Finding Freedom from Fatherhood

So liberating, when your family takes a vacation without you.

Every once or twice a year, the in-laws plan overseas trips for the family, parents, siblings, children et al. Sometimes I join in, sometimes my work schedule doesn’t allow it. But the wife and I agree that the kids should see the world every chance we can afford, every opportunity they can get.

I get a lot done when the wife and kids aren’t around. I managed to watch Bohemian Rhapsody in a theatre, finish binging on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., do some laundry, pack the house some, start writing again.

You can do a lot of things you want when your family takes a vacation without you.

When the wife and kids aren’t here, I think to myself, I can go anywhere I want, eat anything I want, meet anyone I want, go home any time I want… right after I get off work. Kind of like being single again.

Then right after I get off work, I step outside, and think about where I should go, what I should do.

These last few nights, I ended up just grabbing dinner on the way home, bingeing on Daredevil Season 3, doing some laundry, packing the house some, and writing again.

I used to like the solitude when my family traveled without me in the past, but this time round I find myself more lost than excited at the prospect of knocking off from work, checking my phone for messages from my wife about how the kids are doing, where they’ve gone for the day and how much fun they’re having. No one screaming “Daddy, Daddy!” at me when I open the door, no one to tell me what daytime shenanigans had occurred in the household, and no one to tuck into bed before I go to sleep first (this is something I always tell people when they ask me how I get my children to sleep through the night—I just go to sleep first).

And then I get a video call near midnight from the wife, and she pans the phone camera to my little daughter, who takes one look at me over the call and starts crying. “I miss you, Daddy” is all that she can muster, and then she can’t stop sobbing, can’t stop looking at the screen, and can’t stop trying to reach out to me. I’m told later that she managed to sleep after the call, but after a fair bit of pining.

My wife says it’s always good to be loved by your child like this.

I think it’s hard when your family takes a vacation without you.

And I cannot wait to have them all back home again, to have dinner together after I get off from work, take walks around the mall or push the little one around the supermarket shopping trolley, go through our nightly routines before bed, including telling them 14 times to go to bed, sit and talk to the wife while she’s half-bingeing on some documentary on dogs on Netflix with the washing machine running in the kitchen, watch the house get messier and messier because who has time to pack the house when you’re with the kids all the time, and keep writing about stuff like this.

So good to be with your family, after they come back from vacation and be with you.

The Silence of the Dads

We’re actually quite a quiet bunch, fathers.

You’d think we have lots to say, like how the mums’ WhatsApp chat groups will drop 453 messages just during lunchtime alone. We experience as many parenting issues as mums do, albeit often from quite different perspectives. And that’s what I thought when we started Daddy Matters back in 2013. “Let’s start a group,” I said. “We can all share experiences with each other,” I said. “There’ll be so many dads that want to join,” I said.

5 years and a little over 600 members later, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the fathers I’ve gotten to know through our group, the single most jarring problem that men face about fatherhood, is that we can’t talk about it.

You see, we think we can handle being dads. We think we can learn to solve these issues as husbands and fathers, and no, we don’t think we need help because it’s really our problem to solve, not anyone else’s, and besides, we signed up for this of our own accord and we have the marriage certificates and the intentionally unused condoms to prove it. We think our situation is so unique to ourselves, that we don’t think anyone else will be able to understand what we’re going through enough to help.

We think like men.

I think we’re idiots.

After the first couple of years of running Daddy Matters, I thought I might as well utilise the group the way I hoped people would use it, so I started talking in the group about my own problems as a father and a husband.

(Yes, it took me a couple of years after setting up a group to help men be dads to realise I needed help being a dad. So you can see I am uniquely qualified to call us idiots.)

I talked about how during our first child’s first year, everyone wanted to teach us how to parent. and how that was affecting our relationship with others, regardless of the good intentions.

I talked about how sometimes my fights with my wife would put me at a loss as to how to move forward.

I talked about how our kids (and us) were having such a hard time in the Singapore education system, about how the minister of education at the time was a knob, then about how we need to be more careful when talking about ministers online.

I talked about how as a parenting blogger, people have this impression that your kids are so well put together, that your wife is so loving and you’re doing such a great job as a dad, when the reality is you very often don’t have your shit together, you make just as many stupid mistakes teaching your kids the wrong things when you think it’s right, and you’ve actually lost count of how many times you almost made your wife leave you.

