By Jeannette Chong Aruldoss
To this day, whenever I see the word "Orientation", a sense of fear and anxiety would arise in my guts. I can never read "Orientation" without feeling discomfort.
The year was 1982. I was 19 and in the happy position of fielding two degree offers. One was a place at the local university to read political science and the other was a place in a UK university to read law.
Needless to say, my parents wanted me to be a lawyer. But I was a homebody and had no desire to leave the comfort of the familiar to go abroad to study. I was eager to join my school and JC friends and to meet new friends at the local university.
As I had been very active at co-curricular activities in school, I managed to "win" a place at the university hostel, which added to my excitement to start at the local University.
However, the promise of a fun-filled hostel life turned quickly into dust on arriving at the Halls of Residence. I found myself the unwitting participant of the hostel's 3-week long "Orientation Program".
We were told at the onset by our superiors at the hostel that we were in for tough and challenging ride. The Orientation Program was designed not only to foster bonding and camaraderie among the hostelites, but more importantly to "build character" for our own good.
We, the newcomers to the hostel, were "orientated" by being given a set of rules to abide by. Firstly, we were all mandated to wear conspicuous badges by which we could be identified as the newcomers, and thereby differentiated from the hostel incumbents. The badges had to be wore at all times whenever we were on hostel premises. On meeting, or whenever summoned to the presence of, an incumbent, we were to address them by the multi-syllable honorific "Senior Gentleman" or "Senior Lady", as the case may be. Incumbents were at liberty to speak to or summon newcomers at will, but not vice versa.
Every morning, we had to assemble in the open field for drills conducted by the Seniors. We had to obey instructions and participate in whatever “games” or activities the Senior Gentlemen and Ladies had in store for us.
I cannot remember what those activities were. But I do remember a lot of shouting at us by the Seniors, including shouting at errant "recruits" at very close range (as in nearly touching the nose) for making mistakes or showing insufficient deference to Seniors. As part of the assembly of recruits sweltering under the hot morning sun and bearing witness to the “punishments” meted out to errant newcomers, I clearly recall feeling fearful of making mistakes (by not following instructions properly) and dreading to be the one singled out for "punishment" i.e. humiliation by the powerful Seniors.
After the morning drills were done, we would spend the rest of the day attending our lectures and tutorials. But when evening came, the Orientation Program resumed. There was no respite. Since we resided at the hostel, we were bound to cross paths with Seniors. We had constantly to be on our toes to ensure we remembered and followed the prescribed rules of protocol and engagement whenever we encountered Seniors. Breach of protocol - whether by mistake, forgetfulness, cockiness or defiance - would render the felon liable to be shouted at and/or made to do something silly for the amusement of other Seniors.
I did not realise it but the relationship between the newcomers and the Seniors was that of captive and captors. I was afraid of the Seniors. They had power over me. I had to obey and defer to my Seniors.
It was not long before we captives began feeling the stress of our captivity and subjugation. Groups of us would huddle to encourage each other to soldier on and to bear with the "hardships" of our ordeal. The Seniors were in fact looking out for us, we reasoned. They were trying to make us tougher and to build up our resilience and character. It was all for our own good.
Towards our end of the second week of "Orientation", my paternal uncle decided to drop by the hostel to look in on me. While I was glad for his visit, I recall telling him that I could not talk to him long, as I "had to get back". I cannot remember what else I said to my uncle, but I do recall feeling scared that I might be breaching some protocol by talking to my uncle "without permission" from my Seniors. I was furtive and uneasy. I was behaving like a prisoner.
Bless my uncle for his insight. He said to me: "Jeannette, pack your things. I am taking you home."
I was stunned and bewildered.
For several minutes I could not process the fact that I could LEAVE the hostel and check out of the Orientation Program.
The realisation empowered my feet. I skipped up the stairs to my room to gather my belongings and to make my run to Freedom.
It was at this point that one of the most bizarre things in my life on this earth took place.
As I resolutely bundled my stuff into my bag, two girls who had their rooms next to mine came up to me with eyes aghast and the following dialogue ensured:
Well-meaning friends: "Jeannette! What are you doing?"
Me: "I am leaving!"
Well-meaning friends: "Leave? But we are almost finishing our Orientation! We have not long more to go!”
Me: “You can stay, but I am going.”
Well-meaning friends (sitting me down): "You should not quit now. All this is a test of our character. When we finish the Orientation, we will become better people. Think about it."
I have to give it to these two girls. They tried their best to reason with me not to leave and to stay with the Program to the end. But I was not convinced.
Then one of the girls, in a final act of desperation, said this to me, which I will never forget:
"Why did God put you here if He didn't want you to go through this?"
(The 2 girls and I share the same faith.)
It was now my turn to look at her in utter and complete amazement. Her "reasoning" gave me unequivocal proof that the Orientation Program was a sick game and all its participants deluded if not psychotic.
I walked away from those girls, the hostel and the Orientation Program. I never saw those two well-meaning girls again.
No prizes for guessing that I subsequently dropped out of the local university and went to UK to read law. On arriving at the UK hostel at the start of my term, I read a notice on the wall about an "Orientation" event for new students. With some trepidation and suspicion, I asked some people what that event was. "Oh, it’s just tea and snacks to get to know each other."
And it turned out just so. But you know, I had to ask, just in case.