The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

My Dad, Mr Li

on December 21, 2013

According to my Dad Mr Li’s passport and all other legal documents, yesterday was his 77th Birthday. According to Mr Li, this is just an arbitrary date but it will do all the same to pass as his Birthday.

In fact he’ll probably say he’s actually 78 not 77. Whenever relatives and friends of Mr Li asked how old was Daughter of Mr Li, he would say, ‘She’s 9 but 10 in Chinese years’. I didn’t mind so much then, it was quite good to be a bit more grown up but if he starts saying I’m 40 already then I might have to put a stop to it. I suppose it’s far better than being referred to in dog years.

We just had a loud, manic Skype chat with him before bedtime where soulful renditions of Happy Birthday were sung in English and Mandarin, it made him very proud. But this is never a good time for any Skypeing and so chaos quickly ensues. There was a bit of unruly behaviour from #2 which then makes Mr Li question my parenting ability, ‘Why is she squeezing #3’s head like that?’. Not quite sure Mr Li. Then #3 totters past, ‘Make sure she doesn’t fall and hurt herself’. Yes Mr Li. Then #3 totters past again with the toothbrush of #1 in her hand, ‘Make sure she doesn’t put that in her mouth because if she falls she’ll have a terrible accident’. Yes Mr Li. How does he see so much when he complained the picture was very grainy!

Mr Li is full of helpful advice whether I invite it or not. As is the wont of all elderly Chinese people, they are allowed to pass on advice and judgement as they see fit to the young people. He sees this as being genuinely helpful, pointing out all conceivable danger alerts to every possible situation. Nana Moon has always found his pearls of wisdom highly amusing and frequently recounts all advice he’s ever given me on a regular basis.

Oddly, I still live by many of the things he’s told me. I may as well share some of them with you too.

1. Only ever eat one bag of crisps a day. But he never specified size of bag so feel free to go for the large jumbo family bags.

2. Never buy dented cans in the supermarket. True scientific fact.

3. Never eat too many instant noodles, they’re made of plastic. Actually there is a concern that instant ramen noodles are covered in a coating of wax.

4. Never get into a stranger’s car. Goes without saying but I was already 20 at the time.

5. When there are no other cars in the vicinity, it is allowed to drive following the white lines in the dark. Perhaps there were considerably less cars in the 60’s?

6. Never drink a mix of tea/coffee together commonly known as Yin Yang tea. It will give you the shits.

7. Ditto for cold coffee.

8. Never let a baby just starting to crawl, crawl for too long because their arms will grow tired and the baby will head butt the floor. Especially important for marble floor dwellings.

9. Don’t sit too close to the television, you’ll go blind. I thought doing something else was true for this?

10. Never swallow chewing gum it will stick to your sausages (Chinese medical term for intestines) and stop you from growing.

11. Never go to bed without brushing your teeth because the ants will come and get you. Highly plausible in Singapore and so I use this one on #1 and 2 now.

12. My all time fave and always adhered to, after you get married you must follow your Husband and listen to your mother in law.

Mr Li comes from an era of respect for your elders, care for your family and keep to yourself. Don’t drink too much, don’t smoke (although he did), don’t have piercings other than in your ears and only one hole in each at that and never get a tattoo. All characteristics of a person of ill repute.

In all truthfulness, I barely know much about his past. What was his childhood like in our village in Hong Kong, what did coming to England in 1960 mean, how is he doing now, actually this part I do know. Is it enough to say it’s not really the Chinese way to delve too much into the past? My Mum says the future is most important. Reminiscing is not something to indulge in. Yet gather a group of similar aged Chinese elderly together and they will natter away for hours about the past. Perhaps they feel we won’t understand.

My Gung Gung, Mr Li’s Dad, passed away when he was 11. Leaving him and his two younger sisters and a then one year old brother to be brought up by my Por Por. A tragic accident apparently involving my Gung Gung being hit by a vehicle but no one was ever brought to task for it. Growing up without a Dad has always made Mr Li highly empathetic towards other people who have grown up with absent fathers too whether it’s from loss or divorce. He often says having no Dad around to stand up for you is one of the hardest things a child can go through. I can only imagine this is a hint of how difficult times may have been. In many ways, perhaps the village environment made life easier because everyone is supposedly linked by blood somehow and that person should be respected like your Aunt, Uncle, Brother, Sister, Great Aunt, Great Uncle and so on. This is why I have so many nearly nieces and nephews. My Lil Bro and Lil Sis are actually my cousins but it’s just a title, it’s how you feel that matters.

