By Paul Tan
It’s such an irony. I had always thought that marriage for my only child Jasmine was a given. As with all my other siblings, marriage was not only to ensure one’s continued progeny, it was protection against censure and unwanted speculation. Most importantly, it was the best safeguard against loneliness, especially in one’s twilight years.
Jasmine today is still single at thirty-five, living it up in Vancouver where she migrated. From what she tells me, her calendar is always crowded with interesting appointments with chatty, effusive people. Weekends are spent trekking some pristine patch of nature or learning the finer points of wine-tasting. There is never enough time, she declared. I, on the other hand, am a widower who spends a good part of his days alone in a comfortable three-room flat in Marine Parade.
Not that I mind it now. I am perfectly content with this arrangement that affords me solitude and quiet reflection. I have reconciled myself to the unlikely prospects of noisy nuptials for Jasmine, especially when one weighs in her passion for her new- found home and her friends there.
Of late, in her weekly communications, her disdain for Singapore, or at least its men, has become more strident. She increasingly chooses to interact with Canadian men, rather than men from the Asian community there. Those guys are so with it, articulate and sporting, she declared, compared to Singaporean men who were graceless, guarded chauvinists with the charm of a flea. I did not understand all her idioms, many of them trendy American phrases but listened intently anyway.
Jasmine has always been vocal. Apart from her familiar gripes about the dearth of interesting Singaporean men, she also felt passionately the need to get away from a system which she felt routinely discriminated against her. This was something she had often shared with me over an after-dinner glass of wine. She labelled it The System - a sum of cold bureaucracy, inept management and prejudiced decision-making.
Her boss, a Chinese former government scholar, was determined to marginalise her by shunting her off to less important projects and not looking after her interests during the annual appraisal exercise. He was threatened by her outspoken manner, the speed of her decisions and her strong presentation skills. That was why the last round of appraisals, she believed, was little more than an opportune moment for him to engage in character assassination.
The last straw was when they promoted the nerdy colleague seated across from her. She fumed, how can he be promoted when he clearly has less experience than I have? She insinuated that there was an element of sexism - and yes, even racism involved - because that Chinese guy was simply undeserving. Obviously, she concluded, The System, which she already had precious little faith in, was irredeemable.
Jasmine told me then, with that resolute glint in the eye, that on her last day, she will expunge all those important files which she had been responsible for and expose her boss as an inefficient oaf who shirked responsibilities and was focussed on hogging all the credit and limelight. Why should the incompetent braggart (or politicking bastard or witless brown-noser - Jasmine had a list of colourful, derogatory epithets) benefit from the groundwork she had so diligently laid in place?
The stories Jasmine told me frightened me. They were so full of fierce convictions and rancorous blame, her office appeared to be a dangerous minefield. I was concerned. How could there be such blatantly unprofessional behaviour in a well-known company, in a country distinguished by its sense of fair play and meritocracy? I was outraged as well, especially when I reminisced about the musty but quiet staff room where I spent decades of my life, where the atmosphere was one of placid diligence and civil discussion. I had never been at the receiving end of such unjust treatment at work. My heart went out to my daughter.
I am not sure whether she actually did delete the files from her computer after her resignation. I can only hope she did not. Perhaps I will ask her the next time she calls.
Even with her frustration, I had been unaware that Jasmine had plans all along to leave for different pastures. Perhaps that is a shortcoming on my part, being a father who was not good at picking up nuances and the subtle calibrations of gestures.
I was tending to my bonsai plants when Jasmine told me one Saturday morning that her application for a Canadian PR was successful. I was surprised, to say the least, and in my haste, lopped off one of the miniature tree’s branches.
“Dad, are you listening?”
“Yes, I heard you. When did you? Why - ?”
“It’s a long story. You know I’ve had enough of The System here, with its pretence and reluctance - no, inability - to recognize real ability. It’s a sham and I don’t want to be part of it anymore.”
“Jas, have you thought through all the implications?” My tone was measured but at the back of mind, I suspected that I did not figure in her plans for a different life abroad.
Almost as if she read my mind, she said, wearing that familiar face of fierce determination. “Yes, I have. I’ve already typed out my letter of resignation and will hand it to that moron in the office tomorrow. Then I will step up my job hunt. I have already been in touch with on-line recruitment agencies and headhunters. It’ll only be a while before I get an offer. I am sure by the time I leave in August I will have a concrete offer. In the worst case scenario, I will continue the job search there. I have lots of varsity friends and many contacts?.”
I mentioned the uncertain economy, which was summarily dismissed as well as the high tax rates in Canada, which she said had been taken into account. Once again, as had been the case since her teens, Jasmine was not going to bow down.
“Dad, I should go now while I’m young. And while you’re still relatively young too. You still lead an active lifestyle here. You know I wouldn’t go if you weren’t leading an independent life. It’s just PR you know. I can come back anytime.”
I put my shears down noisily - it made a startling sound in our verandah - and walked away wordlessly. It was not anger really, even though it may have appeared that I flung down the shears in a rage.
Though I didn’t articulate it, I was mostly disappointed with her easy presumptuousness and a decision-process so apparently effortless I needed no consultation until the very end. If consult was even an appropriate word to use.
When Jasmine was a little girl and my wife was still alive, I used to dream of my twilight years filled with grandchildren, pleasant strolls on the beach and the occasional leisurely adventure abroad. I have a favourite photograph of Jas as a girl of five or six, straddling a tricycle and wearing a ridiculously large party hat.
We had just come from her birthday celebration, a modest affair of dinner at one of the roadside hawker stalls beside a canal. That canal has since been realigned and the land surrounding it is now home to a peach-coloured condominium with full-length tinted windows. I have never pointed this out to Jas, even if I am sure she remembers the happy moment. She would not be interested to know more and worse yet, I fear she believes nostalgia is for the weak.
We did not speak about her migration plans directly until one month before her departure when packing and other domestic arrangements intruded into our daily routines. At that point, I told her that though it was not easy for me to understand the desperate need to get away, I saw no point in trying to dissuade her. As she responded by elaborating on the opportunities abroad, her friends there, the severely flawed system here, the unbearable weather, I nodded, content to make sympathetic noises. By then I had prepared myself for the impending departure and living alone.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001