Written by Nicole Friets | Images provided by Jean Tan
Having sung at many prestigious events, including the Southeast Asian Games, one would never guess singer-songwriter Jean Tan once suffered from a cleft lip. That physical difficulty, along with several other challenges, didn't stop Jean from pursuing her passion for singing and from embracing life to the fullest. In this interview, we talk to Jean about how she overcame those challenges, her inspirations, and her drive behind why she does what she does.
When did you start singing? When did your passion for singing develop?
I started singing when I was about 4 or 5 - I wouldn’t stop singing on a karaoke system that my dad bought us. I also remember singing ‘Part of Your World’ around the pool while flipping like a mermaid. I think my parents had always loved singing, and gave us a lot of music around the house, so I naturally started singing as well.
When I was 9, I joined the school choir and continued in that through Secondary school and Junior College. We sang competitively and even travelled to Athens and Prague for events.
What were some of the difficulties you faced?
I faced difficulties both internally (self) and externally (from others).
I was born with a severe cleft palate and lip. Despite having gone through 6 operations to correct my lip, palate, jaw, and nose, I was always aware that I looked different - from the way people stared, from the one time a group of boys pointed and laughed at me, to other times when I was called ‘ugly’ and ‘monster’, to questions about why I looked ‘weird’.
I felt very ashamed of how I looked, and this affected my self-esteem and disposition towards other things in life. For the longest time, I struggled with not ever feeling good enough, or worthy enough of people’s love. I often felt like a defect, and that I had to work doubly hard to prove that I was not a mistake in life.
How did you overcome those difficulties?
My mom was a great source of strength.
She painstakingly fed me, spoonful by spoonful, when I couldn’t suckle as a baby. As a toddler, she spent hours each day teaching me to enunciate every consonant and vowel, until I could speak normally. She is a great example to me of pressing on, despite our circumstances.
I still needed to internalise that for myself though, and it was a long journey. The major shifts in my life came about when I realised that while I wasn’t able to dictate the circumstances of my history, birth, or external environment, I had the power to change my steps ahead. I had the power to make choices about my future, education, and career, and take active steps towards achieving my dreams.
When that happened, I stopped being angry, and decided to go wildly at the things I was passionate about. I remembered studying many hours each day as a teen so I would fulfill my dreams of being able to study overseas one day, and I did; singing and writing with great personal joy, never thinking that these songs would (or ever need to) see the light of day, but ended up publishing two records and performing a single for the Southeast Asian Games; taking every chance I was offered to speak to, encourage, and share my story with youth in teenage homes and schools, and now gaining more opportunities to do so for grown adults in corporate and social events as well.
Looking back, I realise now that every story can be redeemed, even if it started out in pieces. I would never have imagined being able to do what I do today, and I’m grateful for how ashes turn to beauty. I’m still learning to let go of fear, step out more, and move into the light. It’s a journey that I’ve come to recognise as mine - and it’s one I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Where do you draw inspiration for your lyrics from?
I’ve had inspiration from conversations with taxi drivers, poetry, movies, travel, and nature. For example, some time ago pictures of dandelions kept popping up on Facebook in the same week from different friends. I decided to google the meaning of the flower, and found out that it meant ‘tooth of a lion’ in the original language (French). It was a timely message of ‘hang on’ in a difficult time, so I wrote a song based on that. It’ll be released in 2017, as part of my third record, so stay tuned!
What keeps you singing and writing?
Singing has always been a part of me. I remember having hilariously dramatic re-enactments of Disney songs with my younger brother when we were growing up (he still blames me for his quirky personality, even though we’re both grown adults today). I still have ambitions to pass that onto my children in future.
Writing helps me pause and crystallise what I’ve learnt and seen in life, and songs happen to be a great way to capture that. Hopefully, some of these words and songs make sense to others and encourage them in their own journeys.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be yourself. Find what you stand for, what you're worth deep down inside, and never let that go no matter what people say.