I talked about losing my job, at a time when I had a wife, two kids, bills, debts and a HDB flat to feed.

The first time I shared, I actually had friends message me privately, some asking if I needed help, some asking if I had gone mental. Then the dads started responding on the group thread, not only in reply to me, but also conscious that others were reading and replying to their responses as well. Not just the other founders of the group, or the friends I invited to join the group. I saw men come up saying they understand, or they’re going through the same thing, or they’ve been through the same thing, and how they got through it. For every issue I shared, I’d get more than a hearty helping of different experiences shared, and more men being helped for the same issue.

I’ve since come to learn so much from the group, both online and offline, for myself and for the other dads in the group. As unique as our families and our situations are, our experiences and perspectives really help others formulate their own solutions. And we survive to be with our families another day.

I honestly don’t know what kind of man I’d be today if not for these dads.

Coffee, Tea or MOE (or Oops, I Overdid It Again)

(LONG POST AHEAD)

So I was asked to a teatime dialogue session by the Ministry of Education’s newly formed Engagement and Research Division. I thought it was because I called their minister a knob, and it didn’t help that when I was the first to arrive at the cafe we were supposed to meet, I was led to a table for four. And when the other invited guest (yes, just the one other), I wondered is she called the minister a knob as well.

As it turned out, the Divisional Director preferred to keep things “cozy”. Shortly after she and another colleague sat down and we made introductions, they opened the discussion for their guests to talk,  without setting an agenda. So, me being me, I just let it rip… for 1½ hours.

(Of course I wasn’t the only one talking the whole time, but I don’t quite have their permission to put their bits in, so I’m going to just put mine ad verbatim… more or less.)

“Okay, so. I see three issues with the MOE.

You have this huge archaic machine of an education system running on a 50-year-old ideology that draws further and further away from today’s reality as every year passes. But you can’t make radical shifts and do something like eliminate the PSLE altogether because then you’d void your secondary and tertiary level streaming processes it would cause the rest of your academic levels to come crashing down. Our government is way more measured with how it institutes change, and I can appreciate that. It doesn’t help that you have an education minister who’s been undermining your efforts with how he’s been presenting himself in the public eye. You probably can’t do anything about him either.

“But your biggest problem is parents.

“One question has been bugging me ever since my son got inducted into academic life (mind you, his experience with primary school stress took effect as early as preschool level). My own primary school education 30 years ago was never this hard and stressful, and now I’m flipping through my son’s Primary 2 Maths textbook and finding he has calculus in his syllabus. I opted out of A-Maths at A-Levels just to avoid doing calculus! How did the bar get raised beyond the appropriateness of our children’s age and learning capabilities?

“Your problem is the parents who have confused wanting the best for their child with wanting their child to be the best. Back in the 80s I was sent to tuition classes because I was falling behind. Then parents started treating tuition into a level-up solution, where kids go to keep a step ahead of their school syllabus, and our schools find themselves having to adjust to the raised bar to keep up with the kids. Then comparing PSLE T-scores became a trend, and the pride of the top-scoring parents draws the envy of the nearly top-scoring, and the insecurities of the not top-scoring end up getting everyone joining the T-score race, and that’s how our tuition industry exploded.

“We turned into a world-class education system because of neurotic parents. And because they’ve been speaking the loudest whether through words or actions, you’ve had to adjust your own policies and syllabus over time to keep up with their demands.

“May I say the idea to switch from T-score to banding isn’t working, because it’s still a points-based system that parents can make their kids chase after; in other words, your neurotic parents are still at it, and all you did was simplify the race for them.

“I want to suggest you try a more skills-based or values-based banding system, like banding based on creativity, logic and reasoning, hands-on work, leadership, followership, empathy and compassion, determination and hard work, and so on. Something that will tell parents that no matter what level, their child is worth something to society, to their family and friends, to themselves.

“No, it’s not the Direct Schools Admission exercise (DSA). You’ve set the DSA to apply only to a minority of the primary school cohort, and even then the idea, however well-intentioned, is being gamed by the neurotic parents. I have a neighbour that’s been putting her Primary 1 kids through table tennis lessons in a bid to qualify for DSA. We hear from her maid that they’re horrible at table tennis.

