My dad lit up a cigarette and held it to my mouth. ‘Try it,’ he said.
I was six years old. It was not a school day. Me, my elder sister and my brother stood at the balcony of our wooden house with my father.
We were years away from learning about the effects of second hand smoke, or the ethics of a father teaching his children to ingest carcinogens.
My sister took the first puff, then coughed. ‘Why does it taste like that?’ she asked my father.
‘It tastes like that at first,’ he said, ‘then it tastes good.’
My father then looked at me. I hadn’t taken my first puff. I didn’t like the smell of the burning tobacco. ‘Papa, I don’t want,’ I told him.
He looked at me with displeasure, then forced the cigarette between my lips. To appease him, I took my first puff. Immediately repulsed, I pushed my father’s hand away, making him drop the cigarette.
I remember that he was very disappointed with me that day. He tried to teach me to smoke a few times after that, but I never picked it up.
Before you think my dad was trying to make me a bad kid, I want you to know something about him.
My dad is unlike most dads I know. He joined the triad when he was 14 years old. That’s where he learned to smoke, drink and fight for money.
‘I almost killed someone for RM20,’ he told me wistfully one day when I was a teenager,’I hit a man in the head with a glass bottle. I saw him fall down in pain.’
I imagined the physical pain the man must have felt, then the emotional pain my dad must have felt, since he remembered the incident so fondly so many years later.
‘I told myself,’ my dad said, ‘that I will never ever do that again.’
Joining the triad, in most cases, however, is an irreversible decision. You can’t really quit. Quitting meant betrayal and a life of taunting and torture or sometimes death.
So, though he didn’t like hurting people, my dad couldn’t really leave the triad. Instead, like many triad members who regretted their decision as teenagers, he became a passive one who tried to erase marks of his membership.
I vividly remember the days in my early teens when my dad used a strange liquid concoction and a very rough gauze to try to erase a badly drawn flower tattoo on the top of his palm.
‘Does it work?’ I asked him.
He showed me his hand. The tattoo was slowly fading away in parts. Months later, it was gone.
Lu Wee is a good kid, from a good family
Many people think I am from a ‘good’ family. Just because I was a top student in school, wear glasses and appear slightly smart, they think that my dad must be something like me too. They think my dad must be an engineer or a doctor, or a banker.
In college one of my friends asked me hypothetically, ‘Lu Wee, would your parents freak out if you got a tattoo?’
In their minds such things as drinking, smoking or getting a tattoo must have been unspeakable in my family.
‘Both my parents have tattoos,’ I told her. But I didn’t tell her why.
So no, Lu Wee is not the good kid from a good family. Just like everyone else, Lu Wee is a different kid, from a different family.
Lessons from the triad
Perhaps because of his experience in the triad and my academic background, my father’s views of the world was always different from mine. When I first learned about the bad effects of smoking from science class in secondary one, I felt the need to educate my father on the ill effects of smoking.
‘Papa, you can get cancer from smoking and holes in your lungs,’ I told him facts I remembered straight out of my science textbook.
He looked at me with a silent snarl and said, ‘How do you know this is all for real? Last year we read that eating certain food are bad, but this year that same food is good again. Science changes, use your brain. Textbooks are written by humans who can make mistakes. Don’t be naive to trust only them. Look around you. Life is not limited to what you read in books.’
I thought back then that my father was trying to justify his reasons for continuing to smoke.
Looking back now, I see that my father was right. There is really no evidence suggesting that all smokers will end up with cancer, only a majority of them. In fact, many smokers outlived people with ‘healthy’ lifestyles. I really did not the right to go around telling smokers to stop smoking. I could not really predict individually if quitting smoking would make them happier or healthier.
So I stopped doing that.
(A note on smoking: Yes, I know it is empirically proven that quitting smoking is good for your health but I don’t think I have ever seen anyone quit smoking just because we tell them to. Often, they have to come to that realisation themselves, often after a health scare.)
Never base your life on what is written in textbooks. That was my father’s first big lesson to me. I didn’t believe him for years. Now that I am an adult and better read, I know that this is true.
