I’ve always attributed my super adventurous, swashbuckling, sword-wielding psyche to my dad. Believe it or not, I grew up a very sheltered kid. While my sister and brother built swings, climbed trees and hunted insects in the garden, I spent my toddler years right up til my adulthood lying in armchairs, reading my life away, punctuating my days with piano practice and filling up notebooks with stories and illustrations. By the time I turned 6 and started school I had already finished half the classics — Ben Hur, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Chesterton, etc. etc. My dad however, didn’t believe in having a child’s nose glued to a book. And so he made me gangsta. He brought my sister and I fishing (yes, on a boat, out into the open sea! with worm bait and pro equipment!), taught me to ride a bike at 11 (yes, I was a late bloomer), got me playing tennis (at 15!), taught me to swim (at 9!) and had me drive stick shift at 16. Looking back, I think of all the times I hated adventure and laugh because right now, I build pillow forts, love physical activity, play-wrestle with people who’d let me wrestle them down, bike down hills and crash into trees and climb fences when I misplace my keys.
There are many things my father taught me (other than Mandarin which I have forgotten and how to drive stick shift which I still remember) that I still think of when I’m stuck in a rut or when life just turns in on me. They are things that held true then and still hold true today.
1. Don’t let your feelings do the talking. If you’ve spoken to me, you know that I’m super expressive. If you’ve worked with me creatively or are close to me, you’d know that I quote Cummings on feelings. Having feelings and letting them dictate how you live are two different things. Just a few days ago, I didn’t make the cut for a grant I badly wanted. Naturally I felt like staying in bed and crying for the rest of the week but I didn’t. I felt bad. But feeling bad should have no effect on my schedule and my work and most importantly on how I treat the people around me.
2. Don’t say “I don’t know”. And this, I repeat like an incantation to my students. “I don’t know” is not acceptable. If you don’t know, find out. If you don’t know how to do something, ask. If you don’t know how something’s done, try , make mistakes and find out how it’s done. But saying “I don’t know” in resignation is not okay.
3. Don’t stop learning. The more you know, the more there is for you to know.
4. Be kind. This, I didn’t hear from him but saw him do. When I was very little, my father, Desiree (who was about 2 at that time) and I were eating at this little Chinese food court. Desiree and I were picking on our food as children do while my father would remind us to eat and stop playing. Halfway through the meal, a homeless man with scraggly hair and torn clothes comes in and goes from table to table asking for money. Desiree and I stopped playing because we were afraid of the man (lol!). When he came to our table, my dad didn’t seem to be paying him any attention. Good, I thought. He’ll go away. But in the next minute, my dad had the man sit with us and got him some food, (I think the man ended up eating Desiree’s and my food as well) and spoke to him about how hot the weather was as if he was just any other man. Needless to say my sister and I sat silent the entire time, scared out of our wits. Funny, yes. But he sure taught me a lesson I remember to this day. To be no respecter of person but to treat everyone equally and to be kind. Even if the man ends up eating your kids’ food as well.
I have my father’s eyes and allergy to alcohol although I wish I inherited his stoic discipline and will power instead. When I think of my father, I think bravery, I think courage, I think charging head-first into the unknown. I also think of loyalty, of kindness and of holding my breath under water. I don’t know if I’d do any better/worse with someone else as a dad. Probably I would be a fat kid with glasses, reading in an arm-chair, driving automatic and staying as far away as I can from dragons.