“Look, If you can iron out the kinks in your DSA programme, then what I’m suggesting is expand it and apply it as a standard streaming scheme across the board. Keep the PSLE if you really need to supplement the process  with an ‘objective, tangible’ evaluation system. Offering a much broader scope of choices gets parents who still want to game the system to reduce their emphasis on grades and start looking at their child’s development a lot more holistically.

“But more importantly, I think it’s high time MOE starts engaging with these neurotic parents. Up until now, the public doesn’t hear from you guys enough. For me to know you were actually actively trying to solve these issues we’ve been raising and diligently plugging holes in your archaic machine took me a lot of discussion, debate and digging with other people, sometimes from other industries, but up until this tea session, not from you guys. In fact, when I first saw the name ‘Communications and Engagement Group’ in your email signature, I thought to myself, ‘Where have you guys been this whole time?’

“I think last year’s news about the teen suicides actually helped you guys in that it made these parents do a lot of soul-searching. But you do need to follow through on pushing this message across. As an education ministry, you need to tell people that our children’s education is by no means the sole responsibility if the academic institution, and that the things our children need to learn that schools cannot teach, have to be taught by us parents at home.

“If you want to really hear what the ground is saying, you might want to tag along when your colleagues at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) do their engagements, because a substantial portion of the issues raised are about education, but even their Ministers there tell us they can’t speak for MOE, so much of those questions get very limited responses, if at all. I know we all could really use your presence at their dialogue sessions. Just please don’t send your own Minister to these engagements, at least not until he learns some empathy.

“And I don’t know if you realise it, but you already have a ready platform for engaging parents: parent support groups. Nearly every primary school has its own PSG, each housing a pool of up to a few hundred parent volunteers. No, you don’t go through the PSGs to get to the neurotic parents. The PSGs are the neurotic parents. Why do you think they join the PSG in the first place? They get to keep tabs on their kids in school, get an intimate look into what their kids’schools are doing, and form a larger network of like-minded neurotic parents to supplement their class WhatsApp group chats so they can all collectively freak out over last week’s homework due tomorrow together.

“Think about it. Nearly 200 primary schools with PSGs that hold annual thank-you dinners for their volunteers in assembly halls attended by 100-200 parents, and your top-tier influencers for the rest of their parental cohort. A captive audience of the exact psychological profile you’re looking to engage.

“You don’t really need to worry about the rest of us. Less neurotic parents know well enough to care for their kids and not depend on the education system to serve out what its not equipped to, so you won’t hear very much from us other than what the neurotic ones are making us freak out over. If you can use that same sphere of influence PSG parents have will naturally trickle down to the rest of us, and through engaging them, you can shift the mindset into one that allows you to adjust your policies more peaceably.

“MOE really needs to communicate; instead of unwittingly stopping discussions short with a blanket statement like ‘We know what’s happening and we’re dealing with it’, tell us exactly what you’re doing and what problems you’re facing. Some of us might actually understand you, and a few might even have workable suggestions you could use. And at any rate, we’d much prefer to hear from the heart of your organisation—you—than its head.

“After all this, I guess the only bugbear I have left is your boss. I originally came in to this session with the mind to say he’s just wrong for the role, but I think it would be much more constructive to ask that he improve his own understanding of how parents and children across the spectrum approach education, and not just assume everyone can ‘chiong’ their way through life, or that cleaners aren’t okay. From interacting with some of his Cabinet peers, I know better than to hold him as an example of who are running our country. But the public is not as discerning.

“I’m really glad you’ve taken the time to listen to me, and I’m really, really glad for  your Division’s existence. Let me know if you need any more from me, I’d be happy to get a cup of tea with you again. I’ll leave you guys to your work now; you have a lot of catching up to do.”

That’s Not How You Make a Better World, Kid

Seen this one before? The comic strip about two mothers telling their respective children the value of a good education through two different types of messaging went viral on 9GAG back in February last year—exactly one year ago, in fact. And I’m going to say straight out, I really didn’t agree with this back then. I said as much when I first saw it on a friend’s Facebook feed.

