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.
And truth be told, I do think I am used to the solitude. Even with my only daughter and child gone, I still keep busy, tracking the stock market, having tea with my former colleagues, tending to my plants and doing my morning qigong. The Chinese aunties from the neighbourhood had initially been amused when I first joined them at the park but with my regularity and earnestness they seem quite fond of me now.
Then there are the visits from my nephew Kenny to look forward to. He is the youngest son of my sister who lives in Kuala Lumpur. He drops in once a fortnight with biscuits and fruits and indulges me in my reminiscences. Kenny works as a hairstylist in what I imagine to be a swanky salon downtown and once a month, he trims my hair. Kenny has always had a good eye for the aesthetic things in life, even as a child, when he won art competitions and helped his mother choose curtain fabric and cushion covers.
Kenny does not say it explicitly but I have concluded that he finds Singapore too ugly for his fine sense of the aesthetic. He has long litany of pet peeves: food courts which leave a smell of cooked food in your clothes, rude people who do not say “you’re welcome” when thanked, diners who leave prawn shells on the table, women with garish highlights in badly permed hair? GROSS, he’d exclaim with disdain. I will not be surprised if one day Kenny too, will get restless with his lot here and seek greener pastures elsewhere.
But for now I appreciate my nephew’s kindness. He listens patiently when I ramble on about Art-deco Katong mansions now levelled, or chuckle over the travails of the nightsoil man or recount the dubious hygiene practices of itinerant hawkers. I am sure some of these anecdotes do not agree with his sensibility but still he maintains a pleasant smile.
One weekday evening, after watching an episode of a Chinese soap opera with me and declaring it the most insipid thing he had ever seen (especially when one had to make the extra effort of reading subtitles), Kenny started telling me what Jasmine had said about her decision to migrate.
Perhaps it was because of Kenny’s loyalty that it was months after his cousin’s departure before this was broached. The two were not very close but as children, Jasmine was always the one to stand by him when relatives teased him or when I was too insistent that he step outdoors to join the boys in some sport. Perhaps out of these old loyalties, he did not want to betray any confidences earlier.
On the other hand, things may not have been as calculated as that and it was simply the drama series on TV, an extended family saga, that triggered Kenny’s thoughts. It is possible that he was not waiting for an opportunity to raise the subject.
For most part, his story about the tension between myself and Jasmine struck too familiar a chord although I had already tucked much of it in a far-away recess of the mind. But according to Kenny’s version, the unhappiness escalated into a terrible fight and I eventually resorted to emotional blackmail to prevent her from leaving and having a life of her own.
In fact, it appeared that for years, I was a grumpy, inflexible authoritarian who was part of an obsolete patriarchy, who ruled over his daughter’s life with a suffocatingly tight leash. I was, as it turns out, one of the main reasons why emigration was attractive.
It was a moment I will remember for a while, as time seemed to grind to some slow stop. I could see myself sitting in my sofa as if I was a mere witness to the exchange - observing an old man with his calm hands on his lap, listening to a pale, delicate boy in a boat-necked tee-shirt. How similar his elegant brows were to Jasmine’s, I noticed.
No matter how much I claimed I understood my daughter’s temper, or had grown accustomed to her fiery outbursts, this was nothing I had anticipated. Yet strangely enough I could too easily imagine her voice articulating those very words, could readily hear her voice, pouring her frustration into the ears of a ready listener somewhere.
The TV, I remember, was playing some glib advertisement encouraging senior citizens to lead a healthy life. Happy, white-haired folks from all four ethnic groups were kicking a football around, or tending to grandchildren or taking ballroom dancing lessons. It was almost surreal.
“You alright, uncle?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said with a small laugh. “I am just thinking about what you said. It’s food for thought.”
“You had no idea at all? I am sorry if I surprised you with -” Kenny did not complete his sentence.
I didn’t respond to this. Instead I got up to switch off the television and told Kenny I was tired as it was nearly ten. I usually go to bed at half past ten. Kenny picked up his bright haversack.
“Were you really such a strict disciplinarian when Jas was younger?”
“I was the school discipline master but I never brought any of that back home,” I demurred. “Jasmine may have felt otherwise though? Perhaps I should have paid her more attention, and not left it all to your Auntie.”
We fell into an awkward silence at the door. “You know,” I offered as parting words, “deep down inside, Jasmine is really a good person.”
I spend some mornings, after the qigong classes, walking along sunlit avenues in my estate. On these brisk walks, I recall where the exact shoreline was and I often retrace it. I imagine I am even walking on water, especially on really humid days when the air feels heavy. I fear I will carry such secret knowledge to the grave and I think: if no one records, inherits or remembers, can one say it ever existed?
But I remember Jasmine’s stories, a little too lucidly perhaps. Sometimes I wish I could meet her erstwhile boss, that allegedly ill-intentioned political animal, just for the opportunity to check out what lies beneath the benign, moustached mien that Jasmine once pointed out in a photograph.
Even if I do meet him, I am not sure what I want to hear. Do I want to know how pressing were the other factors that pushed her to go? Or if my daughter is capable of objective truth? Or if any narrative is ever reliable?
It is almost ten when I finish my walks. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, I join some of my former male colleagues for a cup of coffee in Katong. We used to routinely have nasi lemak or laksa with these gatherings but these days, we are more health-conscious and scrupulously avoid meals laden with coconut milk.
These days, we also find ourselves comparing notes about our children and their increased mobility. Going abroad for work or studies is so much more common nowadays, we observe. Peng, the youngest of our group, a Mathematics teacher who retired last year, say he appreciates the fact that his children are thoughtful and give him and his missus regular cash tokens. Filial piety, we cluck in approval.
Those of us in the group who have grandchildren speak lovingly of them. It keeps them occupied and fills the house with happy sounds, although babysitting can be a tiring activity too. When asked about Jasmine, I declare that as long as my daughter is fulfilling her ambitions and has a happy, wholesome life, I am content; I cannot ask for more.
One of the regulars, Yusoff, who taught Malay and Physical Education and who has a dozen grandchildren at least, tells me I should consider joining my daughter in Canada. I gently dismiss it, assuring him that I value my independence. I don’t even need any financial contribution from her since I can get by on my pension. Besides, she may need it more in Vancouver where costs of living are higher, I say.
I think I would not like the dry air in Canada anyway. Once on a visit to Sydney, Australia, years ago, my dry skin started to flake all over the place. As we walked in the busy streets, I shed pieces of me all over my clothes and into the astringent Australian air.
I remember my wife laughing in the hotel room, forcing her bottle of moisturizer on me, even though I balked at its feminine floral odour, and Jasmine, almost ten then, jumping up and down on the bed with such wild abandon, like some gleeful monkey. “Lizard-man! Daddy’s turned into Lizard-man!” she chanted. There are many such moments like these which return to me effortlessly. They linger, like the scent of a salt breeze lingering on long-reclaimed land.