3. My Mother / My Father
My mom and dad are ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Ordinary in the sense that they’re like many other people, working hard to put food on the table and raising a family as best as they can. Extraordinary in the way that children see their parents. Of course, parenting does not come with a guidebook, and we’ve had our fair shares of ups and downs, but I know that they love my brother and I and would do anything for our happiness, even if they don’t always know how to show it.
I would call us a middle-class family now, but it was not always so when my parents were younger – which is why I admire their perseverance to create a better life for my brother and I today.
As a child, my dad had a hard life. Coming from a poor family with many siblings to take care of, he was lucky to receive an education. My older aunts and uncles had to give up their studies to support the family. The twelve of them, including my grandparents, lived in a single shack on the grounds of a Siamese temple, or a wat, in Ipoh. They were squatters with no land or house titles of their own. Dad shared a bed with his siblings, which was basically wooden planks pieced together to form an elevated platform – little better than sleeping on the floor.
There was no running water or electricity for poor homes back in the 1960s. Plumbing was unheard of. Any business was done in the outhouse. Waste was collected by the ‘ye hiong‘ collection person balancing two steaming buckets of human feces, every few days. Baths were taken in a nearby well, or when it ran dry, the river.
My dad cycled a few miles to school on an old bike every day, along with my only other uncle. After classes they’d help out with the chores, collecting recycled items to be exchanged for a few cents, doing odd jobs for extra pocket money. Ah-Gong (My grandfather) worked as a cook for an old-folks home. With the meagre salary he earned, he managed to raise ten kids. They were so poor one of the children had to be given up for adoption. Another passed away in a traffic accident.
Grandma cared for the children and raised chickens and ducks for food. She also did translations for their Siamese neighbour, who was a witch doctor. No, really. She was a witch doctor from Thailand, who practiced black magic. Locals would come to her hut and tell her who they wished to lay a spell on – or a curse. And since the Siamese witch’s Cantonese was not good, my A-Ma would relay her messages to the person seeking help.
They lived a hard life right up till the time the temple monk evicted them as he was renovating the wat and needed land. By then my older aunts and uncles had saved up for a tiny little house. So the whole family moved there. It was much more convenient for my school-going dad. He later attended a missionary school, and college, one of the few among his siblings who managed to complete a tertiary education. Through friends, he met my mom and they later got married and had my brother and I.
My mother’s life was little better off, although her family was not as poor as my dad. My grandfather (Gong Dai) was a taxi driver, while my grandmother (Ah Dai) was a dulang washer – a lady who mined for tin using the traditional method, by swirling tin deposits from the tin mine with a large dulang (basin). It was backbreaking work, requiring her to stand in the shallow waters of the lake bent over double for many hours a day. My Gong Dai spoiled my mother and she remembers him fondly (I never met him as he passed away before I was born), but he was a terrible gambler and would gamble away all his earnings. My grandmother was so angry she stormed to the house where he was playing mahjong with friends and flipped the table over. Gambling and smoking would be his vice, a habit he could not break up til the day he passed away from tuberculosis.
My mom was the youngest of four siblings, and the most mischievous (ironic, seeing as how she’s always on to me about behaving). She once stabbed herself in the foot with an iron rod by accident (because she was playing with them by using the rods as balancing poles) and almost got gangrene as a result. There was also the time she crashed my uncle’s motorcycle into a tree.
My mom was a very popular and active person in school, playing badminton, joining various societies and going for school trips. But there are bad genes running in the family (granddad had tuberculosis, grandma had lung cancer, eldest aunt currently has diabetes/tumor that has left her paralysed, second aunt has severe osteoporosis), and in recent years she has gotten increasingly ill, neurotic and depressed from all the pain she’s always in (spondylosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, severe gastric problems).
I used to have a very toxic relationship with my mother, which caused a rift between us. It has gotten better in the last few years, as I try to understand and accept that it might be her sickness. I can also see that she’s trying to keep her spirits up. Sick people say the nastiest things, and they don’t mean it sometimes but they’re just so depressed and helpless that they lash out.
My parents are getting old, and while I know it is part of life, it pains me to see them in pain. As a child, you think that your parents are going to be around forever; that they’re larger than life. I am grateful to them for all they have done for me, and how they have raised me to become the person I am today, even though there have been many bumps along the way. I have come to understand that they are not perfect, but they will always want the best for their children – and that parental love is incomparable.