Lessons Learnt From a Stubbed Toe

Dear Xander,

If change is the only constant in life, then the human capacity for learning is the one constant that will not only reinforce change, but allow us to embrace it. And the lessons we can learn can stem from the simplest and least expected situations.

When you managed to stub your toe last Tuesday, your experience created not one but three lessons, learnt by not one but three different individuals.

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It happened at your grandmother’s house, after school and just before I came to pick you up. You were bawling — hard — in front of your dinner bowl by the time I arrived, and your grandmother felt absolutely helpless (even though you were shoveling rice into your mouth in between sobs; I guess nothing can stop you when you’re hungry, even a stubbed toe.

“I don’t know how to pacify him,” your grandmother said helplessly.

“Let me see,” I replied, and sat down in front of you. When you saw me, you howled harder than before.

“Okay, Xan. Let me see where you’re hurt.” You stuck your left foot into my face. There was blood, so that pretty much voided your mother’s standard “no blood, no problem” response.

“He was jumping on and off the steps and stubbed his toe on his last landing,” your grandmother said to me in Hokkien. I nodded.

“Does it hurt?” I asked you.

“(Sob) Yes… (sob, sob),” you said.

“I see. Don’t worry, Daddy will fix it right up.” You continued to cry, so I continued, “Xan, when you were jumping up and down before you hurt yourself, do you remember if you were having fun?”

Your crying went down a notch as you contemplated the question over the pain you were experiencing. Then you nodded, “Yes (sob).”

“Okay, do you remember if you were happy?” I asked.

You replied, “Yes.” And you stopped crying, almost instantaneously.

“Good. That’s really what matters, isn’t it? That you had fun, and more importantly, that you were happy,” I said. You continued with your dinner, this time with no more tears marinating your rice.

Your grandmother, who didn’t understand English, was absolutely amazed. “What did you say to him?” she asked. I told her I got you to remember he was happy, so he’d forget to be sad.

Your grandmother learnt something that day.

***

As we drove home, I asked if you still wanted to ride your scooter (that was in the boot of the car), considering the pain from your stubbed toe.

You thought for a moment. “Mmm… yes. My toe is not so pain any more.”

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s not painful any more,” you chirped.

“Okay.” I wasn’t sure you’d be able to, but I wanted to see how you were going to pull it off.

I parked the car, and offloaded the scooter. Then you mounted and started pushing off with your injured foot — slowly, and with a look of hopeful concentration on your face. I knew then that you took my words to heart, that as long as you were happy and having fun, you won’t let any pain stop you.

I saw that you learnt something that day.

***

As you slowly rolled yourself closer to our lift lobby, you dismounted and started pushing your scooter. “That’s enough for now,” you said to no one in particular. I could tell you were making an effort not to emphasise that you were injured, because you were visibly trying to walk as normally as possible, albeit a lot slower than you normally would, and with a very slight limp.

Looking back on last Tuesday, I realised it only took a stubbed toe, a few words and the joy you found in riding your scooter for you to understand something I’ve taken my whole life to try and understand — to never let pain get in the way of your happiness, and always be happy such that you feel no pain.

I learnt something that day.

With happiness,

Dad

The Star

Dear Xander,

Last Saturday, at a birthday party hosted by Mummymoo for her 2-year-old son, you managed to score a big bunch of helium balloons, 5 normal coloured balloons topped with a gold star-shaped balloon.

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You always had a love for balloons of any sort, but that evening you were particularly infatuated with the gold star balloon in that bunch. But after the party, as we were driving, I noticed the star balloon was losing its volume slightly faster than what one would usually expect from such balloons, so I said to you, “Your balloon’s losing gas. You know what would e a good idea? If we let it go while it’s still floaty.”

“Why?” you asked, not quite understanding the concept of a helium balloon losing gas and hence its ability to float. So I changed tactic.

“Because stars belong in the sky.”

“Okay,” you said. “I want to let go of the balloon.” Your mother, who was sitting next to you in the car, was surprised when you said that; you have never ever volunteered to give up a balloon before.

We decided to stop over at Raffles City for some coffee before making our way home, an it was there that we found a suitable clearing where your star balloon was able to float up into the sky without obstruction.

