Saturday, December 17, 2005

Family potrait

(continued from 'Bright Lights, Big City')

A family portrait.
Just the four of us.
All dressed up and fancy.
Keeping up appearances.

The portrait lay on the table between the three of us.
Dad took it with him on his latest move back.
Where was it all these years?

Mum, dad and I sat down together after our 'hot pot'. The temperature plummeted deeper tonight. Ironically, eating over a hot pot here is a symbolic gesture of reunion. And for a while, while the white cabbage, squid, oysters, tofu, dumplings and rice noodles bubbled to a boil in front of us, it seemed we were reunited. Once more.

Dad had come earlier in the afternoon, bringing more of his stuff over. I asked whether he wanted to stay for dinner, and he agreed. So together we walked to the market, braving the cold and gusty winds, against all odds it seems. Along the way, we passed lanes and streets we had together travelled so many years ago. Irony. The irony of it all. And I recounted the moments when I skipped and jumped down the pavements on my way to school; then, primary school. Already more than fourteen years ago.

As we shopped, mums and dads with children held tightly in their hands hovered around us. Saturday, family day at the department store. For a moment, I was mesmorised by the dancing bubbles and music show at the Takashimaya store...Such ever changing many bubble-ts, winding and weaving their way from the bottom of the tank, like silver balloons, writhing their way to the top of the tank. And suddenly, they disappear. End of their existence, swallowed up by the mass of water all around them. All the while, fish looked on, probably jealous the bubbles and music had for those few moments stolen their stage and spotlight.

Back home, after our warming dinner, we sat down. First the conversation dwelled on dad's pending retirement in two weeks, about his plans, his pension etc. He suddenly spoke about the past few years. He said due to the downsizing in his company, he's been exposed to much pain and humiliation at work, which prompted him to want to retire early. And he spoke of how he used to safe every penny and stopped buying things altogether for himself just so that he could send any extra money to us abroad... Added to that, he said his ailing health has also caused him much grief and regret. The past few years have been really rough, and dad says he has isolated himself from society as a result.

One thing lead to another, and before I realised we became engaged in the conversation I had hoped we would have before dad moved back again. Mum spoke her heart, shedding all the feelings, hurt and anguish she's felt, and been forced to confront, ever since dad left home almost four years ago. I sat by and listened. I felt it was right that such things should be said, that such anger and frustration should be opened up for discussion. It's what I had hoped when I spoke to dad earlier on Monday.

Dad seemed unmoved, and at times defensive. He said he left was because he couldn't bear to stay at home anymore. The reason? Because mum allowed "all these people come and go", and he couldn't have peace. At first, mum and I didn't know what was meant by "all these people ". So he explained: all the decorators, the gas man, and all that money that had to be spent fixing all these things around the house.

I was surprised by his answer, as I expected a much more plausible one. The decorators, the repairmen? They were the reason dad left the house, the reason dad left and didn't have much contact with us? It made no sense.... it did not explain the mysterious phone calls, the scolding and threats to sell the house... It did not fit in with the excuse that our appartment was "too far from work" dad had once told me. It certainly does not explain why he left and in the past few years gave me so little chance to see and talk to him. Not a reason, but again an excuse, it seems.

So mum pressed on, this time alluding to the affair he may be having outside.

'What affair? What problem? What are you talking about?'
Dad outrightly denied everything. No such thing, nothing ever happened. Dad says he can vouch on this, that there's never been anything of the sort. According to him, it's impossible, whatever other people say. So, then Big Aunt must be lying...the gods and spirit mediums that were consulted must be lying...the ancestors I have so many times worshipped and prayed to; they too must be wrong about everything... and mum and I must have been hearing things, imagining things. And that time at Heathrow Airport, when some mysterious person called dad on his mobile at what would have been 2am Taiwan time-- just a colleague! Of course, how could I not have realised that then?!

'So you don't want me back then?', dad threw out.

