Dear Papa, I love you.
Throughout our 27 years on this Earth together, I've never said this one, simple phrase to you. Part of this has to do with the fact that we're Asian— and we Asians, as a rule, rarely express ourselves so overtly. But frankly, most of it has to do with the fact that I saw so little of you growing up. You, my father, are the hardest-working man I have ever met.
I am not being hyperbolic. You worked on the weekends. On birthdays. On public holidays. Even when you were sick, you took no days off.
On a logical level, I understood the reason for your hard work. You operated a very busy restaurant. The FNB business was, and still very much is, infamously cutthroat. Profit margins were slim and competition was fierce. If you weren't there in person every day, the business would flounder. You told me so yourself. Yet on a personal level, I always wished I could spend more time with my Dad. I was still a boy, you see, and a boy needs his father…
On the rare occasions when we would speak, our conversations were predictably mundane.
You would ask me if I had eaten. I would tell you that I had, even when I hadn't. I didn't want you to worry. You would ask me how my grades were. They were, without fail, uniformly terrible, but I would tell you I would try to do better. You would nod without further comment. Things would drift off from there…
It seemed that in order to interest you, I had to talk about Work, and only Work. "How did work go today?" I would ask, and you would reply, "Not bad. Managed to turn a profit…" But mere talk wasn't enough. You were an entrepreneur, you see. You were a man of risk, of action—so when I was of age (and when I say of age, I mean five years old) you took me to the restaurant to work for you.
I started off small. I started by peeling the prawns.
I hated the work.
The prawns were fresh. They smelled of the sea. But as fresh as they were their shells were hard and clingy. This made them very difficult to peel.
Worst of all was their eyes. They would stare at me dead and accusingly, those prawns, telling me mutely that if it weren't for our insatiable Hunger they would still be alive.
There were so many of them to peel every day, hundreds of prawns, hundreds of buggy eyes bulging at me as I separated their shells from their bodies.
I tried to avert my gaze as best as I could…
Yes, I hated the work, but I loved to spend time with my father. Working with you was the only time we got to spend real time together.
I got to see, firsthand, how my father approached the art and business of keeping us alive. I got to see firsthand what exactly it took for my Dad put food on the table.
First, let's talk about the burns.
There were so many of them. You could not find good help, so you decided to take on the mantle of chef yourself. The hours you spent in front of the wok, churning out hundreds of meals for hungry customers, meant that you were always in range of hot oil. At the end of the night, there would always be fresh burns on your arms. Sometimes you would slip, and a knife would find its way past the chopping board and into your finger.
You treated the knife wounds the same as the burns. You put a band-aid on them and showed up the next day, ready to cook again.
Next to you, my own hands, raw from prawn-peeling though they may be, look like a princess's in comparison.
Next, let's talk about the hours.
I've already mentioned that you took no days off, but I've yet to mention just how long the days can be.
Your day began at eleven in the morning. This was the latest you could show up and still get fresh produce in the market. You would purchase the ingredients you needed—vegetables, poultry, seafood—and haul them by yourself to the truck. Then it's off to the restaurant where you would do your magic and turn dead fish and squid and chicken into delectable dishes full of life. An act of alchemy if there ever was one.
By the time you were finished with prep, it would be dinnertime. The customers would start trickling in, and the real work would begin. In front of your station you would work, sweating and grimacing but never once complaining. I still remember the sound of that kitchen vividly. The ever-present sizzling, the clatter of pots and pans, the hiss of hot metal meeting water. In the background, there would always be folk music playing, and although you claimed you played it for your customers, I always suspected that you played the songs mostly for yourself. They, I surmise, took you back to a different point of your life, the carefree time when you were still young and did not have to trade Time for Money.
And at that restaurant we would stay, listening to the endless, never-changing cacophony, until the last of the customers have left.
This was not as simple a thing as it sounds. As I'm sure you well know, most restaurants have to sell alcohol in order to make money. We did the same. And the customers who got drunk? They sometimes became a nuisance.
