Is this the little girl I carried?

I was out of Hong Kong most of last week, first attending the 2001 Kuala Lumpur Rotary Institute with Rosita and Stephanie, returning Sunday night, and then attending the Fifth Beijing-Hong Kong Economic Co-operation Symposium in Beijing with a colleague. I spent the week therefore waiting at airports, hotels, conference rooms, taxi ranks, and various counters, including immigration, security, registration, food and drinks, sometimes with the family, but very often alone. Kipling’s if you can wait etcetera was ever on the mind.

I was intent to keep myself up to speed through emails and had a laptop prepared and programmed to receive office and personal messages. Alas, I received all my office messages and was able to deal with them while I was away, but for reasons that are probably too technical, I could not receive or send the personal ones. I returned last night to find all sorts of messages in the inbox waiting impatiently. As usual, there were the junk mail, jokes, chasers and reminders. Among them was a joke from a Rotarian. This friend is not renowned for using this form of communication. He had actually called me when I was in Beijing asking whether I had checked my email. When I told him that I was in Beijing and could not do so before Wednesday night, he sounded somewhat upset, but was spirited enough to remind me to do so as soon as practicable. And so I did. It was a story of Superman with his immortals such as Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman etc. I had a good laugh and shared it with Rosita, but it would be too much to repeat it here. Thank you, Chris.

Back to Sunday night, Stephanie and I were busy retrieving our emails on separate computers in between packing and unpacking. She was going back to Berkeley and I Beijing. She sort of complained that we could have spent the last night together on some serious talking. Yes, two weeks passed rather quickly. Mother and daughter had been together a lot including four days in Kuala Lumpur. I managed to put in a few sound bytes here and there, but as usual, I have plenty of time to regret that I could have done more perhaps. But we did talk about and reminisce her childhood, from her first Oxford days to the time she went to the United States. Rosita and I would like to believe that she had a happy childhood. I think she had. She was not always the teachers’ favourite, possibly because she was often caught up in controversies. Like her father, she did not court those controversies, and I am proud she never ran away from them either.

She was at the Open Forum of the Kuala Lumpur Institute, sitting between her parents. She felt curious at the manner questioners were routinely brushed aside and seemingly not even acknowledged for the sincerity and seriousness with which the questions were put. For example, one of the panelists appeared to be more interested in the chewing gum in his mouth or the District number of a questioner than the question itself. Many questions received a curt response or none at all. Stephanie became impatient and asked me why all these serious Rotarians would put up with such arrogance and pomposity. I explained as patiently as I could that Rotary is about service. Dedication to the ideal of service means that one would ignore such irrelevant forms or irreverence and so on, ending with a suggestion that life is not perfect. Halfway in our conversation, someone sitting behind tapped my shoulder. It was a Rotarian from our District and he asked whether she was my daughter. We could have been a distraction.

While in Kuala Lumpur last week, we recalled fondly how she led her Primary One classmates to reason with the Primary Two seniors over perceived unfair treatment and how she worked very hard to stay on the top of the class every year after she learnt that the School would award top performing students on Speech Days. She had been receiving such awards ever since. In the Forms, she was selected to go on a trip to Singapore one summer, and I remember having to take her to Kai Tak at six in the morning for an SQ flight. She was selected to go on the Achievers’ Course at the Island School where she made her mark. We had not planned for her to study abroad at the time. It just happened.

Her first weeks in Irvine were traumatic, for her and for us. That was in 1994. I tried to make things easier by writing to her. I had a log of the letters I had written and some of them are still sitting in the hard disk of my old computer. I would try to find time to write to her on various subjects that I thought would be bothering her, such as growing pains, or the price of growing up; fellowship; love and relationship generally; college life and studies; Hong Kong’s future and her future.

I urged her to put her thoughts on paper when she felt confused and consider writing as a discipline. My favourite argument would go like this. There are many people who sound plausible or that they have good ideas, people who would go on and on when asked for an opinion on anything, and who appear to have answers to every problem on almost any occasion. However, when one pauses to think about what they have said, one has great difficulties. The reason is that these people have not said anything, or anything that is useful or meaningful. I asked Stephanie to ask anyone who did that to her to put his or her ideas in writing, preferably on one side of an A4 paper. If he or she can, and does write something that makes sense, he or she would probably be someone worth listening to.

The same discipline can apply when one has problems focusing the mind. In such circumstances, all one needs to do is to put the ideas on a piece of paper and read it aloud to oneself. One can have a good laugh if one finds the idea silly. One would then refine what has been written and one would congratulate oneself when one is pleased with what one has read.

I found a letter to her dated December 1996. There was a section on relationship. I said at the time that relationship building would involve risks and that one should be prepared to be hurt. “People have been hurting people all the time since Adam and Eve days. Some do that willfully. But most of the unkind acts are unintended or unintentional. I have no doubt that you will be hurt and that you will hurt others. This is where experience comes in. If it is any consolation, people generally become wiser after being hurt, and they would learn how to protect themselves better.”

Then there was another on boys and girls. “Boys and girls are different in handling relationships. They behave differently when they are in love, or when they think they are in love. Now, this is a sensitive and emotive subject. What is love? There is a definition for it and yours may be different from mine. But fundamentally, it is a relationship. If you feel for each other very much, I am happy for you. If the relationship lasts, it is good, but if it doesn’t work, don’t blame it on each other and don’t be too hard on yourself. I said you will hurt each other and you will. The closer you are, the higher the risks.”

Well, I cannot recall whether I received any reply or when or at all. I put her on my mailing list when I was editor of Kingspark News. She had given me positive feedback and sent me interesting articles and I had used some of them. I guess I have had more feedback from her than my average readers. The excerpt is an example of father and daughter speak across the oceans at a time just before emails became popular. We have since deployed emails and other instant messaging devices, while Rosita continues to find the telephone the best if not the most effective. I cannot recall how many times I had said to my daughter on the phone or in emails that we would have face-to-face and in-depth discussions when we meet and that we would find time for bonding. Indeed she reminded me of this the morning she left.

This girl certainly has strong views on issues and is never too shy to articulate them when she feels like it and in the manner and fashion she likes it. We do not necessarily agree with everything she does, but we never think that would be a problem. Perhaps the most difficult part between us and for that matter between any two persons remains to be a willingness on either side to accept each other as he or she is. Rosita and I often recall the things our children said or did when they were small, Rosita more and more often than I. I wonder when we would do Tevye’s number “Sunrise, Sunset” and ask ourselves whether that was the little girl we carried in our arms and at play.

Talk to you again next week.

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