Now, this friend recently reposted the comic strip, intending to use it as an example of “reframing” the way parents can communicate an idea to turn a negative message into a positive message. Please allow me to add a further frame to the story:

And who taught you to talk about people from across the road?
And who taught you to use people you don’t even know as an example for your children?

Then last Friday, one of our Ministers for Education decided to share the comic strip again because “it struck a chord with him”.

And of course, The Blogfather had to take issue with it again.

And of course I screencapped this right after posting because this kind of thing has a tendency of disappearing.
And of course I screencapped this right after posting because this kind of thing has a tendency of disappearing.

Actually, if there’s just one thing that would have made the original strip work, it would be to inject some proper empathy into the situation. It’s obvious Mrs Pointy-Fingers doesn’t have any, but you’d also be mistaken if you think the other mum was exercising any, because if she was, she’d much more likely be going up to the street cleaner himself to ask if there was anything she could do for him.

Many of us are fortunate to be in a position of privilege—mothers, mentors, and ministers included. And many times we speak from that position without first considering of the plights of those not in our position. Fortunately, I’ve met a couple of people in authority that are so conscious of this that they tend to make their decisions very carefully, sometimes at the cost of being criticised by the ground for being too slow to react to the times.

Minister Ng, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. I’m not going to contradict myself by judging him based on his (not-very-long) history. But for urging students to “chiong” in a sweeping motherhood statement just as this year began, without stopping to understand the many different problems these kids face that are keeping them from doing so, and now this insufficiently considered Facebook post drudged up from an already debated, quite divisive comic strip, I don’t know that I can trust this man with our nation’s education.

Proper empathy ensures we help people the way they need to be helped—by listening to them first. And much as we would like to think we are blessed with a world-class education system, that personal, one-on-one level of empathy—which is what I feel to be essential to “making a better world” for him, her, they, us—isn’t something we can adequately learn from “studying well” in school; we learn it from our parents first and foremost, from society in general, from our own experiences of moral good at every point of our lives.

Last year’s spate of teen suicide stories have already spurred a group of well-meaning parents to convince us not to depend on “studying well” for the sake of our children’s sanity (and even then I don’t particularly agree with how they’re doing it). “Reframing” that discourse this way, as motivational or magnanimous it sounds, isn’t going to help de-pressurise the system for our kids.

We’ve been conditioned to encourage good intentions. These days, I don’t know if we’re defaulting to that encouragement even when the morality of those good intentions are brought to question. Regardless, may I please request we think before we teach.

Ten Years of Us: A Love Letter

Dear Mother of Xander,

10 years ago today, two individuals signed a contract that would bind two sole proprietorships into a partnership that both parties vowed would last the lifetime of either party, whichever sooner (although that last clause was verbally agreed upon).

You would always say that this was a “no refund, no return, no exchange” transaction. That remains the strongest verbal commitment to our union that you have ever given me, and I have never taken your words for granted.

Things moved rather quickly thereafter. We managed to procure a nice place to set ourselves up in (we got a HDB flat), hosted a few networking sessions to establish ourselves in the market (house parties), and a year later, we even organised a company Dinner & Dance (traditional wedding dinner). One of our angel investors (my mum) said it was quite fashionable to be some months into one’s pregnancy whilst hosting one’s wedding dinner. To date, I remain unsure if she was stating an observation or trying to reassure herself.

Five months after the dinner, I managed to pass my driving test… just in time to fulfill a promise I made to be the one to drive you to the hospital when you went into labour. You looked nervous in the car; I didn’t blame you. It was our first baby, and my second time behind the wheel after I got my licence.

Our firstborn’s first year threatened to be our marriage’s last, as we struggled to juggle parenthood—ours and our parents’—our work, and ourselves. We fought a lot, sometimes quietly because Xan was sleeping, sometimes failing to be quiet because we’re just not that kind of a couple.

Then came a point when we realised the books we read, the shows we watched, the advice we were given, the things we bought from Mothercare, won’t be nearly as adequate in teaching us to parent as what we would learn from just doing it to our kid, for our kid, with our kid. Things started getting better. We started getting better.

2¾ years ago, we kind of sealed our fate as a couple of parents that will hardly ever have any time alone to ourselves for at least the next 16-21 years. My biggest relief with our second child is that she came with a rather useful foundational instruction manual: our experience with our first child has provided us with the wisdom and patience to not scream at each other… as often.

