Today I reflect on the school choices my dad was confronted with at every stage of his education. Hindsight bestows great wisdom. In the moment, though, it’s never easy to decide these things: which language to study in? where to study? which exams to sit for? My dad’s journey gives me comfort that even when the best way forward is not clear, we move forward, one step at a time.

Primary School: traditional or modern?

My dad was born in 1940, so World War II had just ended when it was time for him to start school. The question was if he should attend the traditional Chinese school run by his neighbour, where young children left their slippers at the door and recited Chinese classics. Although my grandfather was a teacher in the classics, he insisted that dad enrol in the local primary school where maths and science was taught (in Chinese). My dad, at 6 years old, very timid, very quiet, and did as he was told.

High School: Chinese or English?

Granddad wanted dad to apply to St Michaels or Anglo-Chinese Boys School, where lessons were taught in English. Dad, who had been bullied in primary school, imagined himself surrounded by boys who spoke the garbled language of the white man – not enticing. At the entrance exams to these two schools, he scribbled a few (wrong) answers and left the rest of the sheet blank. At the Chinese School entrance exams, however, dad did his best and was accepted into two schools: Yuk Choy and Sam Tet. The gold buttons on the shirt epaulettes of Yuk Choy’s uniform was the deal  clincher and he enroled in Yuk Choy. His elder sister’s boyfriend gave him a Rayleigh bicycle and on this he cycled to school, from Menglembu to Ipoh. Thus, he began to reinvent himself, and formed a ‘Gang of Five’ – big on swagger, low on funds – a disastrous combination.

Victory photo, team posing with trophy.
Yuk Choy High School foorball champions, Ipoh 1958. Dad is in the front row, second from right.

Post high school options: China? Taiwan? Teacher’s college? 

Local Chinese high school exams were not recognised by the Malayan government, so there was no hope of a place at a local university. Rich kids went to in England or Australia. Dad was out of options – no way out of the small town – and out of motivation to study. Covertly, he wrote to a cousin in China, asking him about universities there. This was at the time of the Cultural Revolution, and I am so grateful that dad didn’t uproot himself and take off to China. At Yuk Choy, Teacher Bai, who taught Chemistry, told the class that for $50 a month, any one of them could study in Taiwan. This was the chance my dad had been waiting for. But my granddad didn’t even have $50 a month and urged my dad to go to teacher’s college instead, for a stable and secure job. Finally, his sister supported him, $50 a month, from her salary as a mid-wife, cycling around Sungai Siput, delivering babies. Of course, he often spent all the $50 ahead of time and it was amusing to hear his varied methods of getting a free meal toward the end of the month.

Graduation Photo
My dad at his graduation in 1964

How my dad’s education affected me

Firstly, I was able to study in Australia because my dad became a civil and structural consulting engineer. Taiwan was just the beginning. There were many more struggles to get his qualifications recognised. Secondly, he chose not to send me to a Chinese school, because of all the troubles he had when he started working due to his inability to speak or understand English. So the irony is that I now have to use the translate button on messaging app, WeChat, to get the gist of what other Chinese parents are saying and I, a Chinese person, am writing this blog post in English, my heart language.

Going forward

The best thing about writing my dad’s book is that he was candid with me about his personal failings. I received comfort that despite it all, things turned out alright.

So for the next generation, I do my best, expect my children to have a mind of their own, expecting that they will strike out and come back when they need help and guidance, and then go out again to make their own way in the world.

Brainstorm bookcover
Brainstorm by Dr Siegel

A psychiatrist friend recently recommend the book Brainstorm by Dr Siegel. The author redefines adolescent years as 14 – 24, the years when the frontal lobe is still developing, the part of the brain that controls creativity and decision-making. This is quite different to the legal definition of an adult at the age of 17 or 18. According Siegel, adult interaction and guidance continues to be important to young people throughout their adolescent years, through high-school and in post high-school years. Sometimes, when I find it hard being a mum, I look back to my dad, read his story, have a bit of a laugh, and look ahead, with renewed fortitude.

black fish white background
New Cover for my Dad’s Memoirs

This is the first in a a three-part series reflecting on my dad’s life, with story snippets from his memoirs, Fish in the Well. Next Friday: the frustrations of entering the workforce and trying getting Taiwanese qualifications recognised in Malaysia. My hope is to relaunch my dad’s book as an ebook on Chinese New Year. But I am doing this largely on my own, and so I feel like a high-school student struggling with an assignment and the teacher is not in class. But, hey, the intention is there …countdown to Feb 16.