Sunday, May 21, 2006

Lincoln Tan - To live our parents' dreams

I still remember vividly the farewell dinner my parents gave me in Singapore before my permanent move to New Zealand in 1997. My dad, who was never the emotional sort, got rather sentimental that night when he said, "Go to New Zealand and live my dreams." I never really understood what he meant then. His dream never became a reality because life had been hard. His father, my granddad, was killed during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II when Dad was just a teenager. As the only child, he was left to fend for my grandmother, who was illiterate. After marrying my mother, he was the sole breadwinner supporting not only our immediate family - which included Mom, my sister and me - but also Grandma and one unmarried aunt who lived with us. In the tiny two-bedroom government high-rise flat where the six of us lived, there was hardly any room for potted plants, let alone the green pastures and mountains he secretly dreamed his children might enjoy. I still recall the day when my sister opened a letter and was so excited that she had been accepted into Singapore's university. What followed was a long talk with Mom and Dad, and that joy turned into sadness when she found out that she wasn't going to varsity because Dad could not afford the fees. I never knew the sacrifices Dad had made for us because life had been good for me in my growing years. I never had a day hungry. It was only when we were adults - Sis eventually became the director of sales at an international hotel, and me a newspaper journalist - that Dad told us about the many hungry days he had just to make ends meet. At the airport and knowing I knew of his ambition, he repeated those same words: "Go and live my dreams - do everything I've always wanted to do but never got the chance to." As a father I am starting to understand - and was reminded of this when recently working on stories relating to Chinese students in New Zealand . The students we see around us are the first batch of Chinese to reach adulthood since the implementation of the one-child policy in the 80s. They are precious to their parents. As Nancy Hu, the president of the NZ Chinese Students' Association puts it: "Because the law only allows one child, Chinese parents would sacrifice everything and place all their hopes for the future on their son or daughter." Unlike Dad, their sacrifices may not be financial. But letting go of their only child, entrusting them to the unknown, must be difficult. But like Dad, their parents will be living their own dreams in these students. Going overseas for further studies or learning English in a Western country must surely have been their dream, too. They must hope that New Zealand will be their children's ticket to a better life: giving them good academic qualifications that could land them prestigious jobs, perhaps also getting a New Zealand passport allowing them to travel the world freely. They must hope their children meet the right partners, get married, have children of their own and live happily ever after. But some have been sidetracked from the privileged tasks their parents sent them here for - to study, enjoy New Zealand and get a head start. They choose to live the high life: gambling, smoking and buying fancy sports cars with money meant for their living expenses, then turning to crime when they run out of money and places to borrow from. Last week, while working on a story for the Herald, I spoke to a Chinese student who saw her body as the way to easy cash, turning to prostitution when her mother stopped sending money. She let her business studies lapse and then even blamed her mother for her becoming a hooker. In traditional Chinese culture, respect for elders and especially parents plays a very important role. Some Chinese youths are also living in denial - and are not used to hearing or reading anything negative about them. Reading reports in iBall on some non-Chinese responses to the murder of Wan Biao on Good Friday prompted one Chinese student to write saying we were "second-class Chinese" because Charles Chan, my co-editor, was from Malaysia and I was from Singapore. Are these students a picture of China's one-child policy gone wrong? Their parents have no clue about their lives in New Zealand and I cannot imagine the pain they would feel if they found out. How can they be so irresponsible as to turn their parents' dreams into nightmare? With me living in New Zealand, Dad now gets to live his dreams when he makes regular visits. Some of these students would be in a position where they, too, can help their parents to live their dreams - and perhaps repay them a little for the sacrifices that they have made. As I dropped off my son Ryan at school, I think I finally understood what Dad told me before I left Singapore. Parents do live their dreams in their children. In Ryan, I am living my dream, as I watch him grow in a land with green pastures to run around in and mountains to climb - to do the things that I, too, only dreamed of doing as a child. I dream that one day, after he has run around the pastures, he will climb the highest mountain. Then, when he plants the flag, I will be standing there beside him as his very proud dad. * Lincoln Tan is managing editor of iBall, a free fortnightly English language Asian newspaper


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