Today, our boy is going through the rigours of the Singapore education system, and we’re learning to adapt with him. Meanwhile, our daughter is going through her terrible twos, and we’re learning to take photos of her quickly and deftly enough that the pictures don’t look too blurry. We may never be alone from these two whippersnappers in the foreseeable future, but we’re together, and that’s everything to me.

I’ve never thought of myself as a good dad. Everything I do as a father—right down to writing about parenting here in this blog—I feel is simply my responsibility as a father to do. But since you and I got together all those years ago (13 years ago, as it were), I’ve always wanted to be a good husband for you, to be a good person for you, because whether we were going to have kids or not, I’ve always just wanted to be with you, and I wanted you to want to be with me.

I still do.

Love, Winston

Please Stop Teaching Us How to Raise Successful Children

This is an appeal to any person, group or organisation that plans parenting talks, seminars, workshops, forums and conferences.

Since I’ve started blogging as a parent, I’ve received invitations to attend (and a couple of times, sit in the panel of) quite a few of these parenting events. It wasn’t until recently that the messages some of these events organisers are using to market their events started to concern me.

Back in 2012, I attended a half-day seminar called “Raising a Successful Child”. The content served isn’t nearly as overbearing as their promotional copy makes them out to be. In fact, one talk I attended actually used case studies of so-called “successful children”—medal-winning athletes and academic geniuses suffering from anxiety and depression—as a warning to parents not to push their children too hard.

I was glad when I came out of that talk, because I was expecting a lecture on how to over-parent. That same talk I attended, I saw parents walking out in disappointment that the seminar didn’t actually provide a concrete method for raising a successful child—well, not one that they thought would work, anyway.

I’m a  copywriter, too, so I understand the core function of such promotional copy is to generate sales. But seeing copy like this makes me wonder if such organisers are misrepresenting the content that their speakers are aiming to serve, or are they really trying to sell us something we really could do with a lot less of right now.

Case in point:

parenting-seminars-featured

I write this in the hope that people who write these things can exercise some responsibility and think through their messaging not just for your paying customers, but for the benefit of our society-at-large that incidentally take in your messages without the intention or means to obtain tickets to your show.

As important as we think ensuring our children are able to strive for themselves is, we already live in a climate of fear, thinking that our children have to excel in our pressure-cooker academic environment in order to survive in life. I want to ask these parenting/education coaches and family-targeted MICE organisers, particularly the ones who tout such phrases as “raising a successful child”, “bring up a champion”, “your child can be better than everyone else”, to please not perpetuate that fear in us any more, because we really don’t know any better.

What we really need you to tell us are these:

parenting-seminars-2

Don’t teach us how to change our kids, teach us how to change ourselves. Don’t try and tell us what our kids need to excel. Tell us how to be present for our children, how to love them properly, how to raise our expectations of ourselves as parents instead managing our expectations of our children.

Don’t teach us how to parent; teach us how to be parents.

Life After Suicide: How to Live with a Permanently Broken Heart

He wore a sadness in his eyes throughout the forum, despite his candid smile, his laid back posture, and the punches of light humour when he exchanged banter with co-panelist Irene Ang (who was present as a survivor of three attempted suicides, something she has not shied away from talking about as a celebrity). I knew beforehand that the forum panel would also consist of the parent of a suicide victim, and while I knew that would make for one of the most interesting episodes of Talking Point I ever watched or participated in, I was not quite sure what to expect.

And when Steve Chia mentioned that the founder of youth outreach foundation Over the Rainbow had lost his only son to suicide seven years ago, Chow Yen-Lu corrected him, “Seven years and 3 days, actually. We’ve been observing his passing the last few days.” One could feel the weight of that knowledge bear down on the audience the rest of the night. While the ever-entertaining Irene Ang kept us light-hearted, and IMH’s Principal Clinical Psychologist Dr Ong Lue Ping’s offering of facts and figures would be greeted with nods and murmurs, each time Mr Chow spoke, the room would fall still and silent to listen intently to his slow, measured responses.