The worst times came when the inebriated customers refused to leave. In cases like these we would have to sit, waiting for them as they leisurely consumed their drinks. The hours, for me, would limp by like an old horse on its last race. You didn't seem to mind too much though. The beers that they drank had a healthy margin…
Actually, I take that back. The worst time was when one of the customers became rowdy and started a fight with a group of others. A melee ensued. The customer who started the fight got a beer mug over the head. He lurched around for a while, then collapsed and died.
I was there for that. I still remember that the blood that was coming out of him was strangely bubbly and pink…
I remember asking you once, during a lull afternoon, what was the thing that interested you the most in the world.
"Money," you replied, without a moment's hesitation.
At the time, I thought your answer was rather blase, even boring. "An Asian father who likes money —go figure!" I thought. "Doesn't my Dad have any other interests? Doesn't he have anything that he likes to do, anything else that fires him up other than going to work in the morning?"
But now that I'm a working adult, I know better.
As it turns out, over the years, I discovered that my father did have interests outside of work. You like to collect things. Stamps. Old Thai amulets. Postcards from your travels all over the world —before you had a family and had to settle down and give up your wanderlust dreams.
I can relate.
Now that I am in my late twenties, I too, have had to give up something I dearly loved (my passion for mixed martial arts and my desire to be a professional fighter) and get a job to make ends meet. Now that I too, have bills to pay and rent to meet and a flowering relationship that may or may not blossom into marriage, I can relate to the stresses you went through. I can understand what exactly went through your head all those years ago when your innocent son asked you a question about Passion and you answered with Money.
And now that you are retired and no longer working, I get to spend the time that I so dearly craved when I was a boy growing up with you.
Your business did not succeed.
It had little to do with you. You did all that you could. You put in all the work it was possible for one man to put in—and then some.
I know that you look back on those years you spent working with a tinge of regret. I know that you ask yourself questions, questions such as the would-haves, the should-haves, the could-haves.
I am writing you this letter to tell you that there is nothing to regret.
More than that, I am writing you this letter to tell you that those long years you spent working? They were not lost. They were not wasted.
They have taught your son, who was present through it all, through your rise and your fall, valuable lessons that he will remember for the rest of his life.
Through you, I have learned that hard work is necessary for success, yes. But I have also learned that hard work is only a component of success. One should also be firm and smart, as well as learn how to delegate. You should never have been a chef as well as an owner. We should've looked harder for a suitable man for the job. We should also have probably told those drunken customers to sod off…
Many an hour would have been saved—and a certain man might have lived to see another day.
But beyond all that, I have learned that it is important for a man to spend time with his family.
Now that you're retired, you often drive me around in your car. I tell you that you do not need to do it. You do it anyway. You do it out of love, yes. You do it to save me the time I would otherwise spend traveling. But, as is the case with the folk songs that were playing in the restaurant that now only exists in the dim recesses of my memory, I suspect that you are doing it because of other reasons.
I suspect you are doing it because you want to spend time with me.
Sitting beside you in your beat-up Prius, we talk about all sorts of things: about life, about music—and yes, about Work and about Money. We talk about all the things that we should've talked about when I was little and you were still young.
But it doesn't matter. You are still alive, the car is still rolling, and as the miles stretch on it strikes me that I am a very lucky man to have my father here with me, to be able to now provide for him the same way he did for me. I am very lucky to be able to see life come full circle.
I am glad to have had a father like you, workaholic though you may be. Thinking back, I realize that as stoic and inexpressive as you are, Work was perhaps the only way you could express yourself to me. And express yourself you did. Your actions spoke louder than ten thousand flowery words ever could. Through your actions, you have managed to bring up your family. Through your actions, you have shown me what to do, and perhaps just as importantly, what not to do, in this wild and wondrous journey we call life.
And that, really, is all a father can do. And I love and appreciate you for it. I just wanted to make sure that you know it, both in the form of actions and words: hence this open letter addressed to you.
Your loving son,
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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