Mama Says “Girls Don’t Fly”
Mama Says “Girls Don’t Fly”

Mama Says “Girls Don’t Fly”

I submitted the following story to Sisters in Islam’s “Per.Empu.An” story writing competition. It was eventually included in an anthology titled “Per.Empu.An: An Anthology”.

Since I have limited life experience, I wrote about my only area of expertise—flying. And women.

An edited version of the story below appeared in Per.Empu.An.

PER.EMPU.AN by Sisters in Islam


Alamak! Mutters Chen Ling under her breath. That sounds like ripping trousers, or ripping panties, hard to tell the difference.

Chen Ling dismissed the thought, focusing on her grip as she clambered down a water pipe from the first floor bedroom of a double storey terrace house.

Her satchel bag is strained against her left shoulder, an Airbus 330 keychain swinging from the side zip.

Something moves in her pants.

Arggh!! My pad is out of place! I hope I don’t leak blood all over! Kacau wei having period.

She lands on solid ground with a thump. Climbing out of her bedroom window was easier as a kid. But at 18 years old, what she gained in womanly-charm, she lost in agility.

After confirming the unmarred and decent state of her attire and sanitary accessory, she peered intently at her escape portal. Light pink curtains flanked the window frame, dancing gently in the light morning breeze.

The window is void of human life.

Save for her neighbour’s cat Si Comeland a distant kapcai, her surroundings are deserted.

So nobody saw her Spider-Woman type escape.

She winks at Si Comel.

Good, Chen Ling sighs.

Nobody can ever know. 

Three days ago, at home…

“I know, ma, I know!” Chen Ling shouts over her YouTube video.

She hits pause, slams her laptop lid shut and leaps off her bed, narrowly missing the prized Spitfireaircraft model on the nightstand. She caught a brief glance of the World War II single-seat replica before racing out of her bedroom. The staircase rumbled as she bounded down two steps at the time.

Mama stands impatiently at the foot of the staircase. “Ah Ling ar, that’s the third time I’ve called you for dinner. And can you be more lady-like please? A girl should be seen and not heard.”

Chen Ling hits the stairs landing and plants a kiss on her mother’s cheek.

“MMMmmm… Dinner smells good,” she grins and plops down at the dining table next to her twin brother, Chen Loong. Papa sits at the head of the table, typing away on his iPhone X. A plate of lightly steamed fish with ginger sits in the middle of the dinning table, along with a plate of seasoned Pak Choy and a pot of steaming ABC soup.

“Took you long enough,” Chen Loong says, “Thought I was going to starve to death.”

“Ha ha. Hilarious,” Chen Ling retorts as she digs a wooden paddle into the cooker for a healthy serving of white rice.

“Pa, ma, eat,” she says.

Chen Loong and Chen Ling, born 3 minutes apart have always been tight.

Since young, they would play under the rain and roll in the mud, climb the occasional tree, and crawl under Papa’s Range Rover together.

They have so much in common- same jet-black hair, same double eyelids, same taste in movies, not to mention the same love for Asam Laksa

But one love tops it all- their love for aviation, and their shared ambition to become pilots.

Since they were old enough to leave the house un-chaperoned, they would sneak to the local airport to watch aircraft takeoff and land from their secret spot through a broken fence.

As the area’s auxiliary airfield, the lone 3000 meters runway doesn’t see a lot of mainstream airline action, but they’ve spotted an entire directory of miscellaneous aircraft- MD-11 cargo planes, lots of Cessna 172s and Piper Warriors, the occasional Global Express private jet, and at one point, a F/A-18 fighter jet.

During their secondary school years, they would spend hours spotting aircraft, matching them to an Aircraft Recognition Guide they snagged from the bookstore with their hard saved pocket money.

Chen Ling excelled in school. No surprise that she outdid her brother’s SPM results, but that didn’t matter, because they were both going to soar the skies as pilots.

Except they weren’t prepared for what came next. Papaand Mamahad no qualms enrolling Chen Loong in flying school, but not Chen Ling. It’s not like they can’t afford it, what with Papa’s PR firm raking in millions by the fiscal year. Let his brand new BMW 5 Series and Audi RS5 be attestation to this fact.

Seated at the dining table, she decides to try again.

Chen Ling draws a deep breath and starts, “Pa, ma, about flying school…”

Her parents pause. Chen Loong holds his breath mid-bite. Mama rearranges the fish on her plate twice.