As the moderator opened the discussion to the floor, I raised my hand. Referring to the news report last Friday that mentioned what the mother of the P5 boy who committed suicide cried as she found him, I asked Mr Chow, “That statement resonated quite deeply among parents, but beyond the context of what was said, speaking from your own experience, how did you pick yourselves up from there?”

“We get asked that question a lot,” he said, leaning back and looking thoughtful. “It was difficult. But one of the first things that we did was not to blame ourselves or blame each other, number one. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today, we would have gone down the other path.”

His calm demeanor belied a quiet pain as he replied me, and I started tearing as I listened.

He continued, “Number two, to accept what’s happened. Third, to find meaning in what’s happened, and to do something about it. So through this experience, we found first of all it’s a wake-up call for us. So we took this up as a cause. Our motto is we want to transform youth mental wellness for the 21st century. Actually, when we do this, we are also helping ourselves; We help ourselves to heal.”

From left: Andy Lee (Sengkang Babies), Chow Yen-Lu (Over the Rainbow), me (you know where) anad Meiling Wong-Chainani (Universal Scribbles) | Photo credit: Andy Lee

Since the above-mentioned news report came out last Friday, and word even spread around the world; there was even news commentary on the BBC World Service saying how common such suicides are in developed Asian countries such s Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore. And of course, there followed a flurry of discussion online: who is really to blame? What are the authorities doing about it? How can parents prevent this? There are even posters crafted by the Ministry of Education with multi-step-step processes outlining how to encourage our children and be present for them were spread around on Facebook, in the hopes that they be used as a guide on how to prevent suicide, even though they weren’t explicitly created for that purpose.

Over and beyond these, there are also the people who survive their loved ones’ deaths. We tend to treat this category of what I consider suicide survivors as well as mere side plots, used to help the story along from a human interest angle, and, as mentioned, sometimes as a potential target to blame. But these are the people with the experiences we really need to hear of, with the lessons that we really need to learn from.

It must have been difficult for Mr Chow and his wife the last seven years, and it will continue to be difficult. But they managed to break through the barriers of their own grief and despair, to reach out and help others as a means for themselves to heal, and to give us that much-needed insight from their own experience.

As the discussion was thrown to the floor for questions, the audience seemed to betray the mindset of our pressure-cooker society: that failure is not an option. But as progressive a nation as we have become in the last 50 years, our failure to accept failure also happens to be our biggest failure. And no, I’m not just talking about parents.

When I read what the mother said next to her son, my heart broke for her, I saw a woman trying to and failing to grapple with the last memory she has of being with her son, because whatever little reason she had left in the moment told her that was why her son took his life; she was crying out the words in overwhelming, debilitating regret. And she is now facing the rest of her life in self-persecution, having to try and hold together a permanently broken heart.

Yet here we are lambasting her for saying what she said, using her words to condemn an imperfect education system that we, too, had a hand in creating, and using her dead son as an example of “a tofu generation”. And we call ourselves a civilised society. I believe we were once better than this, and that we should have been better than this. But this week, we failed.

Now, how do we accept this failure, learn from it and move on with it instead of away from it? Therein lies the lesson that these suicide survivors teach us, and if we learn it well, it’s a lesson that we don’t just teach to our children in multi-step processes, we show them how we do it.

The Significance of Not Dreaming

We have a WhatsApp chat group in the family that we share stories and photos of my late father in, to help us cope with our grieving in the last 5 months since my dad has passed. Quite often, my sisters would write about how they dreamed of my father while they were sleeping, and relate to the rest of us the scene, the other people in the dream, what was said, and try and determine through his demeanour and appearance whether he was doing okay or if he needed anything.

After quite a number of these dream-sharing sessions in the group chat, someone suddenly asked a few days ago (I assume without considering that it might hit a nerve):

Y winston is rarely in anyone’s dream ah? *ponder*

It bears noting that of the entire family, I have thus far showed the least emotion for my father’s passing. There is no question I loved my father, but I would like to believe that my father and I have enough of a mutual understanding (especially in the last year or so of his life) such that we could part with little regret. Besides, I figure my mother and sisters have their hands full enough with their own personal grieving, so I’m not inclined to add to their burden unnecessarily.

