One of the earliest memories of my father was of him offering me a piggyback ride on his broad shoulders. I was ecstatic, of course, and in my throes of abandon would grab up tufts of his hair, mussing up his meticulously Brylcreamed* hair.
He never seemed to care, instead lifting me up just that little bit higher, until I felt I could touch the sky.
The School Discipline Master
Unfortunately, such tender moments of father and son bonding grew more and more infrequent as I grew older. Once I reached school-going age, circumstances conspired to place me in the same primary school that my father taught at.
As if this arrangement were not awkward enough (having to greet my own father with an impersonal “Good morning Mr. Huang” every time we passed each other in the corridors, for example), my father was also the Discipline Master, feared for his quick temper, stern countenance and the thin cane that he carried around.
Soon, I was dogged by my dubious reputation as the “Discipline Masters’ Son”, simultaneously adored by teachers for my good behavior and loathed by problem students and jealous schoolmates, who bandied accusations of favoritism.
It was not an easy time for me. Despite being a model student, the odd complaint by one of my tell-tale schoolmates for the occasional childish prank was enough to garner me a public telling-off or worse, a stinging lash across the palm.
Maintaining discipline at home
If Dad was harsh as a Discipline Master in school, he was even stricter with us at home. It was clear to us that Dad had difficulty separating his work life and family life – he ran a tight ship at home and brooked absolutely no-nonsense from his two children.
To keep us on our best behavior, Dad kept a three rattan canes of varying thickness in an umbrella stand near the front door, which granted him ease of access while serving as a constant visual reminder of the consequences of misbehaving.
While reprimanded for any misdemeanor, we were not supposed to talk back or even show the slightest hint of displeasure on our faces. Doing so would only result in more severe punishment being meted out.
Rebellion and confrontation
Having to play the disciplinarian both at work and at home eventually took its toll on Dad’s health. Battling chronic hypertension – especially as schoolchildren became more rebellious and parents more demanding – Dad went into early retirement.
This allowed him to maintain even tighter reins over his household, much to the chagrin of my elder sister and I, especially after we hit adolescence.
I recall my sister violating her midnight curfew once after clubbing till the wee hours. Dad sat up all night waiting for her, and when she finally stepped into the house, the confrontation was nothing short of apocalyptic.
Older and wiser
Nevertheless, I think Dad and I both grew up a little and mellowed along the way.
For me, staying on campus during my undergraduate days and Military Service proved to be decisive turning points, as being away from home for extended periods of time made miss Dad’s gruff but well-intentioned ways.
Dad too learned to let go of his explosive temper and penchant for overreaction.
Retiring after 20 years as Discipline Master allowed him to channel his energies and frustrations more constructively, like through gardening and DIY home furnishing. And as the both of us matured and eased into a more comfortable relationship built on mutual trust, Dad slowly let go of his controlling nature and Discipline Master alter ego.
A good father, a better grandfather
The biggest change in Dad’s demeanour came about when my niece was born, and my sister and brother-in-law moved in with us. If Dad had been extremely stringent with us during our childhood, he was the complete opposite with his first grandchild, openly showering her with affection and pampering her with toys and treats.
Now in his early sixties, Dad is no longer the tall and robust Discipline Master whose appearance would shush the unruliest of schoolchildren. Yet, he is charged with energy around my toddler niece, which I note with some tinge of jealousy.
A doting grandfather, he would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to change her diapers, feed and clean her, and carry her around the neighbourhood. In particular, watching Dad baby-talking with my niece made for a very surreal experience, given the apparent disconnect with our own experiences growing up.
Still, when he chides her sternly for biting, or throwing a tantrum, he reminds us that he is still very much the Dad I grew up with.
Today, as I most like to think, that fatherhood for my Dad was merely part of an extended educational phase that prepared him to become the ultimate, nurturing grandfather.
I cannot help but feel my heart take flight when I see Dad lifting my niece onto his shoulders as he used to piggyback me around, so many years ago. I cannot wait for my own turn to come, when I myself take up the challenge of fatherhood.
*Brylcream is a popular men’s hairstyling product.
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 14-03-2013
Categories: Dads' Stories