"Whether you have an affair or not, whatever you did to move out doens't matter. It doesn't matter anymore to brother, to mum or to me whether you return or not. So much pain and anguish has been caused, and all we want is an explanation for those missing moments, for the sudden departure. I want you to be happy, to have a peaceful retirement, so you may rest and watch over your wellbeing and health.", I replied.

Dad then started talking about his ill health, talked about how he often packed his bags and checked into the hospital alone by himself, as if trying to gain a vote of confidence. He said that he isolated himself for our sake, as he didn't want to risk infecting us with Hepatitis C.

But then... such a disease does not infect unless through a transfer of blood. Even I knew that. And if he doesn't want to infect us, why is he coming back now? I responded:

"How can you say that? If you don't tell anyone, how can anyone know what is happening to you? How can anyone know where you are, how your health is, and whether you are in hospital or not? How can anyone know anything if you hide yourself and disappear completely? I've been to see your personal doctor, and he says what you need most is the company and support of family. You know how painful it was when the doctor seemed to be questioning me where 'the family members' were all these years...?"

At this point my eyese watered uncontrollably. It has been a while since I cried so much; so much in front of both mum and dad. I felt such euphoria, such a climax as I could let it all out, let the tears out, and tell him, tell dad what I feel and the emotions I've had to deal with.

" you know how many nights I've spent crying? Do you know what the past few years has been to me? If you say you don't have an affair, ok, but why did you leave this home, why did you just leave? I could count with my fingers the number of times I've seen you recently, I could count the hours...even on Father's Day you were too busy to meet. Perhaps we have wronged you terribly by our accustions of an affair...if that is so, I apologise deeply. If that is so, I apologise deeply. I've said before already, I am grateful for all that you've done over the years, for all that you've provided... I sometimes wonder whether it's because I was not here but abroad all this time that things have gotten to this point. What happened...?"

My voiced trailed off and my hands shook uncontrollably. Was it the cold? Or was it the bravery that led me to let all this out? I looked at dad, again he seemed unmoved. And for a brief few moments we sat there, in the living room, with bright spotlights shining on us. On the table, the booklet "Settling back into the moment" (回到當下) lay there, unmoved, untouched.

"How many people have been many relationships have been torn apart, how many 'faces' have been thrown away... Whenever I go to Chiayi, wherever I go, everyone asks me what is happening. Because of this, I've even been accused by Big Aunt of being "a useless and unreliable child because [I] grew up abroad". If only people knew how much effort and how many moments I've spent dwelling and toiling over this issue...."

Dad erupted, and got up, about to leave. 'None of this concerns you...'

I responded firmly:
"You think what happens between you two is just between you two? It affects a lot of people, it affects me..."

I looked away, for a moment captured by feelings of disbelief, and perhaps disappointment and frustration, that all that I've said, all that mum's said seems to gone past dad without any effect.

Perhaps, some things are best left unsaid. Perhaps, some things are best ignored. And perhaps, some things are too 'grown-up' for a simple child to understand. Life goes on, as it always has, and undoubtedly, as it always will. Perhaps...

As dad left, he lugged a huge suitcase with him. I wanted to help him carry it downstairs, to lessen his load a bit, but he refused. I still tried to get a hold of a result of which dad lost his balance and fell. I looked at him, at my feet. I turned away, as he too walked away, slowly downstairs, carrying the huge empty suitcase by himself.

I tried not to think of the cold outside dad has to face...I tried not to think of the long journey 'home' for him ahead. It was as if for that moment, it mattered little whether dad returned or not. Should I feel remorse that I have lost this human side, that I have lost this compassion and understanding I've so often felt towards my dad? Or perhaps, all those feelings, that unending care and love is buried deep underneath...

Outside, a coyish full moon hid shyly behind dense clouds of white.

The irony of it all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Streets rats

It was already dark, and the temperature fell as the city bore the brunt of the latest cold front.
Wrapped around in a warm wolly jumper, I trembled while walking home.

