It’s Father’s Day and even though I needed to blog about last week’s conference, I feel compelled to write a reflection about my father. Initially, I was hesitant to reflect on my dad for father’s day. My father died in November 2008, just ten days after my brother Thomas died from cancer. They were in Singapore while I was here in Canada. I was, at least, able to see them both a few months prior. I guess I was afraid of reliving sad memories by reflecting on my dad. As you may guess by now, this is more a personal blog post than a theological one.
There were many things that dad taught me. But if I were to choose one for this Father’s Day reflection, it would be this: my dad taught me how to cook. And in the process, he taught me much more.
My dad was not a chef. He was a shopkeeper who worked tirelessly to provide for his family, and especially for his children – all six of them. In fact, dad never learnt how to cook until the year my mom tried to teach me how to cook. I was nearing high school graduation and my parents figured it was time I learned how to cook in order to prepare for independent living in my university years. My mom tried to teach me but I was not able to learn from her.
My mother is an artist in the kitchen. She cooks with recipes in her head, and by touch and feel. She guesses the amount of seasoning or salt needed and always seems to get it right. When she taught me to cook, she was giving me instructions on the fly, as I chopped and sliced over the board, fried and stirred over the wok. I was a novice and hence very intimidated by the kitchen. My mom, a natural in the kitchen, couldn’t understand my fears and hesitancies. I did not pick things up as quickly or naturally as my older siblings. It was a frustrating experience for both of us.
It was then that my dad decided to learn how to cook, so that he can teach me in turn. It wasn’t only for my benefit though. Previously, my mom left us for a whole month to visit my oldest brother and my sister studying in New Zealand. While mom was touring NZ, my dad and I were slowly getting sick of eating out at every meal. Hence, my dad realized it was a good idea for him to learn how to cook for himself.
After all those years of marriage, my dad decided to learn from my mom the art of cooking. Remember, this is within a still patriarchal Chinese culture. At his age, most men wouldn’t try new things, let alone break family gender roles. It was interesting to watch my dad studiously learn everything from mom, how he took copious notes, and had his hand with the knife and wok. And we ate his culinary creations.
Somehow, dad was able to systematize mom’s cooking artistry. Hence, when it was his turn to teach me cooking, he had hand-written recipes for me with step-by-step instructions. I was able to understand the whole process first – from getting the right ingredients, to the preparations, to the stir-frying. My dad’s more structured approach worked for me. I can cook today thanks to my dad.
In the process, my dad imparted to me more than just the skill of Chinese cooking. He taught me by example what it means to be a teacher. He taught me what it means to be humble enough to learn something new even in your old age. He taught me a servant heart. I also learnt the courage to buck gender and cultural stereotypes. But what I value most was that cooking is now my closest connection to my Chinese culture.
I had written in an earlier post how I am unclear about my Chinese identity. I hardly ever speak Chinese these days, other than on the phone to my mom in Singapore. I don’t know how to read or write Chinese. I don’t watch Chinese shows or listen to Chinese music, other than the occasional classical Chinese CD. I don’t hang around with Chinese folks. I don’t begrudge all of this. It’s pretty much who I am and what I am comfortable with. But Chinese food and cooking, that’s pretty much my main connection to my cultural heritage. When I cook and/or eat a Chinese dish, I feel more Chinese. If there’s anything I miss most about my Malaysian Chinese past, it’s the food – the smell, taste, and texture.
So, whenever I cook Chinese or Asian dishes for my wife and kids, I feel more in touch with my Chinese side. I have my father (and my mother) to thank for that. Thanks dad.
- What are you grateful to your father for?
- Do you have a similar experience of learning a skill from your dad (or your mom) that became more valuable than you first realize?