popular, or socialized people who stayed on the top of the hierarchy because I considered them to be “bad people” who would likely bully me. My second best friend, Thien Chieu, who grew up being a popular and pretty girl, became strangers to me in this way. After she received a confession from a boy, she suddenly became popular. Chieu began to hang out with other popular girls, which made me feel betrayed. An unreasonable fear started to form in my mind that Thien Chieu would find those new friends more interesting than me and eventually leave me for them. This thought made me increasingly depressed and distorted the way I viewed my best friend. She began to look like a sinister snake who pretended to be my friend just to take advantage of me. I realized that picturing Thien Chieu as a malevolent person made me feel better than the thought that I was being betrayed by a good friend. It also made it easier for me to cut off my relationship with her.
I still remember that rainy day when we walked home together, Chieu and I stopped at a roadside diner. She had noticed my irritated attitude all day long so she wanted to treat me to a meal. She hoped that I might feel better after eating. Poor Chieu! Her sincerity was unrequited because of my stupid selfishness. I used to hate onions and I did not want to have them on my food. Chieu knew my habit, so every time she ordered, she would ask the kitchen to remove onions from my bowl. She did the same this time but my noodles still ended up with a lot of onions. The smell of the vegetable brought my resentment to the top of my mind. I gritted my jaws and uttered each word angrily: “WHY.ARE.THERE.ONIONS.IN.MY.BOWL?” Chieu looked at me puzzled and then she turned to the waiter to ask for a new portion. Everything would have been solved if I did not let the anger control my mind and continue shouting at her: “How can you mess up ordering a meal? You are so useless.” I remembered saying more words that normal people could not bear, but Chieu just sat there in silence, her eyes watering. Her attitude further annoyed me. I thought: “Why does she cry after all she has done to me? She acts like I am bullying her, but I am actually the one who is bullied. She just pretends to be my friend, waiting for the time to betray me. She deserves this.” I kept repeating this in my head because it made me feel less guilty as I scolded Chieu.
Things might have continued like this if the waiter did not stop and ask me to leave. I stood up and stepped out like the winner leaving the battle. The last image I saw of Thien Chieu was her sitting motionless, her hands covering her face. It made me feel like gloating without knowing that it was the last time I would see her. Chieu did not come to the class the next day and the next day either, because she had transferred to another school. When the teacher first announced that news, I was surprised and angry because Chieu left so suddenly without saying goodbye. According to the teacher, her family had planned to move to another city and decided to bring her with them. The day when we quarreled was the last day she went to the school. This strengthened my belief that Chieu was not a good friend. I reassured myself that: “If Chieu was my true friend, she would have told me about her moving first. She had decided to cut off the relationship with me so she ordered a bowl of onions that day.” Despite my thought, somewhere in my heart still felt pain.
Life without Thien Chieu was lonely. All of the people who I used to call “friend” turned out not to be my friends at all. I realized that the difference in our personality was too great, so that we could not play together. Before, I had Thien Chieu to help me to bear their selfishness and disagreements. However, when she was gone, I had nobody who I trusted enough to express my true self. Although I appeared to have a lot of friends, none of them truly understood me. My rules and past made me afraid of being friends with other classmates on top of the hierarchy who I sometimes felt empathy for. My life might have been filled with loneliness if Chieu had not reached out. A year after our argument, Chieu suddenly texted me a long message. It was about how my behavior had hurt her feelings. A few weeks before she left, she had felt a hostile attitude from me, who had increasingly alienated her. The reason why she left without telling me was because she noticed my heated attitude and did not want to stress me out with the news. She planned to tell me everything on that last day, but I ruined it. Her confession brought me to a new world. I realized that our relationship was broken up not because of her faults but my inconsideration. I was so immersed in pain that I did not notice that she also suffered too because of my behavior.
That conversation helped me to learn a lot of things about friendship. I began to see many flaws in my way of making friends. The first mistake was that I chose friends through their appearance and popularity but not personality. Also, the hierarchy I imagined was mostly untrue. When I tried to talk to my class president who I used to consider evil, it turned out that he was kinder than I thought and had no intention of bullying me. In addition, I also learned that the rules, instead of protecting me from bullying, represented my fear and lack of confidence in communication. I regretted that I did not realize this sooner and that it took loosing my best friend for me to understand my mistake. Later, with these new perceptions and a determination to start over, I went to high school in a more confident and mature state.
It would be a lie if I said that creating relationships is now as easy as pie for me. However, I have made many friends at Miss Hall’s who allow me to be myself and who I truly feel happy to spend time with. The experience of being bullied in primary school helped me to appreciate my friendships, while the lessons I learned from Thien Chieu taught me to give everyone a chance.