Perhaps this explains why I do not feature in my family’s thoughts all that much, much less dreams. As I trust that my father loved me, I am also confident my mother and sisters have me in their hearts as well, not to mention they’re also confident I can take care of myself. Besides, the quality of their dream-time with my father is thus much better without me in there providing the usual snarky distraction I do when we have family gatherings.

goodfather

On the flipside, my father has all but appeared in my dreams just once since he passed. Although this bothered me for a while, I figured out why pretty quickly.

The past few months, the Mother of Xander has noticed I’ve taken to driving like the old man, right down to the car accessories I use, inspired by my dad’s own habits; we’ve got headrest attachments for bags and shopping, and I have free-rotating knob on my steering wheel so I can steer like a bus driver.

My entire family has been laughing at and actively using the same corny sense of humour my father had every time we talk, with each other and with others. It’s kept our spirits up during this trying time, and reminded us that this was what our father would do with us when he was around, too; make us laugh.

During my father’s funeral wake, my father’s friends and former colleagues have all remarked how much I look and talk like the old man; in fact, they noted various nuances of our resemblances to him, and various character traits and habits like distinct facial features (apparently he gave us different parts of his face), loud, aggressive demeanour, no-nonsense attitude, strong sense of justice and empathy for others.

I believe this to be the reason why he doesn’t come visit me in my dreams. He probably doesn’t feel the need to, considering I still see him every day, as I’ve seen him every day ever since I’ve learned to make sense of the world.

dad-yvieI see him in the homes we’ve each made for ourselves, in my sisters whom he’s inspired, when I’m driving my car, in myself when I look in the mirror. I see him in my own children, when Xander remembers him and talks to his portrait hanging in our living room, and when I stroke Yvie’s head while she looks at me curiously; her hair is as soft as I remember my dad’s was, in his final days when I reached out to comfort him in his hospital bed.

***

Despite appearances, I have been grieving; it shows most obviously in the infrequency and dearth of good mood in the posts here on The Blogfather since my father’s passing. I’ve had a couple of private moments at home where I’d break down for seemingly no reason, and I’m glad I have the Mother of Xander with me during those occasions.

I first decided to write this thinking it would help answer the question about the dreams with my dad and my apparent lack of participation in them (like I can bloody control these things, pffft). But as I finish this second last sentence, I realise I needed to write this for myself and my siblings more than anyone else. Knowing what I know now, I guess now is as a good time as any for me – for us – to move on.

And this is what I know: my father is still with us; he is survived by us, his children, and his grandchildren. He is us, and we are him, and he lives for as long as we do, and as long as we will remember him. And believe me, the old man made sure it would be damn hard to forget him.

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So we keep laughing. We keep loving. We keep going, for him and for each other, so he’ll keep living in us, with us.

Showing Some Respect

For as long as I can remember, my immediate family (me, my sisters and my parents) would begin Chinese New Year with a tradition of the children making my parents laugh their asses off before we commerce to a big steamboat reunion dinner. The skits we created were often renditions of classic Chinese folklore or loosely incorporating Chinese customs and performances like Journey to the West or lion and dragon dances, and they were always over-the-counter and have never failed to make both my parents laugh so hard they would tear. As the family grew bigger, the skits got bigger, and the annual tradition become one that was handed down from one generation (me and my sisters) to another (Xan and his cousins), not to mention a rather embarrassing initiation rite for new spouses.

Then my father died.

In the back of our minds we were all wondering if we would be able to continue that tradition. My father was the one that gave all of us our sense of humour, and for all the quarrels that my parents had throughout their time together, my father was the light of my mother’s life – we hardly see her laughing hard without my father by her side.

This year, the siblings decided to make my mother’s happiness a priority and decided to do things a little differently. A branch of my extended family, a large but very close-knit unit from my mother’s foster side of about 25 or so members spanning four generations, invited us to have our reunion dinner with them at a chalet (their tradition, because the after-dinner cleanup is easier when it’s not someone’s home). We thought it was a good idea to do things a little differently so my mother (and us, for that matter) could cope with our father’s absence, so we immediately agreed.

This year, we met up at my mother’s place early to carry out our annual skit (we made a newly-inducted brother-in-law wear my sister’s custom wedding dress – sound familiar?), and made our way to the chalet. When we arrived, we knew we would be in for a good time when we saw this:

Everything on the table was done from scratch by one of my cousins, a seasoned kitchen goddess who has been cooking for the army known as my mother’s foster family for decades. We were each given a pair of really large chopsticks befitting of the largest homemade yu sheng I’ve ever had the privilege of tossing. We were then loosely told the only rule to observe during the event.