“Ah Ling, why not consider something else? You could be a teacher? Or a flight attendant?” Mama says quietly.

“But I don’t want to be flight attendant. I want to fly the plane! What do you have against me flying? You have no grievance about Loong Loong in a cockpit,” Chen Ling replies.

“Loong Loong is a boy, sweetie. Flying is a man’s job. There are jobs more suitable for girls. Besides, a flying course is a lot of money. Money that will be wasted when you quit your job after marriage or kids.” Mama adds quickly. “Just like your cousin, Siew Ting. Her parents spent so much on her medical course in the UK. Then few years after graduation, she resigns to be a homemaker.”

“Siew Ting’s decision to be a homemaker is her own. Why do you assume I will quit my job after having kids? Maybe my hypothetical husband will quit? Maybe I won’t have kids?” Chen Ling asked, her heart heavy.

She continues, “Maybe I won’t even get married??”

“Choiiii!” Mama says while urgently tapping on the wooden table. “Silly girl, don’t say things like that.”

“I mean it, ma. A husband does nothing to define my self- worth.” Chen Ling sighs, getting frustrated.

Papa suddenly speaks up. “We just want to protect you, Ling, is that so hard to understand?” He says.

“Then why don’t you protect Loong too? What’s the difference between us?? In fact, I did way better in SPM.” Chen Ling throws her hands up in exasperation.

“He’s a boy.”

“But, Papa…

“That is the end of this discussion. Now, silence!” Papa barks.

Three days later…

Silence envelops Chen Ling.

She is sitting in a dark room about twice the size of a Perodua Alza. The chair she’s in- at the forward right corner of the room- is actually pretty comfortable. Buttons illuminate next, above and in front of her.

Two square screens sit slightly below her eye-level.

Her eyes are trained on a glowing green cross on right screen. Her right hand grips a thick, black stick attached to the structure of the tiny room.

A stern male voice sounds behind her. “As you know, this is an Airbus 320 simulator. When I say ‘go,’ press the red pushbutton on the side stick you are holding to disconnect the autopilot. The green cross on your right screen consists of the FD bars. They are the lateral and vertical depiction of your desired aircraft attitude. That tiny square you see is the representation of your sides stick position. I will direct the FD bars into various maneuvers. You job is to hand-fly the aircraft so that the FD bars are always centered in the square.”

“Yes, sir.” Chen Ling’s heart pounds hard in her chest.

“Go!” the man cues.

She disengages the autopilot with a click of her thumb, and then another to silence the aural warning follows. Suddenly, the FD bars spring upwards and left. Chen Ling calmly urge the tiny box up to match those dancing green bars.

A few seconds after the bars are centered, they speed across they screen diagonally. Chen Ling smoothly and confidently chase the green sticks. All those years of playing Microsoft Flight Simulator X with Chen Loong are paying off.

After 15 minutes of various drills, the gruff voice says “alright, that’s all for today. I have controls. You can release the side stick.”

Chen Ling obeys. Then, she turns around to face the man.

He’s busy jotting down notes on a piece of A4 paper. After a short while, he looks up to meet her gaze. His expression softens.

“Good job. You know, we get girls every now and then. But the aircraft cockpit is a boy’s club. As a girl, can you make it in a male dominated industry?”

“Yes, sir. I believe that training and professionalism is what makes a good pilot, gender is irrelevant. Besides, it is my opinion that the general public rarely question a girl’s flying skills. Instead, any doubt they have stems purely from their perception of the male leader- the male protector. And public perception should do nothing to undermine an individual’s ability to proficiently carry out a task, sir.”

The middle age man cracks a half smile. “I have a young daughter,” he says. “I hope she grows up to match your tenacity.”

“Thank you, sir,” Chen Ling responds, flattered.

She walks carefully out of the poorly lit simulator, straining to read the man’s remarks on the A4 paper.

But the dim light does her not favours. All that’s visible are the block letters printed like a letterhead: AIR RENDANG AIRLINES CADET PILOT RECRUITMENT PROGRAM.

If Papa and Mama refuse to pay for my flying license, I will find another way. Through this cadet pilot program, I would obtain the necessary funds to earn a flying license. If I realize my dream of flying, all those days of sneaking out of my bedroom window to attend cadet pilot interviews will be worth it.

Determination rises in her chest.

I will become a pilot.

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