Thursday, April 25, 2019

Leadership lessons from dad

Growing up I never saw much of my dad.

Mostly they were glimpses of him asleep till late on Sunday, snoring loud and long. Or watching him occasionally when he went bowling with his bank mates at the defunct Orchard Bowl. Dad was a remote figure and mum was in my day to day. We never really had a meaningful conversation and then as grown-ups, with family of my own, somehow the chasm seemed harder to bridge.

When he had heart failure and was about to undergo a heart bypass operation, I realised I needed to say everything I should say about him, to him, to his face. I was quite unabashedly maudlin about it too. I think I realised then that remote or not, I did love him and I guess, now that he has survived that heart episode and other subsequent harrowing health escapes, he knew too how I feel about him. Ours is a typical Asian father-daughter relationship - stiff, distant, not very communicative but with heart buried underneath all that facade.

We don't usually have long conversations. Partly my fault as an intellectual snob. Conversations with dad sometimes took exhausting convolutions in reason/argument/meaning.  And so I generally steer clear - quite happy to just sit with him and watch the news together.

Until the other day. When my father taught me the first real lesson he's ever had as a dad.

We were just sitting in front of the TV as usual when I was just moaning about work and how rough its been, how much I have to do and how I feel obliged to stay and fight with my team in the trenches even when I was clearly of no use to them.

He listened and said: "So you think leadership by example is the best way ah?"

And I said, "Yeah. If I can do so much, I expect my team to do the same or more. If I stick by them and show my grit, I expect the same from them."

Dad smiled his lazy smile and shook his head: "You're wrong."

"Leadership by example is the worst way to lead. If leading by example means you do more than you should then that is a bad example. You will burn out. Your team will also burn out. What kind of example is that? You should lead by knowing your strengths, knowing your team's strengths and using those appropriately. It is not about work and more work. When you learn how to pull back, your team also learns from you that the message is not about quantity and effort but how you use what you are good in."

Man, I was dumbfounded. I knew my dad can be an intellectual - this man reads the novels of Jin Yong, DC Comics and Marvel comics and is one of the best conspiracy theorists I know - but this was really the first time he has said anything to me that just blew me away.

It's never too late. At the age of 50, I sit at my father's knee and learn new lessons about life.

It's about time.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Mothers have to grow up too

So my 15-year-old son says he wants to work part-time. Great! I'm all for it. 

Only his choice of a part-time job is not the same as  mine. He sees the money and his eyes glow. But this has long hours, hard physical work, the likelihood of nasty and potentially exploitative bosses written all over it. Now why, I think, can't  he choose an easier route but maybe does not pay that much. I know it's not even about the money. At his age it's about his friendships - the group of close friends all out working the same gig together. 

On one level, I know this is good for him. Hardship never killed anyone. Hardship grows character. If he meets with a nasty boss, then its time he learned that the world can be harsh. If he is exploited, he will learn from his mistakes. What may seem hard to me may not be so to him. Plus the money is good. 

He is eager to work. He says he understands the hard work and the tough conditions that await. He knows all that. Or at least he brushes those aside when I list them. 

So I know all the good reasons why he  should be allowed to go his way. On a purely academic level, I get it. But there is this fierce tug in my heart that resists this. That tug is unreasonable, irrational, obstinate and emotional. That tug is made up a huge knot of emotions.

It is born of the deep anxiety to protect our children, to shield them from any form of hardship. 

But I guess to help them grow up, I myself must grow up. As I expect them to be independent, to learn through mistakes, so must I as a mother learn the hard way to let go and trust that all will be well. As tough as it is to want to cushion them from all of life's hard knocks, I must learn to stop and let them go. It is scary and full of anxious hand-wringing and second-guessing but maybe that is my journey as a mother. 

Growing up is hard. Even for mothers. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

This blog connects people

I'm revisiting Life@Riang for a few reasons. Firstly because I think its way long overdue to do a life stock-take here. It's been almost 2 years since I last posted. Too long. Thanks to Facebook the milestones of my life have been relegated to quick three-liners and food porn.

I miss the cadence of writing about my life and the children. Being a good writer takes discipline and keeping a blog like this helps sharpen the edges a bit.

Finally though, the greatest reason for writing is really the realisation that people actually do read the blog and more importantly, the blog connects lives - mine to many others out there.

