It was a facepalm moment for me when I learned that several young people in my previous church were getting tattoos as soon as they turned 18.
As an anthropologist, I am familiar with scarification – and circumcision – as being a mark of adulthood in a ‘rite of passage’. Pain and the ability to endure pain is integral to the demonstration that one is grown-up.
In researching older Chinese people who had immigrated to Britain, I often asked them for stories on their ‘eating bitter’. Almost always, my respondents simply raised both their hands.
“Look,” they said, “what hard work has done to my hands,” as they showed me their calloused fingers and gnarled hands, riddled with painful rheumatoid arthritis. They looked just like the hands of my late parents (neither of whom had a tattoo).
My generation faced hardships of a different kind: leaving school because there was not enough money to educate the girls; if at school, walking long distances to school to save on bus fares; if we got on a crowded bus, being molested as old men and young men alike pressed themselves against us and we did not know how to respond.
Turning 16 meant finding part-time jobs and/or giving private tuition to children in the neighbourhood. I started writing for Fanfare at 16 (while working on my ‘A’ Levels) to earn pocket money. (Thank you, Sylvia Toh and Pauline Loh, wherever you are.)
We did not have ‘rites of passage’. ‘Prom Nights’ were a rarity. We were simply expected to work to contribute to keeping the family housed and fed.
Boys went through National Service where even getting to and from camp every weekend was a hardship. Precisely because these men understood, their sons were chauffeured to and from camps, or given taxi money.
So you see, we did not need tattoos to show we have endured pain and therefore ‘grown-up’.
Pain was written in our hearts, our failures, our indignity, our sleepless nights, our worries about money, our memories ... by the time we were in our late teens.
Pain was in our empty stomachs and in our envy of wealthier university friends who went off on Europe tours while we worked during the long university breaks to afford university fees and textbooks.
Of course, I may be wrong. Tattoos may not be about pain. What then are they about? Vanity? The mindless worship of celebrity cultures? Pray, tell.