My parents were both deprived of a proper education. Their parents were way too poor, meat was a luxury, school was for the dreamer and new clothes nigh on impossible. It was surely bad luck to be growing up in China in the thirties, to be more accurate from the two Opium Wars right up to the Cultural Revolution. Pa did a year of primary school, I think, Ma, the lucky one, she was afforded two years. Remarkably, both managed to climb out of the illiterate class. Pa somehow taught himself reading and also basic accounting; he could even keep his own accounts, a cashbook system to run his dry cleaning business. Ma managed to teach herself to read and write from old newspapers. Both of them yearned to better themselves. They knew it is through education that their children’s lives will improve. It’s probably something they didn’t have to learn. Unlike using GDP as a measure of success for a nation, looking at the level of intelligence is maybe a better measure of success for the individual. My parents should be considered very successful, especially given their lack of formal education. They were both self-taught in many things, it’s the power from knowing how to read and write. If we use neonatal mortality as a measure, then they were just above average, I think. Only eight survived out of twelve. They lost three boys and a girl. But, all eight were sent overseas to finish our tertiary education. That is a remarkable achievement, the anxiety and stress they would have gone through were hidden from me. As a parent of three children, I know how challenging it was to send them overseas – the eldest stayed back. Ma taught me Mandarin for three years, but I was not like them, I did not have their hunger to learn. The old adage is true for me, what I had, I did not cherish. I had no yearning for learning, school was a mere one hundred steps away from home, I just needed to walk past the Blue Mansion along the muddy field where I spent many a rainy day catching tadpoles. I would watch them grow limbs, lose their tails and turn into young healthy frogs. It now makes sense why I dissented against their slaughter during dissection classes. I didn’t see the need to sacrifice them so that we can learn about opening up their bodies. I was the kid who showed up in class unaware that there was a test set for the day. The same kid who didn’t understand what the word understand meant. I got my nipples twisted for that. Perhaps this may be why I had no drive to learn, but it would be unfair now to blame the teachers.
What I yearned for during my boyhood years was to own a pair of leather football boots, just like the ones I saw, five doors away at Cheers, along Penang Road. The shopkeeper would have been annoyed by me, the customer from hell; look, look, look but you never buy. You again, shouldn’t you be home, learning your Pe peh meh feh? Yao yao yao, yao dao wai poh chiow? The old adage is true for me, what I do not have, I cherish. The only substantial toy I was given was a 1:18 scale police car with a siren and flashing blue lights – the other toys, I made, such as swords made from sticks tied together like a cross. To this day, I do not know who damaged it, the cop car was out of service before the week was out. In those days, nothing was made in China. It couldn’t have been a crap toy, Pa would have paid big money for it. He did not know what I really wanted was a pair of football boots. Simply because it did not dawn on me to tell him. I did not ask for anything, back in those days. I got what was given, did not think asking or praying helped. But, Ma prayed – so we didn’t have to. The kids helped whenever Ma prayed. We would arrange the dining table differently for the deities and ancestors. Their chopsticks had to be paired evenly, precisely on the right side of the rice bowl, each seat rewarded with a shot of the best VSOP in the house. The cooked dishes were laid along a straight line, with three joss sticks on a brass urn centrally placed. When the deities and spirits have finished their meal – to this day I still do not know how Ma knew they would finish at the same time when the joss sticks have completely burned- then it’s the turn for us humans. The dining table would be rearranged, the dishes staggered, never in a straight line for the living. The joss stick urn would be relegated back to the kitchen.
Oh well, forget the football boots. I am ready to hang up my boots anyway. I will be proud to show you my scars though, lots of them, mostly on the shins. I wore my no. 4 jersey with pride, a barefoot right-back against the meanest forwards in school, all weaponised with English football boots.
My life changed when I saw my eldest sister arriving home after her four years at Trinity College of London. How chic she looked with her high bun and her Audrey Hepburn dress. She was given a piano to learn only because Pa’s friend who owned a piano shop repaid a small debt with a piano, a Mornington and Weston. A London factory, it existed between 1858 and 1975. During the sixties, very few in Malaysia learned a western musical instrument – apart from the recorder and guitar – let alone went overseas to learn music. I want to be like her! Modern, fashionable, with an aura of success and sophistication. I was intrigued by the cello case she carried on her back. I fell in love when I saw her German cello. My roving young eyes had already learned to appreciate the sexy curves of the instrument, her slender neck holding the beautifully carved scroll, her one-piece superbly crafted back, and her gorgeous f-holes! Can I touch her G-string, I would have wondered. No, the cello is too big for you, she said. What a dampener. The very first time in my life I yearned to learn, I was discouraged. But, as they say, persistence pays, do not take no for an answer. This was the first time I asked for something, did not wish, did not pray. Just ask! That was how I got to learn the violin. Smaller curves, but hey, they are just as sexy. It took music to instil in me the disciplines of learning; structure, understanding, thinking, research, improving through rigorous and proper practice. It took the violin to teach me the benefits of sitting down for an hour every day, instead of running around chasing paper balls and footballs.
Today, I watched Murray, my son’s pup attempting to mark his territory. How did he learn that? He didn’t learn it from me. I’ve never lifted a leg to pee on a lamp post or a bush. Yet, he knew to do that today, although all he did was lift his right hind leg. He didn’t spray any marker at the tree, he was totally dry. But, I’m sure he will know soon enough, sometimes we just know. Odd, isn’t it? Evolution taught us, millions of years ago? Same with durian. He enjoys durian cake but will not touch bananas. How did he learn to appreciate durian, a fruit that commands as much distaste for it as the love for its taste. He is a progeny of a breed from Murray Bridge, it’s as ocker as we can get here. Here, you won’t find any durian, not in the last many lifetimes. Yet, the little blighter loves it. He ain’t true blue, that’s all I can say. True blue Aussies have to learn to like durian!