Case number 1 - my uncle whom I have not seen in years, lives in far away south in Hobbitland, recently came back for a family reunion. Imagine my surprise when he scooted over to me during the after-dinner chat to say how much he enjoyed reading my blog, especially the posts on my late grandfather. Gobsmacked. He said he had googled Slugger Chiang and my blog came up. Reading it brought back memories. For him, being so far  from home and family, I guess this helps keep the tenuous links alive.

Case number 2 - a reader wrote to me about my posts about Lumiere Montessori for my children. I wrote back and I would like to think it helped her make her choices in some way. Eileen and her team of dedicated loving teachers at Lumiere do a great job. I have absolutely no regrets sending Owain and Trinity there.

Case number 3 - a friend of mine, once so close and part of my school day memories, found me through this blog. We had not been in contact for more than 20 years I think? Until she contacted me recently, I never knew how her life was going. So thanks to this, we got connected, met up and had a long talk catching up on each other's lives. A pang that I missed so much but also appreciative that this is one chance to meet again and this time, to stay in touch.

So yes, I guess I'll try to check in more often from time to time. It's worth keeping this going. I hope there will be more connections found and forged.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Monet and the colour of souls

Trinity's curiosity about life is huge. Ginormous! I am entertained, baffled, tickled and perplexed as to how to answer all the questions she has fairly, without prejudice, factually and yet simply enough that she can understand. She asks questions that none of the other children have ever asked. Some of these are tough to answer. 

Our conversation leaps from topic to topic at lightning speed. One question triggers off another and so on. 

Our conversation started with souls. Deep stuff. Even theologians struggle with this one. I try my best to tackle it valiantly. She asks: who controls our soul? Does our skeleton control our soul? Does our soul grow old when we grow old? What happens to our souls when we die? How do our souls get out of our bodies? 

So I have to give an answer that is reflective of our Catholic faith since we are Catholics. But I also struggle at certain points and I suspect I might have been treading water several times and gone under. I try to explain about conscience - the knowledge between good and bad, and the decisions we make that impact our conscience and hence, our soul. I explain that if we take care of it, our souls will look beautiful when we are dead but if we neglect it and abuse it through wrongful actions, mean words and mean thoughts, then our soul will look shriveled, old and dirty, so how do you go to heaven if your soul is dirty? Gosh, I didn't even get into purgatory yet! 

Luckily she veered off and asked: so what does heaven look like? 

I answer honestly: I don't know. And here is where I am very clear. If I do not have the answer, I say so. If I think I don't know, or I'm not sure, I admit it. I say it is my opinion or that some people think that way - I clarify that not every one shares the same view. She doesn't really care at this point because she just wants MY point of view. 

So then I do what everyone else does - I google it! 

Her next question was about bad angels. Are all angels good? Yes I say, today. But once, there were bad angels. And here's where I tell her about the fall of Lucifer. We google images to see. Lots of great art surfaces. Then she says hey mum, do you know a painting about water lilies and lily pads? The artist's name starts with an M. I name him - Monet, to her delight. Yes that's the one! Kudos to her art teacher for exposing her to Claude Monet. Wow. When I was 8, Monet was far far removed from my sphere of influences! 

So I google Monet and his famous series of water lilies. She zeroes in on Monet and the Manneporte (Etretat). When I try to explain to her that this was a rock arch in the sea, she waves me off impatiently and says: look at the sun shining on the rock mummy! It looks like a rainbow to me! I know its a rock but I like this part! I guess that is art appreciation at its purest eh? That immediate gut response to a piece of work. 

How did Monet die mummy? Lung cancer I explain. What is lung cancer? And so it goes. From there, she asks about how the heart beats, I explain about the function of the heart, the mitral valves, the structure, what happens in a heart attack, how the heart and lungs are protected by the ribcage and the sternum, what happens when cancer strikes, what are cancer cells, and all these leads weirdly, to Sandy Squirrel and how she can breathe oxygen in a space suit. Her last question of the night was: is there oxygen in space? 

From metaphysics to religion, to art and art history to biology in the space of an hour. 

