We each took a seat at the table. In front of us, food for ten. But there would only be six people eating that night.
It was 27th of January 2017, or what Chinese families called chu xi. The day before the first day of Chinese New Year.
The dinner of chu xi would be the reunion dinner. In an ideal world, every member of your family would be present.
Children working abroad would almost always make time to come home for that dinner. For some, the reunion dinner meant more than the first day of Chinese New Year itself. It signified family togetherness, something Chinese families valued.
For the lucky ones, reunion dinners would remind them of the happiness of having family. For others – the ones who would celebrate it alone – it would remind them of the absence of theirs.
Every Chinese New Year since I was born, I have always had my reunion dinner with my father.
But this year, his seat was empty.
‘Anger is a short madness.’ – Horace
‘Your papa is going to Sibu tomorrow,’ my mom said to us. It was two days before Chinese New Year.
Really? I thought.
‘Over such a matter, does he need to be that angry?’ I wondered aloud.
The morning before, an argument had broken out while we were having dim sum breakfast.
It was between my father and my younger sister.
A day before that, Lu See’s dog Toby had died and word got to my father that she had been looking at new puppies to adopt.
‘BUT I TELL YOU. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T GET A NEW DOG,’ my father shouted at Lu See while they were talking about home decorations.
Startled, Lu See tried to reason with my father, but could not convince him. I noticed Lu See getting more uncomfortable with the situation.
So I came to her aid, telling my father that it was fine to let her know you don’t her to get a new dog. But, he did not need to shout.
Provoked, my father started shouting to me too.
Other people eating at the restaurant noticed our argument, but pretended not to see.
As the argument heated up, my father gave me a final stare, stood up and left.
After that, I would not see him again until the fourth day of Chinese New Year.
28th January 2017.
The morning after our reunion dinner.
On our way to town, I noticed Lu See’s quietness as she sat next to me in the car. My sister is a talkative girl, so it felt unusual to see her quiet like that.
She is sad about her family, I guessed. She feels like she is from a broken family.
I tried to make casual conversation with her but nothing I said interested her. So I let her be quiet.
She needs some time to think, I thought.
Along the way, she did finally say something. Actually, she asked me a question.
‘How do people get over being this kind of upset?’ she asked me.
She meant the kind of upset that makes you want to disappear from your father’s life forever. That kind of upset.
I did not answer her immediately. I paused for a few seconds to remind myself of the answer I gave myself a few years ago.
‘Lu See,’ I told her, ‘I know how you feel. For many years, I hated papa too. But in the end, I learned that hate does not change anything.
You can choose to cling on to this single upsetting event. This is how sometimes father and daughter do not talk for years. If this is fine for you, then you can choose this.
But if not, you can learn to let go. Don’t replay the mistake in your head. The more that replay it, the more you remember it. Worse, you add extra storylines to it in your head. So in the end, your memory of it is actually worse that what actually happened.’
My advice was not perfect, but it was the advice I gave myself when I was 20 and hated my father to the core.
It is easy to love someone perfect…
If it was easy to love someone imperfect, then this action of love would not have the name ‘love’.
In truth, love is difficult. We need love especially when it is hardest to love.
It is easy to love someone perfect, but not easy to love when someone shows you all their imperfections.
As explained in the Bible,
“Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous,
[love] is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered,
it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.”
As we neared our destination, I said to Lu See, ‘It will be OK. Even if papa refused to eat reunion dinner with us, it does not mean the dinner failed. We still have many things to be thankful for. Like your ROM and our parents’ good health now.’
She nodded. Then I told her, ‘Bad things may happen, but it does not mean you are broken.’
So, how broken are you?
Growing up, I have always felt a little ashamed of myself. When my classmates talked about their lives, I could not help but notice that I could not relate to them.
In school, I was often the last or close to the last ones left waiting. My father would pick me and my siblings up 2 to 3 hours after classes ended. Sometimes, four.
Other times, he would forget to pick us up in its entirety.
In a country with no public transport and living a 40minute driving distance away, we could not go back on our own. Even if he was unreliable, he never felt it necessary to ask someone else to help pick us up.
So we waited and waited.
Most of the time, he was late because he was playing pool. That, or he was gambling.
When my friends asked me about my father, I said very little. I told them he was in construction.
There were many things that my father did that worsened our family condition over the years. So much so that I began to hate him.
I hated him for many, many years. I blamed him for most of the lack in my life.
And then, one day, I told myself to let it go.
My life does not improve by focusing on my father’s mistakes. I told myself. Instead, I will focus all my energy into making my own path. Through any hardship, I will learn to make a way out of it. In the future, if I fail, I fail because of myself, not because of my father.
I made the commitment to be 100% responsible for my own success and failures. So my father’s mistakes no longer mattered.
What mattered were my own actions.
Eight years since I made that commitment, I finally feel complete. I do not think I am that successful. But I know for sure that if I had not made that commitment to myself, I would have made many mistakes.
No one can break you.
Even if you come from a ‘broken’ family, it does not mean you are broken.
Instead, it means, you are strengthened.