Most textbooks are written by people who had a deadline and needed something to make them feel important. They are not really useful beyond the classroom.
After I graduated from college, I chose to read only books that are anti-textbooks.
My father taught me many more lessons directly and indirectly throughout my life. I have only recently come to appreciate them in hindsight:
Don’t think that gangsters, prostitutes and drug addicts are bad people. When I was younger I didn’t like that my father had friends who were all of these. My father would tell me not to judge them by their profession or what they did.
‘But don’t they have a choice on what they do in their lives?’ I asked my dad.
He always got angry when I asked him this. I later learned that it didn’t matter if they chose to be that way, it wasn’t really up to us to decide if they were ‘bad’ people. We never have the right to judge people. Other than that, judging people never helped them or ourselves.
Don’t think that just because you are educated, that you are better than people who are not educated. As a top student in high school, I really thought I was better – much better – than all the uneducated people and the students who were failing in class.
I always felt it was right for me to tell people what to do, even my father. I really thought that getting A’s in class meant I was smarter than everyone else.
One day my dad told me, ‘Lu Wee, do you really think you are better simply because you get #1 in class? Don’t be naive, the world is much bigger than that classroom.’
And my dad was right. Many college graduates work for uneducated bosses. Many people who do well in life and contribute to society are uneducated. If anything, education does not differentiate us, only character does.
You need to have more than head knowledge. Theories cannot save you. As a student I was only book smart, not street smart. I was even crossing roads with my nose stuck in a book at one point, almost killing myself.
My dad told me, ‘Lu Wee, there are times to read, and times when you need to pay attention to the environment around you.’
My dad was trying to tell me that I was not very street smart. Later, I took up extreme sports and a risky job to try to counter the effects of a way too bookwormish lifestyle. I learned much more from doing these than I ever did in all my years of reading.
Dad was right. You can read, but don’t forget to learn from real life too.
You are not a good person simply because you are religious. There was a point in time when I was ultra religious, spending over 8 hours a day in prayer, immersing myself in religious text and then going around telling people how their sins could guarantee them a spot in hell.
In all ways, I felt my dad was the worst person in my family. I tried to correct him. He retaliated and said, ‘Do you really think that you are right doing this? You know you make me feel very uncomfortable. If a religious person only goes around telling people that they are wrong and making them feel bad, I would rather not be religious.’
For many years, I thought my father was trying again to justify his own bad behaviour. I later realised that he was right. Going around telling people how wrong they were changed nothing. People needed love and acceptance more than correction.
Don’t think that someone does not love you because they love you in a way you can’t understand. Finally, my dad taught me that different people loved differently.
As a kid, I always thought my father was cold-hearted. He rarely smiled at us or hugged us. His love and care paled in comparison to my mother’s warmness. I later learned that he did try his best to love us in the way he knew how.
He loved me in the way he scolded the bullies in my school for me. He loved me in the way he bought me new bags and shoes during Chinese New Year as a high school student, trying to get me the exact bag and shoe I wanted even if it meant going around the entire town.
People will always love us in the way that they understand love and were shown love. This sometimes means that they way they do it is not in the language we understand. But we should not discount their affection.
Conclusion: What is different is not always bad
I used to hate the fact that my family was different from all my friends’. Why can’t I have a father who was like other fathers? A banker, a doctor, an engineer or even just any other ‘normal’ father…
Looking back now, I feel blessed that I was raised the way I was by my father. I wouldn’t change a single thing about him. I only wished that I could have been more understanding when I was younger.
My father wanted to teach me how to smoke because he thought it would make me tough. He was a bullied kid and never wore his glasses in primary school because his friends would call him a four-eyed frog. He then quit school because he could not see what the teacher was writing on the board, because he did not wear his glasses. So he kept failing in class and his classmates said he was stupid.
So stupid left school and joined the triad, where all stupids went in the 60s and 70s in Sibu.
My father is not bad person. I wish someone could have taken care of him better when he was a kid.
Dad, sorry for all the times I hurt you.