I treasure this time and I appreciate this opportunity. I enjoy it even when I don't have the answers.  I enjoy it because it  feels like a journey I take too. There is a satisfaction when you see her eyes light up in understanding.I enjoy her sense of curiosity. I don't want to extinguish it. I'm glad that the grind of school has not yet killed this in her. We live in an age when information is so readily available but all that is moot if one lacks the curiosity to venture and to explore. More importantly, if I lacked the patience to help her explore all these ideas. So I guess in this way, I am sort of unschooling? 

If so, thank you Joseph Chilton Pearce for inspiring me to answer the infinite and difficult questions with patience and thank you Sergey Brin - I couldn't do it as efficiently without Google. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

A year on - an update

Life moves on in so many ways. In the day to day bustle, you don't notice where the time's gone until it's gone. So it is that I promised to keep this blog alive only to let it fizzle and fade away into the background buzz of everyday life.

So a quick update into life in my corner of the world. Not that my three followers (you know who you are!) need this update, they already know what's going on via Facebook updates etc. But sometimes it's just therapeutic to sit and take stock. Have to say though that I do have three articles sitting on my deadline of 31 Aug and I'm nowhere near completing those but as with all forms of writing I do, consider this warm-up and a good way to just let the words flow.

With another year gone, the children are older of course, and busier. It gets harder now to really get everyone around one table for a meal. The relationships also see subtle shifts.

With Gillian and Isaac, who are now 18 and 17 respectively, their lives are crowded with school, internship, friends, church work and the ever-present Facebook updates. Isaac did surprisingly decently for his O levels and got into TP's Aviation Management course. This means that we are together on campus but in a sea of 18000 students and 1700 staff, we never meet. Of course that does not mean I don't try to stalk spot my son when I head for lunch at the canteens nearest his classrooms. It does mean however, that I am more on top of things so when I spotted a camp planned for Aviation students, I pounced on him at home and asked why he didn't sign up. Things like that would be impossible if we did not share the same campus.

He fobs me off sometimes and I let him. He's older and wants his space. I don't like micro-managing. If the boy wants to look as shaggy and unkempt as a UK boy band, he's entitled to it. I may not like it but I'm beginning to realise and accept that there really is little I can do. That's something the husband does not seem to realise though and he is full-on about nagging, lecturing, prodding. I really would rather not but that's his style and I don't interfere. It just leads to the boy avoiding his father at all cost and maybe being a bit more open to telling me more stuff. That's fine with me.

Gillian is doing her internship in Butterfly Park now, giving tours to little children, student groups and tourists. She's coming home late, often exhausted but even when she tells us how tough her day was, she always manages to find pockets of optimism and snatches of joy. So if the silly parrot pecked her or the iguana dug its claws deep into her arm, she's okay because she enjoyed showing a butterfly to pre-schoolers or maybe she helped some Korean visitors feel more at ease with the insects with a smattering of Korean. She's learning that the working world is never easy but Gillian being Gillian, in her happy-go-lucky way, she always sees the silver lining and that keeps her going for the next day. And in all honesty, in life, what more can we ask for right? Not to dwell on the pain but to keep chugging along in spite of it. That kind of resilience she's got in spades.

Caitlin is in the throes of labour pains for the PSLE - the mugging, the angst, the tears and process that is called PSLE prep. The government has announced some measures to try to ease the stress. I'm not going to be pessimistic even before I've heard what these specific changes are, but what I do hear so far does not leave me hopeful that the situation will get better for subsequent PSLE kids and their parents. I'm just cynical that way. Which is why I think its just best to go your own road and do what you think is best for the child at the child's ability levels. The rest of the world and society can just take their yardsticks of success and shove it where the sun don't shine. There will never be a level playing field and those who think the government will do level out one for you would be really deluded.

For us, it's one month more and then it'll be all over. No matter how you plug at it, the quality of your work for the past two years would already preclude your performance at the PSLE. There is no magic bullet, and to be honest, hard work only does this much. I don't believe a child who consistently fails will suddenly soar to A* levels just because s/he has worked hard for the past couple of months. Intrinsically if the child has always been a 70%-scoring child, she will continue to be a 70%-scoring child at the PSLE. Maybe the burst of effort might push it up 10% but I don't expect miracles. Which is why again, the husband and I are at odds with each other. He pushes, I don't. I'm probably just lazy but I really dislike like micromanaging - have I said this before? Hmm... He's the one nattering away about powerzones and I'm the one just going - "eh do your best la." Does this create tension? You bet. In more ways than one.

