What I Learnt From My Dad

My Mom and Dad

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?

4 thoughts on “What I Learnt From My Dad

  1. I’ve been profoundly blessed with a good supportive family. My father taught me so many things through example. He was a very fair and patient man. Also, he had a nack for finding ways to show me things that otherwise wouldn’t be at all obvious or apparent to me, his blind son. One example I often share is how he answered my question about the sun rising and setting. Bringing an apple and orange over to me, he had me feel the stem on the apple. “This apple represents the Earth. Imagine we’re standing right where the stem sticks out.”

    Taking the orange, he then showed me how the Earth orbited the sun and why the sun appeared to rise and set from the perspective of the stem of the apple as the Earth turned around it. I cogetated on this for a minute. The whole notion that the planet I thought of as so still was in fact whirling along and turning was tremendous. Something wasn’t right though. “Dad, why does everyone say the sun rises and sets when it just hangs there being lazy? The Earth does all the work.” I would have felt very unthanked had I been the Earth.

    Dad paused then. I think he expected me to just accept this new lesson rather than come up with such a profound question. Much like God does, I expect he was thinking of what I’d be capable of understanding at the tender age of seven or so. A year or two later, he may have used this as a springboard to teach me about how undeserving people often take credit for the work of others. At last, he said; “Son, there’s a saying. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Sometimes, it’s just easier and better to go with the flow. That was something I could readily grasp.


  2. What a great story and a good memory of your dad!

    My Dad shaped me into the critical thinker that I am. I lived in Dartmouth/Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was about twelve when I came home with some wisdom I learned from my friends that I was eager to share during dinner conversation. It was the 70’s and the impoverished neighbourhood hung out in was an eye opener for this military brat that lived in military housing. The neighbourhood was changing as immigrants, probably refugees moved from Lebanon. At the dinner table I announced very matter of factly that the “Lebanese are taking all the Canadian jobs”. Boy, did I get if from Dad. He quickly asked which jobs? I told him that I saw lots working in the convenience stores. He suggested that these were jobs that were long hours with no pay and that people struggling to make it in a new country were willing to work hard to make a better life for themselves. He did not attack me but the logic of what I said. I remember being embarassed and ashamed.

    As a Christian this has served me well though made me unpopular at times. Trying to see past the expected to other perspectives challenges me. The Gospel convicts me all of the time of how what seems to be isn’t necessarily so.

    I later found out that my Dad came from a home broken by alcohol. Worse he was adopted into this situation. LIfe had not been “fair” and he worked his way up to being a Major in the Airforce. He exceeded expectations – especially those in his neighbourhood.

    I don’t though that he was a professed Christian, but he taught me some of the basics of looking out for others especially the oppressed. Just before he died he told me he was helping a women get her high school diploma. He then tried to get a reaction by telling me she was a prostitute. He expected that I would have something negative to say – and of course I didn’t – he taught me well.

    Thanks for giving me a chance to share about this man that so many people don’t know from my life.


    Victoria Shipmaker


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