Saturday, February 26, 2011

Twenty Again? No Thanks

 Graffiti on the Lennon Wall in Prague
If I were to see a twenty year old me walking down the street, I would not know what to tell her. I absolutely have no idea. I wonder what it would be like if only we could rewind our life backwards. Will we end up where we are  given that we are who we are? I kept a diary when I was a teenager and I flinch when I read about some of the thoughts I had then, so juvenile and  rather inconsequential.

Here is what I remember. I was  17 years old, all eager to leave home so I signed up to become a student nurse in Australia. I was obviously unrealistic as I was incapable of becoming a nurse. I turned pale at the sight of blood. Once in my early teens, my late mother accidentally cut and slit her thumb when she was chopping some plastic in my father’s workshop. We lived upstairs and when I saw the blood oozing out, I almost fainted and was of no help.

Fortunately for me, when I informed my dad about making a train trip to Kuala Lumpur as I had to attend an interview at the Australian High Commission, he asked “what for” and when he found out that I had applied to become a student nurse, he told me that he would sponsor my tertiary education in Australia. He had always been too busy to know what year of school I was in.  It then dawned upon him that I was about to finish  upper secondary school and I did not want to continue my further education in my hometown. At that time, I thought he had only two daughters : me and my sister. The whole business about him having another secret family tugged in the same town was uncovered only when I was away. Again I was of no help to my mother.

In the seventies, education in Australia was free, it was therefore affordable.  I left for Sydney a year later. The parting advice that my dad imparted to me was: 要感 情用事  Do not use emotion to tackle a problem.  I guess he was telling me to follow my head and not my heart. I used to place my dad on the pedestal as he was a self taught man in many ways and led a very active life. Despite his busy schedule, he taught me to sing the Chinese classical song“茉莉花 Jasmine when I wanted to take part in the singing competition held in my primary school. It was a difficult song for a nine-year-old and I won the fourth prize. Apparently I scored marks for being expressive and for my dad it was simply the fact that I participated in the singing competition and winning a prize was just a bonus. I used to play the piano and dad would play the violin and I cannot remember when we stopped doing duets. We might have stopped our duet sessions when he injured his index finger at work and maybe it was around the same time,  he had to divide his evenings between his secret family and the one he had with my mother. Maybe that was why he told me not to be emotional. On reflection, he was a man of contradictions and conflicting dynamics. He was ingenious, artistic and creative and at the same time he was very earthy.  I found it particularly hard to reconcile my image of him when I found out about his other woman who appeared to me crass and vulgar and by far very different from my mother who was romantic and demure.        

Twenty years old seems like another lifetime. Despite all the email about how life used to be so simple when there were no mobile phones, the internet and all that technology.  I would beg to differ as I would like to be twenty again just  because it is the internet age where everything you want to know may be just a tap away on your keyboard. The more you hit the search engines, the more things you discover and while you have to verify those information, it sends your adrenalin pumping and your heart racing so I end up with pages of stuff piled up on my laptop screen. Often I save the links for revisiting and with so much reading material to revisit and constantly new web pages to read, there is not enough time to digest them all. Suddenly there is an urgency to make sense of the world by trying to digest whatever stuff I happen to read as I stumble upon them on the internet or visits to  the book store.

So yes please I would like to be twenty years old again because I want to  access to all those information which are  available on the internet as well as those printed copies of books where you can hold,  turn the pages and savour the writing as you sip your coffee or wine . I want to have a second chance to read properly all the cases and texts that I had only studied enough just to get through the law examinations and understand the legal theory and jurisprudence with a sense of commitment. If you knew me then, you probably say, “ Get real, you will never be that diligent and conscientious girl.”

I always remember a word my English school teacher used to describe me. Flighty. How unflattering. Did she mean I was unreliable, undependable or  fickle minded  or just she could not pin me down? I would have thought as a teenager, I had the benefit then to be restless, open minded, hungry and impressionable. So you see why I wish to be twenty again just to have that privilege to be uncertain and experimental. At this age, I watch television series like  Desperate Housewives and Mistresses and see how the women in their moments of indiscretion brought about disasters to their otherwise orderly life  and as a result mess up the lives of their own and hurting those who love them. When I left home, I  did not abide by those words which my dad had left me with; instead  in the name of searching for romantic love, I had a tendency to fall for  guys  my parents  did not approve of and fell out with guys they might have approved of. All these catastrophic affairs of the heart came to a halt when I was rudely awakened with the reality that   I had in me a Cinderella complex so I set out on a mission to quash it .