Owain is puttering away at school, firing well on all cylinders except Chinese. This boy is bright. He does very well for Eng, Math and Science. The recent CA2 results showed high Band 1 grades for all three. Then when it comes to Chinese our friend plunges the depths to emerge a dismal Band 4. Not even a borderline but a really bad fail. On the bright side, he seems to have discovered an entrepreneurial flair. To reward his good performance, his Math teacher (who has a soft spot for him) gave him a highlighter and a set of some Animal Zoo cards or something like that. He does not play this card-trading game but his friends do. So he's offered to sell the deck for $8 - and someone actually accepted! The other day someone in school wanted loose change for a $2 note. Owain offered to make the change, pulling out all the coins he had - about $1.10 in all. His friend accepted the trade so Owain made $0.90 as 'commission'. This boy should either end up in government one day as PM or a really really sharp loanshark.

And now for my baby girl Trinity. This one I will protect till the end. I will defend her from her siblings when they gang up on her, from her teachers when they label her or throw boxes of homework at her and from the big nasty world if it tries to be funny with her. Like Gillian, she's extremely sunny-natured. Not the sharpest knife in the box but she makes up for it with a lot of sincere effort. She works really really hard. She takes a longer time than other kids to remember things, to absorb concepts and even then she forgets just as quickly. But the good thing about her is that she never gives up.

In the right frame of mind, when I work with her on her schoolwork, you can see that she tries hard. She can be tired and overloaded but she will try. She gives it her all. When she goes for swimming class, the coach says "Do 10 star jumps!" Other kids would be doing the half-hearted swings, cutting corners when they can. Not Trin. She would give each and every jump her whole-hearted enthusiasm, leaping high and spreading out as if her life depended on it. She can be tenacious even if she struggles. And yes she does struggle. It's showing in her school work, in her grades. She's just walking to the beat of a different drummer. When the world moves on, she'll be plodding along in the rear. That's why I feel like I have to walk with her. Take care of her for as long as I can. She's going to be 8 but she still sleeps with me and I'm so reluctant to give her up. It would be one step away from me and that is a step I am so unwilling to take.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Some day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I would like to go back to school.

All of us have had that One Defining Moment that changed our lives. Sometimes, I try to think about when mine was. And I think for me, that single most significant turning point in my life probably came and went without me even noticing it. Sometime during my junior college days, probably at one of the many parties I attended, or one of the days I skipped school, crawled beneath cut fences to spend a day at the movies, or hung out at a school sports event (my excuse to spot cute guys), it must have happened.

Sometime then, I think it began - the journey to where I am now.

My 'A' Level results paid the price of my good-time days and with it, entry to the university. My mother took it fairly well. She was disappointed but said in her very pragmatic way, "You could always go to secretarial school." It did not occur to me to re-take my 'A' levels - I didn't want to go through the whole stress of it again and I guess my confidence levels were probably a bit beaten up too. It also did not occur to me to go overseas - I didn't think we could afford it. So off I went to secretarial school.

I lasted three months.

All I took away from that time was the memory of fabulous curry puffs from Tambuah Mas during tea-breaks and touch-typing skills. I never made it as a secretary. I got a job as a writer in an entertainment magazine. And from there, my paths in journalism, PR, marcom just flowed on.

I worked in publishing houses, did publicity work, picked up marketing skills, edited a teen magazine, did media relations, burrowed deep into the civil service and along the way, got married, had kids - all five of them - bought my little house in Riang, travelled, wrote some more... and life just flowed on. There were offers and opportunities along the way - start up a parenting magazine (which is still in the stands today), head yet another popular parenting magazine as editor, to all of which I said no.

I was happy where I was. I still am.

But now, the children are growing older and finding their own spaces. I'm a long way from retiring but I'm still restless. My life is in a good place but I feel the need to think beyond these days.

And so something keeps drawing me back to one thought - I could go back to school. I could enrol in a university and get my degree. Long overdue. The pragmatic side first thought of programmes here which I could do on a part-time basis. That thought perished almost as soon as it surfaced. I will be the first to admit I would be too lazy to see this through. Just the thought of commuting to school after work from one end of the island to another gives me the shudders.