Then, out of nowhere, a street rat appeared.
A frail, old woman, with graying hair, and a wrinkling face. She squatted, next to the pavement, next to her trolly-ful of the latest treasures she managed to dig out from the streets and sidestreets of the city. Carton boxes, plastic bottles, pressed-down coke cans, polystene, and glass. They piled on top of one another like an artificial mountain, testament to the amazing amounts of wast we produce. Testament too, to the energy that a frail, old woman can muster on an dark, cold night.

She was not alone. From an alleyway more of her companions lugged their load and appeared from the darkness. Their faces were dirty, their clothes ragged and foul. But their eyes and voices radiated with such joy, such warmth and purity.

I walked passed them, but the sight of their lives and smiles followed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"If you see me walking down the street, and I start to cry...
Each time we meet, walk on by..
Walk on by
Make believe that you don't see the tears, just let me breathe
In private, cause each time I see you, I break down and cry..."

Walk on by, Dionne Warwick

Monday, December 12, 2005

'Bright Lights, Big City'

A lonely traveller in a big city, filled with blinding, bright lights.
Can he find his way?

I sat on the banks of the Shuangxi Creek. Cars, motorcycles and buses rushed back and forth in the background, as the MRT hovered on the sound of grinding steel over head. Their lights, streetlights, and a glimmer of moonlight reflected on the moving mirror in front of me. Who would have guessed that this creek, once a foul-smelling, rubbish-filled sewage canal, would today be my refuge for those few quietmoments to reflect on the events of this evening. The creek no longer smells, and instead of plastic bottles and bags, cranes and other fowl rested and played along its banks. How times change.

It drizzled as I left the house. The wind was chilling, like a harsh Autumn day in Europe, except this is Taiwan, a place I never thought could be so, so cold. I made my way to meet dad.

It all began the usual way: small talk over dinner, about this and that, a little walk thereafter, and soon it was time to go home again. To go our separate ways, to part. But this time it was different.

I said I needed to borrow the toilet, so we went upstairs to his dormitory. We sat down and chatted a bit more. Throughout the evening I had wondered whether 'now' was the right moment to talk to him, to really talk to him. And the opportunity presented itself as we sat in and discussed about how to move all these things out before year's end. A mess surrounded us. So I began...

"Before I leave I would like to talk about something. Now that you're retiring and seem to be planning to move back home, there are some things that we need to discuss. I hope we can talk about them, face them. You suddenly left without a reason, and now you want to move back suddenly, also without reason. Nobody knows or understands what you are doing, what you are thinking. I would like to know, I would like to undertand."


"Many things have changed since you suddenly left the house. You hurt many people, mum, brother, and me, but never did we have a chance to talk about any of this. And now you want to move back home, as if nothing ever happened. But many things did happen, many things have changed. We cannot simply pretend that things are the way as they used to be, we cannot pretend that this family is the same as they used to be. It is my hope we can talk about this all, discuss it, share together what has happened to us in the past few years. All the letters I wrote to you, you must have received and read them. You know, each letter takes me more than 10 hours to write, and I wrote in Mandarin so that you could understand them better. They express what I truly feel and would like to say. Nobody influenced me or forced me to write, I wrote them because that's what I want to tell. "

An awkward silence continued for many moments, to be only broken by dad showing me a pair of shoes and asking whether I could fit into them. I flatly said no. And he stood there, as I sat and fidgeted with my hands.

"You don't need to respond now, but I hope you will before you move back, because it is important. I don't want to blame, I don't want to accuse, for whatever you do or say, you are my dad. But I would like to know why, and I would like to hear from you. Think about it, you've not spoken or seen brother for over two years, you've alienated and blamed mum for everything that went wrong for the last couple of who else have you got in this family to talk to besides me? Who else have you got in this world to talk about this all, but me?"


Dad went into the bathroom. I thought I would cry from the bottled up emotions and the untimely release. I imagined that he may have retreated to the bathroom to collect himself, for he sure was in there a long time before he came out, and stood where he stood before, in the same frail-looking posture.

"You don't have anything to say? You don't want to talk about it all? Whatever you do, whatever you say, you are dad. But I hope we can have a peaceful resolution to all these problems, that perhaps you and me, or you , mum and me can sit together to talk, to really talk and settle somethings before you move back home. It's been over three years."