So ask me, if I want to be young and twenty again, yes please because the world is a wonderful playground and I want the luxury to be spontaneous, impulsive, adventurous and run the risk of inviting catastrophes and have the unrestrained energy and optimism to pick up the pieces and move on. When you think ahead of all the possible consequences of any indiscretion that  you might happen to contemplate and decide to act with caution and sensibility and when  you always try to get ahead so you can be a little in control of your life and  realizing  that you cannot to a large extent and  when cynicism has set in so naturally that you do not remember  the time you were once naïve, that is when the aging process has  kicked in with no return. 要感 情用事  Do not use emotion to tackle a problem. So those were the words my dad had uttered to me on the plane when he accompanied me to Singapore for my connecting flight to Sydney. He did not elaborate much.

Flat White at French Kisses Patisserie 
Maybe it is a matter of law of attraction. Somehow in the past couple of years since the process of aging finally became ingrained (I think I am a late developer) , I was drawn to  fictions  written by Nick Hornby “ How to be Good” , “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson  and recently “We Had it So Good” by Linda Grant. I  thoroughly enjoyed reading them all. The authors of these novels had successfully  captured the  ordinariness or extraordinariness  of the lives of their protagonists and how they set out with aspirations and how they had made the choices in their lives wittingly or unwittingly and at the end it was all about love and loss. While these works of fiction are about  different lives and against different backdrops, I find that these novels have a common denominator which appeal to me as  the genre of these writings is all  about  aging and the human conditions and they are  told with wit and humour.

Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for  “The Finkler Question” which tells the story of Julian Treslove, an ordinary former BBC producer, Sam Finkler his philosopher friend from college and their former teacher Libor Sevcik and it is about love, relationships,  friendships,  loss, religion , betrayals, self discovery and aging. In“ How to be Good”, Katie Carr is a doctor and the main reason she has become  a doctor is to be able to help people so she thought she was a good person until her sinister and angry husband became seemingly a better person when he  befriended an alternative healer,  DJ Goodnews (  bad news to Katie) and decide to do good by helping the homeless people by bringing them back to share the home he had with Katie.  In “We Had it So Good” by Linda Grant, the baby boomers  are in their sixties and after living the lives they had , Stephen Newman realized that he had ended up with a life  which could not be more conventional and ordinary although his life  seemed to be full of promises as he sailed across from America to England as a Rhodes Scholar who was sent out of Oxford  when he was caught tearing out pages from the library books for purpose of manufacturing LSD by way of synthesis . So time passed and suddenly Stephen had to confront with the reality that his life had come to nothing special except that he had been lucky all those years although it could be better. Reading these fictions take you through a journey where nothing much seem to happen yet the characters  move you and touch you and at times you just marvel at the fitting description of  scenes or people by the respective writers, different writing style nonetheless full of wit and keen observation about modern life in the present world. At this age I am able to empathize with the emotions of these fictional characters  but certainly not when I was twenty years old. 

A Timer

On second thought, maybe if you ask me to be twenty again. I think not  as I know given what I knew then, I probably would have still let those good years slip by and if that were to happen, I would not be able to forgive myself  for not doing my bit in giving my best to the world once again. Meanwhile I listen to Art Garfunkel and get that nostalgic feeling and slow down that rising sense of urgency to understand life a little better.  I believe it is only human to be emotional. Maybe my dad was simply telling me not to base any decisions I had to make on what I felt or what I imagined would have made me happy. I wish I had a chance to talk to my dad about the little piece of advice he had tried to pass on  to me . If I did, he probably would not have remembered and I just happen to remember those words. Not that it really matters now.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tiger Moms Rule?