So I took one option after another, played with each possibility and tossed it aside until I came up with this one which I think is worth keeping:

I shall go back to school. But not here. Not now. I shall take a liberal arts degree in Japan. I've started looking at places and fees and surprisingly, it's do-able - after I sell my house! In say 10 years or slightly less, when the last of the kids is in her teens, when I am ready to let go of my beloved little house, I shall spend some time in Japan taking a liberal arts degree.

At that point in my life, I will not really care if the degree is practical, if it will add value to my career. I will pick subjects and pathways which I enjoy, not because of the value and shine they will add to my resume. It does not have to make sense to anyone. I will pick subject clusters in sociology, international relations, political science, language and culture... selected only based on high excitement levels. It also does not matter by then, whether I swot it out for distinctions or settle for Cs - although I suspect my natural competitiveness would push me towards good grades. I will very likely be the obasan on campus and that's fine. I checked - no age restrictions! It might even be cool to be an obasan on campus.

Best of all, I will spend time learning about and living in Japan - a place that never ceases to fascinate me.

I thought of Waseda University at first. They run an English language liberal arts school but they are so prestigious I'm not sure if they would take someone like me. Also the thought of living in Tokyo for three years is daunting. Plus I'm wary about being surrounded by super-bright, over-achieving ultra-competitive people.

Then I found Akita International University in the far rural north of Tohoku. It is a small college whose campus is in the country, outside of Akita City. Population 1.07million. Largest consumers of saury top sake guzzler in Japan. Akita produces Japan's rice, prettiest women and smartest kids. Home to the namahage demon who comes out every New Year's day to scare the pants off young kids - nothing like the threat of skinning you alive to make you behave. Plus the secluded Nyuto Onsen is practically in its backyard. I like what I'm hearing already.This is a very strong possibility but I'll keep my options open - I have time on my side! 

The nay-sayers will cluck all they like and say I'm self-indulgent (yes that is true), a bad parent for leaving her family (true but they would love to have an excuse to visit and we now have Skype!), impractical in all my choices - of country and course (deliciously true!).They will say the money can be used for retirement - true but I think I will have enough left over to be comfortable.

All these years I never once regretted not having a degree because of the value of the paper. That never mattered that much. I think I've proven - to myself at least - that the lack of paper qualifications never hindered me in my career (or at least it didn't matter to me since my career or what's left of it has been on the back-burner for such a long time). I never hankered for it. 

The stress of doing something like this just to gain a piece of paper is not for me. When I choose to learn and wish to devote my time and energies to a project away from my family, it better be worth it. That was why I chose the Grad Dip in Childbirth Education: I had such passion for the subject matter.

I truly believe learning ought to stem from sheer joy and a deep personal interest. This comes from making a conscious decision, a choice to learn something that one is deeply passionate about. And I think this is where it will start for me. I will work towards it and look forward to it. To that someday when I can go back to school.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Electric youth!

It's the holidays and one by one, the kids take turns at going to camp. Confirmation Camp, Christmas Camp, Altar Servers Camp, Youth Council Shepherds Camp, Youth Council Retreat. 3 days and 2 nights spent not in a fancy resort by the sea but in a church-owned building in various parts of Singapore.

The sleeping bag has never seen such action.

Over the past few weeks, at any one time, at least one of the kids would be off somewhere.

It's been fun for them and for me, given me fresh insight into a group of people I'm only just getting to know through the eyes of my kids - the youths. And what I have seen so far impresses me and leaves me with lots of food for thought.

Invariably, these camps are run by young people in their teens to early twenties. Usually they are from the youth ministries in church. Both Isaac and Gillian are highly active in these ministries themselves. Isaac faithfully serves mass twice a week at least, attends meetings with the altar server boys. And both he and Gillian are in the Youth Council. Gillian in fact recently stepped up to serve as a 'Shepherd', a youth leader in the YC.

I like the fact that these activities keep them busy and engaged. They get to know committed, responsible young people, serve the community and along the way, shape their own faith.

These kids are a good bunch. When Gillian was hospitalised, they trooped down en masse for a visit, leaving a huge home-made get-well-soon card peppered with cheerful wishes, photographs and names that even the doctor grew to be familiar with. They are unfailingly polite and courteous when we meet. 