As you prepared to let go, I said to you, “Now, you got to make a wish on the star before you let it go. Tell the star what you want and after it reaches the sky, it will get you what you want and make your wish come true.”

“Okay,” you said. You brought the star balloon right down to your face level, and said right into it, “Star, star. I want you to float up into the sky and make the Earth happy, so it won’t be sick any more.”

Your mother and I both paused in bewilderment upon hearing what you wished for. Then you turned to me and asked, “Can I let it go now?”

I nodded. And you let go.

Letting Go

About 30 seconds later, you were bawling your eyes out, saying you wanted it back.

Regretfully,

Dad

***

Dear Star,

You better bloody do what you’re told.

Xander’s Father

Chopsticks as a Way of Life

Dear Xander,

For 34 years, I never learnt how to use chopsticks properly. At the time of this letter, I am 35. Your mother, though able to use chopsticks, also never really got the hang of it, and would default to the metal spoon and fork whenever possible (where not possible, it would usually be in opulent Chinese restaurants where she needs to look presentable in front of relatives).

You started asking to use chopsticks since you turned 3. Nearly a year later, you’ve made more progress with using chopsticks than your fishball-stabbing mother and I would have at your age. Needless to say, we are impressed, and proud.

But there’s much more to the way of the chopstick than just making things difficult for people in Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese/Korean/Japanese restaurants. It’s something I learned a 2 years ago that spurred me to refine my hand in wielding the sticks at the dinner table. And it began with something Jerry Seinfeld said.
Many a Western diner cannot understand why Asians continue to maintain such a convoluted, centuries-old method of eating. Of course, we would agree with them, particularly when it comes to their food, which we also happily tuck into with fork, spoon and knife as customarily prescribed. But you will also learn through your own experience that with some Asian food, there is simply no compromise.

You see, there are certain dishes in Asian cuisine that require a very delicate touch; tofu, sashimi, dim sum, and particularly xiao long bao come to mind. Such delicacies require a gentle, yet experienced and masterful hand to cut, create, process, prepare and present to dinner guests, with the intention that once it is laid on its receptacle, be it a porcelain dish, a bamboo basket, or a leaf of green, it must maintain its form as its maker intended right up to the point where it enters the mouth of a patron. For many of these dishes, once its aesthetic is broken, so will its soul be lost, not only in taste, but in the eyes and mind of the diner and the chef.

So where forks are merely tools for the efficient transportation of food into our mouths, chopsticks are utensils of respect. Respect the food enough to handle it with care, and it will return that respect with all the meaning and character that its creator intended.

And if ever anyone tells you chopsticks are too difficult to use, just say, yes. Of course they are. Respect, after all, is not easily earned.

Respectfully,

Dad

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Year One: Xander Writes Back

Xander celebrated his fourth birthday today (and yesterday, and last Friday too, as 4-year-old kids usually do with their various social circles), and Dear Xander the blog celebrates its 1st year anniversary as well. As we wind down for bed tonight during this holiday season, Xander has asked to write a letter to me.

A letter. To me. And up to this point, he has no idea this blog exists.

So here is his letter, dictated to his dear old dad (who sneakily logged in here to transcribe his words), addressed to both his mother and I, completely ad verbatim.

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Dear Daddy, and Dear Mummy,

I love you daddy. Because I love you so much. Do not go outer space. And don’t take pictures of the animals in the farm. Don’t go exploring in Wonderland (where we saw all the animals).

You can decorate the Christmas tree but it’s already decorate. Don’t decorate the Christmas tree any more.

It’s my birthday today. Don’t make another birthday cake for me, because I’m going K1 next year. So fast.

Don’t go to Wonderland. And don’t take the train to our house. Don’t go to Mummy’s office, and don’t go to your office, because I’ll miss you.

I miss you.

Thank you,

Xander

To all our well-wishers on Facebook and beyond, he’s been a wonderfully good boy for Santa, and he’s had a great birthday celebration (that isn’t over yet!).

And from Xander, Mother of Xander and The Blogfather, we wish you all happy holidays.

Understanding

Dear Xander,

Your 4th birthday approaches, and with it, your growing maturity. It is ironic that I speak of your maturity at such a young age, yet it manifests in ways your mother and I simply do not expect.

And last Sunday, you made it clear to me just how much you’ve grown.

