Mee Siam and Me

Swallow this, kids. My daily staple helped me appreciate values such as perseverance

tree8One memory of my primary schooldays is how Dad bought me six pairs of school shorts when I started at St Michael’s School at Essex Road in the 60s. He had always been frugal, so six pairs at one go was a generous gesture. Most of my friends had only two.

Maybe it was to encourage me to work hard at school, I thought. Anyway, teachers at that were impressed with tidy students with Brylcreemed hair.

The khaki shorts – the school uniform – were huge for me and were not unlike the knee-length ones Singapore’s police force used in the 1960s.  I did not realise then but those six pairs of shorts were to last me all the way to Primary 6. By which time I had grown somewhat and the shorts looked like the hot pants which were the rage with women in the 70s. By then, most of my classmates were on to their twelfth pair of shorts. You could say I felt shortchanged.

It was not only my shorts that remained a constant. My meal for recess those six years was something I packed from home – a bread and plain butter sandwich with a sprinkling of  sugar. I had zero pocket money.

When I moved on to secondary school, there was only one serious meal my daily allowance of 15 cents could buy in St Joseph Institution’s canteen – mee siam. I had that  every day for four years.

The seller once stopped to chat with me. He thought I was a conservative Muslim who was not sure about whether the rest of the canteen food was halal. I told him he made fantastic mee siam and that I could never get enough of it.

Four years of mee siam every day left me traumatised. I never touched mee siam again until I was in my 30s and that too because a friend invited me over for dinner and he claimed his mum made the world’s best mee siam. I accepted the invitation only because this guy was a good friend.

It might have been just food but years later I realized that these early experiences had built in a quality of perseverance, the need to stick with something – even if you hated it. My kids call up sometimes to ask: “What’s for dinner?” as if to say that they would eat out if it was not something they liked.

For many of us parents, there are values which are clear-cut – do not steal, be honest and I try for ‘love your enemies’ though I settle for spare them for now’ ‘.  And I strongly feel that parents who tell their kids – you can do anything just don’t get caught are really courting trouble. But there are values which my kids think are outdated or would leave them shortchanged in life. Some of them would be allegiance, loyalty and commitment to family, friends, people I work with, my employer, my church and my football guys.

A few Sundays ago, I met a pastor friend whom I had not seen for a while. He got up from his seat before service began, came over to me and said: ‘Mathew do you still support Manchester United or have you given up on them?’

Then, Man U was going through its worst stretch in years but I told him I was still a Red Devil supporter. ‘Ah! You are a true United fan,’ he said.

Sure, sometimes you lose steam. I got up at 2am recently to watch Arsenal play PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League because I think they are probably dishing out the best football in Europe at the moment. But I am still a United fan.

My loyalty to my friends often got me into trouble with Dad. He noticed how I stood by them when things went wrong and he used to say: “Your friends will be your downfall.”

But this quality is something which I struggle to imbue in my kids. They equate loyalty with a lack of change, a constant and therefore dull. Even in small areas like going to the same hawkers centre two days in a row was too much for them to handle. They would say in their irritating sing-song fashion, ‘Boring.’

This constant need for change sometimes worries me. I have seen them give up on their piano, tennis and swimming. When something is not exciting anymore, they drop it. My kids know I still firmly believe that patience and perseverance are qualities they should develop in them.

It makes it tougher to teach them when they are sceptical of how much it would be of use to them. A couple of weeks ago, I found out that my son Marcus, who had just completed his PSLE, had been running a small business. His brother Shaun told on him.

‘Marcus even sold a wallet to his cousin, Jonathan,’ my 16-year-old said with disgust.

‘You don’t sell things to your cousin, Marc,’ he added.

Marcus had been buying bracelets, chains with engraved pendants (name, your MSN nick and even your PSLE score to aim for before the exam) from Queensway shopping centre and selling them to friends.

The dog tag was $10 and personalised bracelets, $20. He had a whole line of buyers, I was made to understand. His profit margin was huge.

That was ripping off his friends, I told him. But Marcus argued – there was a high demand, supply was low and that economic forces determined the price. He said he had told them where this supply came from and would not mind if they wanted to do away with him, the middleman. He was only providing a service, he felt.

While I was not averse to him doing it, I insisted, that he capped his profits at $2 per item. As part of the deal, I would foot his overheads – the cost of petrol to drive him to Queensway, the carpark fees and the char siew pau I had to get him there. For $2, it was not worth the trouble, he decided, and he closed shop.

Maybe I was a bit harsh. But the point that I had to make was that he had to think of the impact his actions had on others, especially those around him.

‘What if one of the guys did not have the money and decided to sell his cellphone, or worse, someone else’s to get the money?’ I asked. ‘If I don’t do it, someone else will, Dad. That is what happens these days,’ he said. Marcus told me he was only selling stuff – how his friends got his money was not his business. He did feel I was too rigid.

One of my friends told me that I had killed that entrepreneur spirit in him. Better that than for him to go through life thinking that when it comes to making money, anything goes. I strongly feel you don’t profit from friends and family.

I can think of a few more values which are sometimes laughed at – one of which is teaching my kids humility. I am talking about starting with simple acts. I tell my kids to offer a drink to the guy who delivers something to your place or stopping to chat with the person who sweeps your estate.

These are values Dad taught me and which have benefited me and which I would want my kids to have. Sure, society is changing at a fast pace but I am sure that, come 20 years down the road, my kids will look back and say – Thanks, Dad. Just as I do today.

About The Author: Mathew Pereira, a former member of the Fathers Action Network (FAN), and Sports Editor of The Straits Times. Between 2004 and 2008, he penned several columns about his personal experience of fatherhood. This piece was one of many in his collection of fatherhood stories.

First published on 31-01-2012.

Categories: Dad's Journey, Matthew Pereira

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