Saturday May 26, 2012
Quiet old Dad
By ALEXANDRA WONG
Our columnist thought she knew all there was to know about her father, until his ex-students show there is more to the quiet, simple man she has known all her life than meets the eye.
I’m about to bite into the juiciest-looking prawn I’ve ever seen, when an unexpected question causes me to nearly drop my fork.
“How come you always write about your mum only? You love your mum more, is it?”
I stare at the source of the question, one of my father’s students. My parents and I are attending an eight-course Chinese dinner attended by more than 20 of my dad’s former students and colleagues from Tanjung Tualang.
But of course not, I love them both! My mind silently protests.
Is that what’s going through people’s minds all this while? If a stranger could infer that from my articles... it was obviously a misconception that had to be rectified, pronto.
The trouble is that it’s not easy to spin an exciting story about my father. Mum has enough energy and fire to match someone half her age, not to mention the occasional outlandish idea that has landed me in numerous article-worthy situations (e.g. my interview with the Las Vegas Chippendales dancer and her door-to-door, tomato-selling exploit, just to name a few).
Dad, on the other hand, is... let me try to describe my father.
1. He is an Honest Joe.
That’s why he is so reluctant to “white lie” to my mother under any circumstances, even though it could potentially avert a Krakatoa-grade explosion. If father had an English name, it would be Frank.
2. Dad is quiet.
So quiet that Mum recently admonished him for being “unsociable” during our Thailand trip. His reply? “I prefer to add to the conversation when I have something of value to contribute.”
Diam-diam ubi was invented for strong silent types like Dad.
3. He is a Typical Chinaman.
By that, I mean old-fashioned and technoogy-averse. So much so that it was only two weeks ago, as I was lining up to get a prepaid number for him, that I realised that he has never even owned a proper handphone – while Mum has been merrily surfing the Internet since I got her a desktop years ago, and progressed to trading shares online a while back.
“So mah-fan (troublesome). An extra burden only,” he murmured in resignation when I put my foot down finally.
4. Dad is simple.
By that, I mean he has simple needs. He doesn’t crave material things like riches or fame. That’s why he is happy to drive his battered old secondhand Nissan Sunny, though he pours his heart into servicing and maintaining it so that Mum and I are assured of our safety.
While he can be easily persuaded to accompany Mum when she wants to go for her overseas holidays (I suspect it stems from his worry that she won’t be able to look after herself, rather than a burning desire to go places and experience new things), he is equally happy just to get up at 5.30 every morning to meditate and do his tai-chi. While he knows how to appreciate a freshly caught river prawn from Tanjung Tualang, nothing pleases his palate more than a plain steamed fish with lots of garlic and healthy stir-fried vegetables.
“How on earth did a Chinaman like Mr Wong snag the pretty clerk?” one of the diners says, jolting me out of my reverie.
I become aware that the woman sitting next to me, his ex-student, is directing her eyes at me. A silence has descended over the rest.
“Your dad was a very dedicated teacher, but we were so mischievous in class. We didn’t like him at first because he was so serious about his work. We gave him nicknames like tai thoe wong (big-bellied Buddha). I am sure we caused him lots of heartache,” she says ruefully. “We all knew your dad as somebody quiet.”
I nod absent-mindedly. This, I know.
“But eventually we grew to like him a lot. And he did something for me that left a very deep imprint in my memory.”
She has my full attention now. “What happened?” I ask.
“Back in those days, education was not free. You had to pay to go to secondary school. I came from a family of eight, and we were very poor. My family were hawkers and could barely feed all of us, let alone send us to school.
“Being aware of my situation, your father fought to get me a scholarship all the way to Form Five! He may look quiet on the outside, but he could fight as fiercely as anybody when it was a cause worth fighting for. When I got the news, I was both overjoyed and ashamed because I remembered all the heartache that our mischief must have caused him. Yet, he never let such petty things remain in his heart. He understood what mattered most.”
I fancy catching a glimpse of tears in her smile.
“Even though I had to stop my studies at Form Three because I couldn’t afford the bus fare to go to school, I will never forget your father’s good deed.”
I look at the face of this beautiful woman, a grandmother of five now, and then at the face of my father, who is sitting quietly at the next table, listening to another student talk about her days washing dishes in Britain. As usual, I can tell he isn’t talking much, happy to let other people take centre stage.
There are so many things he has never told me about his life, I think to myself.
In that instant, as emotions clog my throat, I know why his students persist in keeping in touch with him, even though he has resolutely resisted e-mails and handphones (until now).
I know why they speak of him with such admiration and respect, even though he hardly talks about himself.
I know why my mother picked him.
And I have my story.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thank you for caring for me in your quiet way, restraining from seeming pushy and authoritarian; for being sovereign in your fatherly manner; for having the wisdom to advise when you need to, but knowing when to pull back just enough to give me the freedom I need to grow.
Alexandra Wong (bunnysprints.com) thinks that if her dad were an Avenger, he would be Captain America.