Your mother and I had a crossing of words, stemming from a supermarket, and moving on to one of our not-so-usual fights during the drive home. Your mother was planning on buying groceries home to cook the night’s dinner. I thought we were eating out. One thing led to another, and suddenly it was finances, my unemployment, tears, and silence.

Things were more or less resolved by the time we reached home, and we were getting ready for bed while your mother was in the shower. As we started to drift off to sleep, you said something to me, the significance of which I didn’t realise until much later.

“Daddy, tomorrow I’m going to school?” you asked.

“Yep,” I replied.

“So Daddy pick me up from school tomorrow?” you asked again.

“Yes, I will,” I replied.

“After Daddy pick me up, Mummy pick me up?” This was our usual after-school routine, where I pick you up from school and we wait for your mother to arrive from the office in the car before we went to dinner together.

“Um, yes.”

“Then we go home first, okay?”

“Huh? Then what about dinner?”

“We eat at home.”

I told your mother what you said the next day, and mid-conversation it dawned on me that you understood your mother and I were quarreling about dinner the previous night.

And you were helping me plan out the next evening’s activities so that we wouldn’t run into the same problem again.

What did I do to deserve an angel like you?

Yours, for as long as I live,

Dad

Talking To Strangers

Dear Xander,

As a by-product of teaching you it’s okay to talk to strangers, you have become a very social little boy. It’s always a joy for your dad to bring you through public transport, because I never know what to expect from you.

Just last Friday night, you managed to put smiles on 2 whole busloads of people with your chirpiness and social smarts. And it all started when you were offered an empty seat next to an Indian auntie. The ensuing conversation you had was nothing short of jaw-dropping for your father, who could do nothing else but stare with an awkward smile the entire time.

You: (crawling up the seat) “Thank you!”
Auntie: (surprised) “Oh! You’re welcome!”
You: “Hello! How are you?”
Auntie: (doubling back with a smile) “My, you’re such a bright child! What’s your name?”
You: “My name is Xander!”
Auntie: “And how old are you?”
You: “I am 4! No, no,… I mean, I am almost 4!”

At about this time, my jaw was already half dropped. I was not expecting you to carry a full conversation with me, much less a stranger. Auntie continued the gleeful conversation.

Auntie: “And which school are you from?”
You: (with a bright toothy smile) “I am from XX Preschool!”
Auntie: (getting up) “Oh, auntie has to get off now. Goodbye Xander!”
You: “Bye bye!”

Auntie reaches the exit door.

You: (louder) “Good night!”
Auntie: “Good night!”

Auntie starts walking off the bus.

You: (even louder) “Take care!”
Auntie: (stops for a second to turn back with a gigantic smile) “Oh, you too!”

By this time, about half the bus has noticed you. The ones who were on their phones looked up. The ones who were observing just had these big wide grins as they looked at you.

But it didn’t end there. Soon you were talking to another passenger, a younger Indian woman, standing in front of you.

You: “Hello!”
Woman: “Hello! Where are you going?”
You: “I am going to my grandma house!”
Woman: “Oh! That’s nice! What’s your name?”
You: “My name is Xander!”
Woman: “Oh, Xander is it? That’s a nice name!”
You: “What’s your name?”

In my head I was thinking, “Who is this boy?”

Woman: “Oh, haha. My name is Pinky.”
You: *giggling* “Heeheehee! Pinky?”
Woman: “Yes. Why you never say it’s a nice name also?”

I decided to play along.
Me: “Ya, you have to answer the question. Is it a nice name?”
You: (to me) “Okay.” (to Pinky) “Is it a nice name?”

The conversation went on for a number of stops, ranging from jungles in India to braving the sights of lions and tigers and you never having gone to the zoo. Finally, Pinky reached her stop, and then you exchanged goodbyes the exact same way you did with the Auntie from before.

By this time, the entire bus was awash with a quiet brightness from having heard your louder than usual voice conversing about lions and tigers in India. It happened again when we transferred to a feeder bus when you decided to engage yet another random passenger, this time an elderly Chinese lady, with your bright smile and by-now signature loud almost-4-year-old voice, “Hello, Grandma!”

Your mother and I now need to figure out how to teach you political correctness.