Beyond this, I've seen them in action and I like what I see. The Risen Christ Children's League who organised the Christmas Camp is case in point. These kids - usually ranging from about 16 to 20 in age - run the Children's Liturgy at mass and they organise activities for the younger kids eg outings and camps during the holidays. They are such a cheery bunch, loaded with enthusiasm and ideas.

At the Christmas Camp, it can't have been easy looking after some 30 kids, some as young as six. But these kids took it all in their stride. They led creatively, patiently, with lots of laughter and improvisation. They managed the younger kids very well. I watched them keep the group in order, inspire the shy kids to get up on stage, manage the noisier ones, lead the singing with lots of smiles and encouragement and came mealtimes, they served the buffet line and were always, always polite with a smile.

Similarly the altar servers that Isaac work with are a great bunch. The older boys in their late teens take charge and lead the group. They behave with maturity and dignity sometimes beyond their years.

At a parents forum once, some parents gave them a hard time, pushing for some unreasonable requests. Sitting at the back of the room, I've rolled my eyes at these over-protective, critical, picky parents and wondered why they could not just leave the boys to manage the situation and work things out themselves - after all, the boys have done a great job so far. Once or twice I was tempted to tell these parents to just give the boys a break. But I didn't have to. The boys handled the prickly situations very well - always giving considered answers, always polite. They took every comment, suggestion seriously and explained clearly their stand. They never lost the "ma'am" and "sir" even when the comments grew heated. I was so proud of them and I wish I knew who their parents were - I'd shake their hands for raising such great kids.

At Isaac's confirmation camp, I realised that all the youth groups in church had been mobilised to facilitate and help in some way or other. They not only managed logistics and organisation but also facilitated discussion and reflection. How so that these kids had the maturity, faith and insight to share and to lead? To hear them speak, to hear them sing praise and worship, was stirring. I was seeing living faith in action.I was seeing youth leadership at work.

The catechists who worked with the kids for confirmation on their faith journeys from Sec 1 to Sec 3 are young people themselves, a few scant years older. I thought this was great - nothing like the young leading the young. Everything becomes immediate and more relevant. It is brilliant to get the young people to lead the faith journey. Far better than the old ways when adults did most of the teaching and the leadership.

Seeing kids lead like this gives me lots of hope for the future. Sure, not all of them are scholars, not all are brilliant in their studies, but if we get the youth of today - kids like these - growing up to fill the shoes of leaders in the future, then I think the future is in good hands.

Before my kids became teenagers, I'd fretted about them making the right choices in their friends and activities. Who has not heard horror stories of kids who went astray, made bad choices and paid the price? The image of young people - Gen X, Gen Y etc - was usually one that was self-absorbed, not altruistic, materialistic and irresponsible. They would be uncommunicative with their parents and there would be a huge chasm between kids and adults - or so I thought.

Then I met kids like these and it's set this common image up on end. The kids I know are not like this at all.

I tried to put my finger on it. Was it because of religion? Because these were church groups? But no. It went beyond religion.

In my work in the polytechnic, I get to meet and work with young people too. At least the ones I know are the same way - driven, committed, enthusiastic, creative, loyal and passionate in their views. See them lead in orientation camps. See how they manage themselves and others. They work very hard and contribute eagerly. Where was the irresponsibility, the angst, the selfishness, the arrogance often associated with Youth?

Couple of things I've reflected on - first, we must engage the youth. We must not be afraid to turn the reins over to them. We must give them a cause - something to believe in and then on our part, we must believe they have something to contribute and allow them to contribute. When they believe in something and when they are given enough trust and empowerment, you will witness the power of youth.

The power of the pack is also key and can move in either direction. Give someone lost and struggling a sense of belonging in a gang and that's where his loyalties will lie. Young people tend to search for a space they believe in, belong to and can call their own. If we can shepherd them into youth groups, and do it early enough, we can shape them for the better.

I am glad my kids are deeply involved in church groups. I never encouraged them to do so; they just found their own way in. These friends, their peers will give them a different validation and affirmation they need, that cannot be given by their parents. So I'm glad they're busy - out serving mass, facilitating a camp, decorating the church for Christmas - they are growing, learning and contributing productively. And most of all, I'm just glad they are in good hands.