We made our way downstairs, slowly towards the bus stop. As we took the lift, he turned away from me. I looked at him, looked at his reflection in the mirrored lift interior. For probably the first time yet, I noticed I've grown taller than him, I noticed that I'm 'one head' taller in height. I looked at the back of his head...still the same haircut as I remember from before, but this time some white hairs exposed themselves and the signs of aging. We walked towards the bus stop, slowly, as cars, motorcycles and taxis sped past us. The streetlights cast a yellow glow on everything. The night air was cold and dry.

We stood by the bus stop. Though around us the traffic growled and sped us by, there was silence. Dad stood next to me, I could just about reach him, if I reached out I could really touch him. Touch him.

A rubbish-filled tricycle suddenly apeared in front of us and labourously crawled before our eyes and then disappeared again. How symbolic! A remnant of the past, going past. I stole a peek at my dad's face... a dark, dry face, masked by so many things unsaid, so many emotions unexpressed, and overshadowed by the years of misery and pain he's be toiling in. The arguments with mum I've grown up with, the years of bottled up frustrations and binge-gmbling in Holland, the slow but sure alienation fom the rest of the family from the day he moved back to Taiwan to work and live alone, the many things he did behind our backs and lies he told to cover them up, the many more arguments, accusations, and then suddenly leaving the house... etcetra, etcetra, etcetra...

Suddenly he blurted out: ' What goes on between me and mum shouldn't affect you...'

"But it does. You think this is just between you two, but it's not. Brother probably does not care anymore, but I do. I want all of us to be happy, to be free from all this burden that's been troubling us because nobody wants to face and deal with it all. All that's been going on the past few years is not just hurting me, but hurting especially mum, brother, Big Aunt, relatives, friends.... How can we face..."

I trailed off before I could muster any more words, or perhaps the courage, to finish the sentence. Tears wallowed. I swallowed deeply. And the silence continued.

Silence, this time broken by dad asking me about what I'm going to study for my Masters. I flatly replied to his questions, knowingly aware that he is trying to divert attention from the topic. Just then, the bus I needed sped past. 'Shame, now we have to wait a long time', dad said.

"Waiting already for three years, what is a few minutes ?"


"You don't need to say anything now, but I hope before you come back home, you will. We all more or less have an idea what happened and what you've been up to. Even Big Aunt confirmed this. I don't want to blame, I don't want to accuse, for whatever you do or say, you are my dad, like I've repeated so many times in the past. And I am grateful for all that you have done since the day I was born till now to provide for me, to provide for my education and more. But I would like to know why, and I would like to hear from you."

More tears wallowed in my eyes. I sniffed. By this time, he seemed to have been shaken by the fact that I was alluding to his highly-likely affair. He folded his arms, but his faced still showed this blank and hurt expression. Ironically, a mother and a girl of around five walked past us. I noticed dad looking at them, as if he had just seem people he knows from somewhere.

'So does mum not want me back?', dad asked

"That's not the point . Whether you come back or not, if things continue the way they are, nobody will be happy. You will not be happy, mum will not be happy, and there will be this awkward mood at home. You placed all this blame and accused her of this and that fault, but not everything is caused by just one person alone. And now you want to return just like that, as if nothing happened. What matters is that there are undealt problems, and we simply cannot allow them to continue like this. Ignoring them will not make them go away. Instead they will rot and be even more difficult to deal with."


In the distance, I saw the bus come again. It stopped in front of a traffic light. This gave me the opportunity to speak again, to conclude with a few final words...

"The bus is coming, and I am going. I hope you will think about what I've said to you tonight, and I hope we can soon talk about it. Please take care of yourself."

At that moment, I looked into his yellowish eyes... he stared blankly into the silence, into nothing. On the rims of his eyes, I seemed to see moisture forming. I swallowed more tears deep inside. As I boarded the bus, I looked back.

"Do take good care of yourself."