Love,

Your very impressed Dad

Learning To Take Care of Yourself

Dear Xander,

You’ve always had a strong love affair with balloons. Your mother didn’t mind it so much, but it drives me up the wall sometimes. But then something happened a while back that I think may have changed the course of your character, and i think it worth putting down into a letter what I think is a milestone achieved — with a balloon you never owned.

We were having dinner at a food court, and midway through your noodles, you saw a bunch of balloons on display at a gym entrance across the other side of the mall, some 20 metres away. You wanted one, and started to ask us to get one for you. Your mum gave me a “so how?” glance, and then I said, “Finish your food, then we talk.”

In record time, you did as you were told. Your mother and I were not even halfway through our meals. Then I had an idea.

“Okay, Xan. You see that nice lady standing behind the counter? Go ask her. Mummy and daddy won’t come with you; if you want that balloon, you got to earn it yourself.”

By this time, you were poised to hold my hand so I’d go with you, but when you heard what I said, you dropped your arm and stood perplexed.

For the next 40 minutes, your mother and I watched as you tried to pluck up enough courage to ask for something all by yourself, periodically interjected with you insisting one of us go with you, and us insisting you go there and ask for one yourself.

That evening, you ended up not getting your balloon. We finished the remainder of our meal, I picked you up, and we started walking back to the car park. When you realised we were bypassing the gym completely, you started to cry. I said to you, quite matter-of-factly, “Well, if you’d just went up and asked, you’d have a balloon now, wouldn’t you?”

And then you cried harder. From the shopping centre to the car park, back to the food court (I left some shopping bags behind at the table we sat in), then back to the car, all the way home, for a total of almost 2 hours. We’ve dealt with your tantrums before, but that evening both your mother and I sensed you were crying a different cry.

You weren’t throwing a tantrum. You were regretting.

After that night, you changed. It started when you saw another bunch of balloons, this time at Swensen’s. “Balloon!” You pointed excitedly. And I said the exact same thing I did the last time. But this time, you were ready. Within seconds, you marched over to the nice lady manning the cashier, and came back waving your prize in the air.

It didn’t stop there. At the time of this letter, you’ve taken to ordering your own food, socializing with other kids and other adults, being respectful towards others (part and parcel of asking nicely for things). And you are doing this all on your own, with a little guidance, and very little prompting (save for asking us what you should say when you wanted to speak to a stranger).

At 3 1/2 years old, your mother and I decided not to dictate when you’d be ready to face whatever challenges in life lay out there for you. You could say we took a leap of faith instead, allowing you to — and trusting you would — tell us when you were ready.

And you did tell us.

With all a father’s pride,

Dad

Cockiness

Dear Xander,

Uncle Mark asked me over a beer had a conversation the other day. He said to me, “Bro, don’t take this the wrong way, but have you always been this cocky?”

I said with a shrug, “Yeah.”

“Then wouldn’t you be better off running your own business? I mean, I can’t imagine you being able to work for anyone — or for that matter — anyone who would hire you when you’re so cocky.”

I replied, “Then the people you’re imagining are hiring aren’t the people I want to work for.”

Uncle Mark was just being the best friend that he is to me. He’s also a worrywart, but he did raise a good point, which is something I’m hoping you will also be able to understand when the time comes for you to find your own job.

My cockiness is developed over years of knowing what I can do well, what I can offer to anyone willing to pay me for it and most importantly, what I can’t do. Last week, though, I learned something very valuable to the career I am pursuing: if your dad has, at any time, not been cocky at work, something is very wrong.

I realized it too late, and I’ve paid for it big time. I lost my job. But I also have to clarify (in order to live up to my cockiness), my job lost me.

So I’m writing to impart to you what I wish someone had taught me 20 years ago; hopefully by the time you read this, we will have brought you up with your own cockiness for you to embark on a successful career.

First things first: know what you’re good at. It’s got to be something you not only know you can do that very few, or no one else can do, and it must be something you thoroughly enjoy doing. You then become the sole authority at what you’re being paid to do, and you have full licence to not take any shit from anyone. (Remind me to explain to you the definition of “shit” in its various contexts when you grow older.)

Second: know your place at work. Your dad made the mistake of accepting a managerial position when he was only fit to be an executive. And being a manager somewhere else does not qualify you to be a manager anywhere. That is a delusion — yours, and probably your employer’s as well — that should never, ever be entertained.