“Chopsticks only, k?”

Huat ah!!!! The most awesome lo hei ever!

A video posted by Mother Of Xander (@motherofxander) on Feb 18, 2015 at 12:04am PST

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We replayed this over and over again to see the various reactions to the monumental toss, but one particular member made the whole endeavour worth the mess for me. If you look to the right of the video, that’s my mom. She’s in black because, as she said, it wasn’t appropriate for a widow in moruning to wear bright colours. But up until yesterday afternoon, she hasn’t laughed like that since my father died 3 months ago – the completely carefree, wholehearted mirth she would only display when my father was with her.

Seeing her like this, we can safely say we’re doing okay.

***

I may not have written this account since the festivities are far from over and I would have preferred to have experienced the celebrations in full first. But I wrote this in reaction to a comment the Mother of Xander received when she shared this video on her Facebook wall:

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“Totally no respect for food. Idatakimasu.”

I will be nice. It is CNY after all.

I wrote this to provide Ms Tan Moi here some context she may have missed, that there’s multiple aspects of respect that she may not have been aware of when she posted her comment during a festive season where food may play a key role in the festivities, but it isn’t the only key player.

She may have missed, for example, respect for families and their traditions. Respect for parents, here and gone. Respect for those who are making every effort to find joy again after losing a loved one. Respect for people who reach beyond their own lives to ensure we can find that joy. And respect for people who decide there’s more than enough joy to share with the world, like the Mother of Xander did unabashedly, without expecting unthinking insensitivity like this during a happy holiday.

Happy New Year, Ms Tan Moi. May your online spur of the moment be a lesson for us all to show some respect.IMG_20150219_095626

The Value of Eating Rubbish

My father’s best friend once told me a story about his formative years. He grew up in a neighbourhood with a bunch of kids from two distinct families; one was rich, and the other poor. The rich kids never got to go out and play, and they were extremely picky with their food (silver spoons, golden mouths). The poor ones though, they ran everywhere, played every time, and ate everything… most usually scraps from trash and leftovers from other people’s plates.

That was the first time I heard of the Hokkien term 垃圾吃, 垃圾大, or “rubbish eat, rubbish grow” (the saying that sparked the food blog of the same name) .

He told me the rich boys were frail and thin, and constantly fell sick. The poor kids, though, managed to live through eating their scraps, rotten fruit and vegetables from the market and basically lived like kampung chickens; all muscle, no fat, and seriously strong immune systems.

One of the rich kids died young. His brothers and sisters were never happy, and grew up bickering and estranged from their own families. The poor guys stayed loyal friends, eking out businesses for themselves and never hesitated to pool together for each other during hard times.

While there are important life lessons to learn no matter what walk of life one hails from, my dad’s best friend learnt about roughing it out no matter what the circumstances, loyalty and adaptability from the kids who lived off scrap. And he inspired my dad to do the same. People always ask how my father would manage to bring up 4 kids and put 3 of them through uni (he wanted me to go too, but my brain had other plans). Within our family, we all knew it was because my dad’s best friend pumped in money to supplement my sisters’ educations, which he had from his HDB shophouse furniture business. And because of the story he told me, I knew the friendship they built was learned from the 垃圾吃,垃圾大 kids.

Recently a friend of mine took offense to the phrase being used on her child, and I took the opportunity to tell this story, in part because my father’s best friend, who died years ago, has been on my mind quite a bit since my own father passed away. Many of us may have heard of – or even used – the phrase being used as a rude remark, but thanks to him and my father, the phrase holds a very different meaning for me.

We know what we want our own children to grow up to become. We care in the ways we know best, and only we know best. People will judge and that’s up to them. We really have only our own children to answer to, and as far as I’m concerned, whoever says that to be mean, doesn’t even know what it means. In fact, I’ve shut a few aunties up before when they use this line of talk with us, by explaining what I understand of the term.

So next time someone says this to you about your kid, maybe take it as a compliment. There’s a very high likelihood that your child is going to grow up blessed with good health and a great personality.