Don’t be me

Mum at the duck rice stall
“You better study hard. Wait you end up like Papa.”

Being born to hawkers for parents, I was relieved from the pressure one may have felt from needing to live up to one’s family legacy. Standards were pretty low: don’t get knocked up, don’t get locked up, and don’t be me.

Before hipsters and their Tart Optical Arnel 55 glasses came along and made Hawker a job title worth printing on 300gsm organic paper, the profession itself was a means to an end for the Uneducated. My parents are the Uneducated.

12 hours a day. 6 days a week. 30 years and counting. Not a sexy job, sweetheart.

As a child with a serious disinterest in all things academic, it was little wonder why my parents were so paranoid. Every time I brought my examination results home, dad would sing the same song.

“You better study hard. Wait you end up like Papa.”

That song was played on repeat for as long as I could remember. At times, mum would join dad for a freaking duet.

I was 9 years of age when dad dragged me to his duck rice stall to help during the weekends. He wanted me to witness firsthand the importance of an education, and once again, be reminded why he wasn’t someone I should strive to be. To be honest, at that age, I thought owning my own duck rice stall wasn’t too shabby.

I can only hope to have his courage, when the day comes for me to tell my own daughter that her mother is not perfect.

I was stationed in the kitchen, peeling freshly boiled eggs. I had about 300 to peel a day. I started off rather clumsily, often peeling off egg whites along with the shells. Frankly, the eggs looked like they had craters. When dad did a quality check and discovered the ugly eggs, he took one up and said,

“We cannot sell customers these eggs. It is dishonest.”

I ended up wolfing down the ugly eggs gleefully with his permission. It wasn’t long before my evil little mind figured the more eggs I destroyed deliberately, the more I got to eat.

Dad didn’t take too long too, to figure what I was up to. We had 20 missing eggs and a daughter who couldn’t stop puking. He was so mad.

“If you take one or two, I won’t know. But you take 20! You think I stupid or you stupid? You want to do something wrong, do it right. And girl ah, don’t take more than you can stomach!”

The irony hasn’t escaped me. On one hand, my dad preached a honest living. On the other hand, he preached the notion of perfection, even in vice. In spite of his questionable parenting, his intent reflected his unwavering integrity. My old man has always believed in doing it well, or not do it at all. Even at stealing eggs.

“No job is too small because every job you do has your name on it. When you respect your work, you respect yourself. When you respect yourself, you respect Papa and Mama.”

My dad would preach, every time I failed a Moral Education test. I didn’t see a point in studying for the subject, if the grade didn’t count for jack. I wonder if dad was mad because I couldn’t be bothered with Moral Education, or that his daughter was a sociopath in making.

My parents tag-teamed chopping the ducks and being the cashier. Drumstick! Bean curd! Salted vegetables! One egg! No gravy! Eat here! $3.80! That duet they performed, I liked. They operated with precision that would make a German proud. The orders were called out in the same manner they would be plated, and my parents never missed a beat.

When one of them had to retreat to the kitchen to prepare for the next wave of hungry people, I would substitute at the cash register.

I was never fast enough in shouting the orders out. I would get the sequence wrong. My mum doubled up in listening to the orders as she assembled the dishes because “my daughter is still young”. My dad did the same except it was because he never had the patience for incompetency. Not even with his own daughter. Get with the programme, or get out.

Many years later, I would go on to be one hell of a barista at Starbucks (if I may say so myself), calling out every single order perfectly, and remembering every single regular’s order like the back of my hand. How good was I? I scored a free gym membership from the appreciative trainers working next door at California Fitness.

Looking back, I suppose I have my dad to thank for his impatience. It is how the real world is. No one’s going to be my mother, literally and figuratively. My dad saw me as a byproduct of his legacy. He was insulted by my incompetence.

Dad sells fried oysters now. This is him featured in my agency’s 2015 showreel.

No surprise who I ended up taking after, being the founder of an independent agency now.

At the frontline of the duck rice stall, I had the chance of meeting people from all walks of life. The flustered mother with a wailing newborn on one hand, a wailing child on her leg, and a husband nowhere to be found. The cheery old lady who always talked about how much I have grown. The annoying office lady who couldn’t, for the love of God, make up her mind on what she wanted to eat. The tourist who hadn’t seen pig intestines ever in his life. The sweetest and nastiest of all customers in the same queue. I learned from a very young age money can’t buy you class. For the longest time, I thought Louis Vuitton handbags were carried by all ladies with the compulsive need to snigger at my parents’ broken English.

From time to time, a customer would remark,

“Your daughter speaks really good English for a hawker’s child”.

My dad always thanked them. Sometimes, he would throw in the fact that I painted, for extra seasoning. She just did her first oil painting and she is nine!

The customer comments were never perceived as insults. He consumed them with grace and responded with extra gravy. He was genuinely not offended at all. He never allowed customers’ ignorance to get to him. Fundamentally, he was not ashamed of himself and there wasn’t any self-pity for me to inherit.

As I witness now the passive aggressive Facebook rants from disgruntled souls indulging in self-pity, I cannot be more grateful of dad’s reception of ignorance.

In spite of his work pride, my dad was still a very practical man. He continued singing the same song “Don’t be me” for a good decade more.

I’ll never pay dad a compliment in the same way he has never once praised me (nope, not even once). We have that kind of relationship where we hurl insults at each other to show affection. So he’d probably never get to hear this…

But Pa, you are exactly the person I want to be.