Third: you look for a job like you’re looking for the love of your life, and not like you’re captain of a fishing trawler. You don’t go out there sending out 50 resumes to an entire industry to net 10 interviews. As much as people would like to tell you this is an employer’s market, you have to love who you’re working for. If that means just sending out 1 resume, then you make that one work.

Fourth: the love of your life could very well be someone you never ever thought you’d even give the time of day to. You might even think your parents will never accept her in the family. But if we haven’t made it clear enough to you yet, let me make it very clear to you now: you are your own person, you make your own decisions, and you are free to experiment with anything at all if it means you will learn about who you are and what works for you as a result. So experiment with everything. Work in a nightclub. Be a bartender, a construction worker, a stripper even, if you think you’ll get something meaningful out of it for yourself. Your mum and I won’t judge you. You’re still our son, and we will still love you. Just don’t invite us to see you perform if you do end up becoming a stripper; some things we don’t need to see.

And finally: barring what was said in the first and second points, you know nothing. This will be the hardest point to swallow, and to be fair, usually smart people will only learn this when they hit their 30s. It also completely contradicts the whole concept of cockiness. But that’s where the magic happens.

When you know nothing but yourself, you assume nothing outside of what you know. It keeps you well out of trouble, opens your mind for learning from others, and drives you to be even better than what you’re good at. And then if you want to be cocky, go right on ahead.

No matter what you decide or how your life pans out, career-wise or otherwise, your mother and I have got your back. That’s our promise to you, till the day we die.

Love,

Dad

Honestly Speaking

Dear Xander,

When I was 11, through peer influence, I developed a kleptomanic streak (that means I used to steal stuff, and it became a habit). I only stole one thing in particular, though: back in my day, the large Emporium Holdings (similar to modern-day Isetan or Metro) had a display stand carrying brightly coloured button badges with rubber paint-penned slogans written on them. And I thought I was pretty good at it, too. My conquests, which grew to a good 30-40 button badges, were pinned on my schoolbag for all to see.

But I was caught eventually at my neighbourhood department store, and my dad had to come bail me out from the department store security room. What ensued was the hardest scolding I have ever received from my father, followed by an hour-long belting session that freaked out the entire household.

My mother made me kneel in front of our Buddhist altar – and the entire family – and made me swear never to steal again, never to commit any act of dishonesty, and never to lie to anyone again.

Since then, even if I wanted to, I could never lie. For the longest time, I thought it was because my mother’s altar really was a very effective telephone service to the gods it represented, and the higher powers made it a point to rid me of my bad character. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized it was because of something else altogether.

The day that I was caught stealing, the moment I got into the car and was getting the reprimand of my life, was the day I saw my father – your grandfather – cry for the very first time. And nothing hurt more than to see my father’s disappointment in raising a dishonest son.

Your father isn’t perfect; you probably already know that. And your father isn’t expecting you to be perfect, either; this you should know. But your dad does expect you to grow up to be an honest, upright man.

Don’t ever be what I was when I was 11.

Love,

Dad

Chasing Dreams is Hard Work

Dear Xander,

It’s been a month and a half since I switched careers to become a writer. You might have noticed it isn’t the easier of transitions; for one, I haven’t written to you or a while. Sorry about that.

I took this enormous leap of faith knowing it will be an entirely new experience, but knowing it and actually experiencing it seems to be two completely different animals. There are moments where I feel like I’m very much on top of things, as a vocal contributor to the company I’m working for and a suitably experienced parent (I am, after all, hired to be a parenting writer). Then there are moments where I feel like I’m in way over my head, wondering what I’m doing and whether I made the right decision.

And then, there are moments when I simply can’t write.

It isn’t writer’s block. It isn’t for lack of inspiration. It may have to do with time management, or a management of expectations from colleagues or bosses, or a lapse of confidence. I don’t know.

I will usually have some sort of takeaway for you, a moral of the story for you to chew and reflect on. Right now, though, I have no answers, not even for myself.

I’m writing this to you because I’m hoping one day, you can read about what I’m going through at this point in my life, and you can give me that answer. Hopefully by then, you’ll have grown into a better man than me.

Hopefully by then, this job would not have killed me yet.

Love,

Dad