As soon as you become a parent, you worry non-stop. There is always a lot of anxiety as to how to equip our children for their future as they grow up fast. There is also a lot of anxiety about how they are doing when they are away from home. Now with the internet and whats app, skype, you expect instantaneous response. If you do not get connected for a couple of days, your mind starts to get frenzy. So you tell yourself, maybe his phone runs out of battery. Maybe  her phone runs out of credit so you calm yourself down. Maybe he or she is busy with school work...Maybe maybe maybe . Why have we not heard from them? Then a message via skype or a phone call that sounds a little frantic: "Mom I have run out money!". Then you are a little annoyed and  tell them to budget their expenses as we are not some kind of money making machines. You question yourself if you had not taught them the discipline to keep their spending within their budgets. Still you are relieved to hear from them. You want them to  know that you are there whenever they need a helping hand. You worry if you have taught them enough to trust their instincts and to differentiate between those who are good people and those who are not. You worry if you have instilled in them the right priorities, attitude towards life and the strength to handle things when the going gets rough. You wonder if you have equipped them enough to cope when there are rejections or disappointments and to still continue to reach for the sky by trying harder while recognizing our human failings with just the right dose of optimism. 

As the children  grow up,  we try in vain to let go of our instinctive need to protect them from bad or undesirable elements or  from making bad decisions or falling in with the wrong company etc etc etc. Whether we are strict or doting parents, we are all doing our best. Welcome to the world of parenting!

A memoir entitled  "Battle of Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua has spun an international debate  as the author, a self described "tiger mom" spilled the beans about her strict parenting ways.  I must admit that I  am no tiger mom. I am one of those mothers who go for coffee and yoga, one of those mothers  described in the book by Amy Chua as western mothers but  I am Chinese.  I understand that the author qualifies herself  when she describes the tough love parenting method as the Chinese parenting way; the word "Chinese"  serves more as  a generic term rather  than referring to the method as the monopoly of the  Chinese as a race.After reading  the memoir by the most talked about mother, I start to wonder if I should have pushed my children harder. Yes it is a tough wide world out there. My children will have to compete with children who have a tiger mother or tiger dad. Kudos to the  tiger mothers and tiger dads who have done your best as you have put in the hours and you have devoted all your leisure time and energy to making sure that your children  do their homework and practise their piano and violin when mothers like me  sighed a sigh of relief when my children wanted to drop ballet ( that means less ferrying!) and quit the Yamaha music classes ( I  rejoiced as those classes were dreadful and pedantic. If you have not been to any of those classes, I tell you I rather suffer in a Pilate class than attend anyone of those classes ever again!).  

Says the author:  " What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up

There I was giving up at the first resistance shown by my children. If I were charged with giving in to the preferences of my children, should I plead guilty? Can  I mitigate and argue that  mothers like me allow our children to make the decisions at an early age so that they will grow up  thinking for themselves rather than doing what they are told to do. We certainly were not  taking the easy way out because there was never an easy way out. There will always be the nagging doubt whether we were doing the right thing. Can I mitigate and say that we just wanted to pursue our passions so that our lives could  run parallel and as a result happier  moms and dads? Since we knew all about the empty nest syndrome,  can i therefore argue that we are only preparing ourselves ahead for the anti-climax when your children are on their own and have their own lives to lead?  Guess parenting is personal and we  must do what we think best for ourselves and for our child as what works for others may not work for us.

Human brains are complicated and human emotions are tricky. What happens if the child is not gifted? To the tiger moms and dads, at least you are pushing them to the best of their abilities. Think the  Singapore movie " I Not Stupid". Despite the fact that these days more and more mothers are working , these women are still the ones who see to the food shopping and attend the parent teacher meeting. If I look on the bright side, I will say perhaps mothers rule after all?  It is apparent that mothers in general play a key role in a child’s progress so what happens if the mother of the child has to work away from home like those women who have to leave their hometown to work as maids ? I guess the child will grow up whether you are there or not . For those of us who can be there, we shall do our best and hope that we have brought our children up alright. Stop worrying Moms and Dads! 

No manual in the world can tell us how to bring up a child. I do not think the author of the "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" was trying to tell us why and how the Chinese mothers are more superior, she was just narrating her parenting roller coaster ride which was  in all fairness impressive and touching. She  no doubt reminds me of the protagonist in the novel by Allison Pearson "I Don't Know How She Does It" .  Do these super mothers exist? I like to think that they must have thirty- six hours in a day as opposed to my twenty hours a day. So maybe time is really infinite.  Have you ever not experienced the panic that compel you to race against time with all those tasks at hand and you actually make them all happen when at other less inspired or pressured time, you probably take triple the amount of time to accomplish the same tasks.   For now I shall be in denial as  I need my time to daydream, read my books, play tennis and write this blog.... 

 Coffee or tennis anyone?