Dad stood there, eyes down. I waved goodbye, and he looked up, acknowledged my wave, and perhaps, also the words that express how very much I care about him and his wellbeing and happiness. As the bus doors closed, I looked beyond the tainted windows, to see the same frail man I was standing next to, the same man I stood so close to, close enough I could almost touch. And did I touch him? Dad stood there, even as the bus pulled away, and looked down.

I quickly sat down, closed my eyes.... closed the flood within...
My eye lashes were watered once again.
The world outside became a watery show about to fade.
My hands shook, and my teeth clattered for a while as the bus drove further and further away.

Then, with one hand buried in my hair, I thought about what had just happened.
Why cry?
Why be sad?
I've just dealt with something I've been wanting for many sleepless nights, and for many moments as I wandered the streets of big cities like a soulless ghost. And I did so without blame, without a grain of grudge. Sad I no longer was, neither was I rejoicing my little victory over my fears and worries. Instead, I felt a calm, a strange sensation of peace at last.

At last...


"Dus droog je tranen ook al heb je veel verdriet
Je kan treuren net als ik maar 't helpt ons niet
Droog je tranen ook al heb je veel verdriet
Het leven gaat door, je begint weer van voor
Er ligt vast wel iets moois in 't verschiet."
'Passie', Clouseau

[So dry your tears, even if you have much sorrow,
You can grief just like me, but it helps us not.
Dry your tears, even if you have much sorrow,
Life goes on, you begin once more,
There certainly is something beautiful in the past.]

New blog!

A new blog has been created to record my experiences and thoughts in practising Vipassana meditation.


Please take a look!

Another dinner date...

Another dinner date, 17.30 to-evening, in front of dad's office in downtown Taipei. If I could muster the courage, then this 'date' may end differently. Hopefully I will finally be able to talk to dad, face him about many unsaid and untouched things...things which for many years have caused others and me much tears, frustration and dark despairing moments...things if left undealt with will lead to much more akwardness and pain in the foreseeable future.

But how would he respond?
What would he do? 
Would I become the bold 'unfilial' (不孝) son who dares to confront and point his dad wrong?

It is not my intention to hurt or harm him. All I would like is a peaceful resolution to this mess which is causing this family much grief. It is as if vines and wild weed have grown all over this home, causing it to, at moments, become dark and inhabitable. And no one sees to want to see it, but ever one suffers, one way or another, from it. This cannot continue, and I can no longer stand coming home to face all this silence, pretence and deceit every single time. Face it, talk about it, deal with it...but please don't let it rot and worsen.

No raised voices, no finger-pointing, no accusations and blame....just heart to heart talk, with a 'calm heart and peaceful tone' (心平氣和). Nothing more do I want. I am no maverick ready to change everyone for what I think is best, neither am I a saviour about to rescue this sunken family from the depths of years of troubles and confusion. But just face it, open our hearts and eyes to see that this whole mad mess and attempts to bury it all under layers of lies and silence cannot go on.

So I go.


"Want ik wil [een] schouder om op te huilen
[Een] huis om in te schuilen
Maar alles wat ik wil lijkt zo ver weg
Zo ver weg van mij Ja, alles wat ik wil lijkt zo ver weg"
'Zo ver weg', Guus Meeuwis
[Because I want [a] shoulder to cry on,
[A] house to shelter in,
But everything that I want seem so far away,
So far away from me.
Oh, everything that I want seem so far away.]

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Back in Taipei, again

Just back from more than 6 weeks away in Puli.
It's been another fruitful trip, learning a lot as usual living and working beside the reverend up in the mountains.
Took part in a meditation course as well (, and have been practising ever since.
But the moment I stepped off the bus and onto the streets of Taipei, I felt like a country rat new in town.
"... all these dazzling lights, Christmas carols and decorations, hurried men and women in branded clothes with well looked-after hair , commercialism and consumerism... The lures and enticements of the 'Dark Side' is indeed strong here. Inside I feared (as I often do) that I might loose the routine and orderly lifestyle I've acquired in the past month or so."