"I realise now he didn’t have to say the words – his silence gave me strength"
By Elaine Kwong | June 18, 2015
Is it just me, or is writing about dads infinitely harder than writing about mums? Perhaps it’s the Asian culture we live in, and the fact that men from our dad’s generation were expected to be the strong, silent types whose role was mainly to provide for the family.
My two elder brothers and I grew up in a typical Malaysian Chinese home, with strict old-fashioned rules and “no nonsense” (Dad’s famous words). And in case we forgot about that, Dad was kind enough to hang a rotan at the entrance to the store room, to remind us of the consequences of any misbehaviour.
Now, at 72, Dad has certainly mellowed. Proof of that is in the way he treats his grandkids. In his eyes, my precocious five-year-old nephew can do no wrong (even when he does all kinds of wrong!). My dad’s reasoning: “He’s just a child – he doesn’t understand”. And when my brother points out, “Err… dad, you do remember you used to rotan me when I was his age, right?”… Dad just waves him off and says “That was different.”
As is typical in Asian families, the really important communication between Dad and the kids was done via Mum. If he was angry with us, Mum would tell us so. And when we were upset with Dad, we ran to Mum to complain about it.
But even though Dad and I have never really had “heart-to-heart” talks, in his own way, he’s taught me important lessons that have helped me survive the ups and downs of life – and I don’t think he realises it.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my old man over the years.
1. Family is everything.
Dad was the epitome of the strict Chinese father from Penang. He had moved to KL, landed a job as a technical assistant, met my mum, got married and started a family. He worked very hard for a living, and when he was posted back to Penang to work for two years, I remember he would travel back and forth every weekend, to visit Mum and us kids.
In the old days (before the North-South Expressway), the KL-Penang route was a gruelling eight- to nine-hour drive on the meandering trunk roads, and Dad’s car at the time – a 1.3L Ford Escort – had an air-con with a mind of its own that would shut off at the most inopportune moment. And if the car broke down – which happened a couple of times – well, he’d walk to the nearest bus stop, catch a bus to the nearest town, find a mechanic, get the car repaired, and continue his journey home.
There was no mobile phone, Whatsapp, Skype, or other methods to keep in touch like today. So him making that tiring trip back every weekend without fail – shows how much he wanted to be there for us, and Mum.
2. Protect your loved ones fiercely.
It was always “You can’t do that, you’ll fall!” or “Don’t eat this, you’ll get a cough!”. And the list of don’ts would go on. He was, admittedly, a very over-protective dad. Growing up as a teenager, I found this a bit much. When I was in Form Five, news broke that Bon Jovi was coming to KL for the first time, and practically EVERYONE from my class was going for their concert. But my mum (which means, my dad) said no. The reason? “There could be a stampede, and you could get hurt.”
I didn’t speak to them for a week!
In hindsight, I guess a parent never stops worrying. And to them, a 17-year-old at a rock concert, unchaperoned, sounds like a really bad idea. Well, no harm, no foul. I only needed to wait all of 20 years for Bon Jovi to return for their second concert in KL (happening on Sep 19 this year!).
3. Hard work pays off.
My dad worked a nine-to-five job all his life until the day he retired. He managed to get a few promotions that moved him up in job grades, but what he earned was nothing compared to today (even taking into account inflation). And yet, it’s amazing how he and Mum managed to put a roof over our heads, made sure we always had food on our table (more on that later), and saw to it that all three of his kids got our degrees.
4. Save for a rainy day.
Because those were tough times, money was tight and dad saved – a lot. When I started my first job, he advised me to start saving immediately. I can’t say that I followed his advice to the letter (a girl’s gotta have new shoes!), but I did make sure I took out an insurance policy the moment I earned my first salary, and put aside little by little every month. The rainy day he always talked about did come – and when I had health troubles last year, I was grateful for his advice.
5. Girls should be respected.
I am the youngest of three kids, and the only girl. Even to this day, my brothers roll their eyes when they recall how I was such a Daddy’s girl and never got into trouble (even if I was the one who initiated the argument). You see, my brothers and I would get into pretty aggressive scuffles – as siblings do – and I could kick like the best of them. Once, when Dad saw one of my brothers about to return the favour, he stopped him and said, “Don’t hit your sister.” When my brother (rightfully) argued that I was the one who started it, Dad said, “I know she started it, but no matter what – you must never hit a girl.”
6. Food equals love.
He does not say much, my dad, but he says a lot with food. He’s always thinking about whether his grandson has eaten on time, or whether his kids (all fully grown adults) have had proper dinners when we’re back from work. He always buys extra food (“in case one of us gets hungry later”) and he stocks the fridge with enough fruits to feed a family of 10.
I remember a recent occasion when I was very ill. One evening, with strong winds and dark clouds looming overhead, we noticed Dad had gone out. By the time he came back, it was pouring and he was half-drenched. But he had a packet of coconut water in his hand and looked triumphant. “Girl, I managed to get this from your favourite stall at the pasar malam. Drink it when it’s still fresh,” he said, handing the packet of coconut water to me. “It will cool down the ‘heatiness’ and make you feel better.”
7. Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything to show strength.
One Saturday evening, on May 10 last year, I was on my way home to my parents’ house, with my husband driving the car. I had just found out from my doctor that I’d been diagnosed with Stage 3c ovarian cancer, and that I would need to undergo immediate surgery to remove all the infected organs, followed by chemotherapy.
How do you tell your parents something like this? This horrible news that the surgery would leave me unable to ever give them grandkids, that I don’t know how long I have, that they wouldn’t be able to protect their little girl anymore?
In the car, I mentally psyched myself to be strong and to just tell them the facts. But the moment I saw their faces, I broke down. My mother and I hugged and cried as the words spilled out. But my dad – he quietly sat in his chair, looking crestfallen but not saying a word. He just watched over us, the way he has done so many times before.
He remained strong and silent. And looking back, we needed him to be. I realise now he didn’t have to say the words – his silence gave me strength.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
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