Comedian learned to laugh off the idea of trying to fit in

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am

I spent my primary schooldays trying my best to fit in with everyone, though I've since learned that it's best to be my own person.

It wasn't easy as there were only two other foreigners - also Indians - in my year at St Joseph's in Wan Chai and I'd get the 'he's different from us' attitude from most people. In fact, for the first two years no one talked to me because they thought I was 'different'.

My Cantonese also wasn't that good, to the point where I came second-to-last in Primary Two. However, as time went by I did make friends.

My best memory was camping at school in Primary Six. We shared all these ghost stories and it was a lot of fun talking in the dark because all you could hear were voices and words, and no faces.

Secondary School was Diocesan Boys', which really was nothing but being silly - though in a fun way. Initially, there was this 'Urgh, foreigner' attitude, but the moment I opened my mouth and spoke Cantonese everyone loved me.

Even so, the worst part was one guy who turned to me and said: 'Stupid Ah Cha [Indian guy], this place doesn't welcome you.' I replied: 'Up yours, I'm not deaf, I can understand and speak Cantonese.' Funnily enough, we ended up being really good friends.

However, I slowly broke out of trying to fit in with everyone and began to understand who I was and be myself.

Even so, I still had a problem with meeting girls because at any school function involving them, they'd always ignore me.

Later on, I found it sad when some of us started getting girlfriends. You could see people completely change and you'd literally lose friends to these girls, and I'd go home alone and lonely.

Diocesan was also where I had my most memorable teacher. We hung out after school hours, chit-chatting and talking rubbish.

One time we were on the MTR and a few other students noticed we were talking complete nonsense. One said: 'Sir, how can you talk like that? You're a teacher.' He replied: 'I'm human too you know.'

That was a defining moment in my life, and opened my eyes to the freedom of speech and thought. It was when I went to City University, where I studied at the School of Creative Media, that I really started standing out. Anytime they needed a 'foreigner' for a filming project, they'd find me because I spoke Cantonese but also English with an American accent.

University was a lot of fun because I was the joker of the class, and I never used to back down from asking my teachers questions that could prove them wrong.

It was also where I became independent and taught myself a lot of what I know today through reading extensively.

I found City University's library a gold mine and was known as the guy who'd borrow an entire section. My highest record was 36 books on the same subject, borrowed with the help of friends.

One downside was having a teacher who couldn't speak properly and had weird pauses in his speech. It was just so boring.

I graduated as top student with top honours and earned the respect of everyone, even though I was the one who'd give everyone a tough time by challenging a lot of things they said.

I never really knew what I wanted to do career-wise, though I'd loved Web design for a long time. I'd made my first website for a clan I formed for a game called Quake 2 when I was a teenager.

Slowly I grew more curious and in university I immersed myself in books about Web design, and just kept absorbing to the point that I knew it was what I wanted to do.

I also became a freelance Web designer/developer because I hate early mornings. The style of freelance was exactly how I liked to work because I could control my schedule. I've found it is the outlet to being myself. If I do well, I get rewarded. If I do badly, I don't. It's simple and fair.

As for making people laugh, stand-up comedy was always an interest. I used to go to bed only if I watched at least 20 minutes of comedy, because it relaxed me.

One day I saw an SCMP article about a stand-up comedy competition and I told myself I had to do it. I didn't even care if I completely flopped.

I was tried out, got into the competition and won the Cantonese category - the funniest Chinese person in Hong Kong was an Indian! I talk a lot about life here so a lot of people can relate to it, which is the key to comedy.

I wouldn't change anything about my experiences. It's made me who I am today and if I hadn't been mocked as a kid, I'd probably lose half my comedic material.

Moreover, if I hadn't been pressured by other students at university with more design-school experience, I'd never have forced myself to teach myself what I know today.

I do think though that school didn't teach me how to solve problems intelligently.

I firmly believe that working hard gets you nowhere. Working smart is the way to go and school never taught me that.

I've also learned that overall, if you fit in, you won't stand out.

Vivek Mahbubani is a website designer and comedian. He was talking to David Phair.