Mr Li also has a Special Aunt. I’ve only heard this from Big Brother Li and my Mum but during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in the early 1940s, there was an incident whereby she saved his life by picking him up and carrying him with her as they ran for safety. I haven’t seen her for many years but she gave me a ring when I first met her at the age of eight years old. It’s not something I can part with. I wore it when we had our Chinese banquet wedding celebration, along with all my other ancestral jewellery. She also had a tall bucket she peed in that went under the bed.

His was not an affluent upbringing as you can imagine. He left school pretty early to help support his family. Ultimately this is what drove the selling of land to pay for his fare to England on a boat. Someone else went first and offered the opportunity to emigrate to England working in restaurants and takeaways for the money to be sent back home. He’s worked in many parts of the UK and eventually settled in the north east of England where there is quite a close knit Chinese community. He pops out to the local casino for a small flutter but mostly to socialise, although by nature Mr Li is not a gregarious man. Quite timid in fact but always smiling, polite and hospitable.

You’d think after 50 years in the UK he’d have a good grasp of the English language but always maintains he doesn’t. I was wondering whether he’d come up with an emotional, witty speech at my wedding but he didn’t. He smiled politely at everyone and Big Brother Li did it instead and made unfunny comments about me finally being off their hands which they never thought would happen. Pah. Yet Mr Li has been able to open businesses (to varying degrees of success) and surely that requires some English language? I’ll never know. He’s not very good at Chinese either, his Cantonese is rubbish and that’s why our Li is often mispronounced and not like Lee. He fully advocates the children learning Mandarin but what use is that when he can’t speak Mandarin either! So I have to teach them the Chinese dialect he does know which he finds hilarious.

I’m pretty sure some parts of his life have turned out differently to how he imagined it would but that’s the same for all of us. Some parts are not what I would expect either but it is what it is and there’s no point dwelling too much on what can’t be changed. His marriage to my mother spans more than 48 years, he’s a very loyal man to all his family. In particular my wayward Uncle (real one). It’s not for me to comment on some things but I figure you can’t help who you love and it’s as simple as that. Of course my life would have been much different with different choices made by Mr Li but the bottom line is this, I have never been uncertain over whether my Dad loves me and so there lies the security.

What it does make me feel is that he deserves to enjoy his role as Family Figurehead (in name only), Father, Father in law, Uncle, Great Uncle, Gung Gung. He’s worked hard and seen a lot. It’s important to me that #1, 2 and 3 know who he is even though we live half a world away. Difficult as it may be for them to grasp that we too have Mums and Dads. He loves his grandchildren openly and enjoys nothing more than retelling stories of what they’ve said and done. They could fart in a cup and he’d think it funny, actually so would I.

It’s not just these grandchildren though he’s so very proud of. The other young people who call him Gung Gung too. Our Strawberry Mousse, Emilo and Dazzler, he often talks about their achievements and recalls odd snippets from when they were young. Strawberry Mousse once stuck a bead up her nose (why do children do that?) and needed him to take her to A&E.

He’s not one to gush over my limited achievements but I can see when he’s feeling proud and most importantly content. If I was flitting from one thing to another, it would make him very uncomfortable. He wants for me stability, happiness and a family. It may sound terribly old fashioned and bland but it’s probably because he never had that himself and so these things are important.

Of course when I was much younger, I never fully appreciated lots of things he did. They just happened. But many years ago he once said in passing how he would drop whatever he was doing, wherever he was to come and pick me up from school when it rained. He would drop off all my friends too and that woke me up to seeing him and the way he conducts himself in a very different light.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned yesterday may have been his birthday. We’re quite sure it’s not. There’s a piece of paper Big Brother Li has that was only recently decoded with his real date of birth. Don’t ask me why but it’s something to do with old folklore and I’ve forgotten when it is. Something to do with the lunar calendar. I don’t think he really cares, he’ll be off recounting down at the casino how many times #1 and 2 sung Happy Birthday and that #3 can walk and wave at the same time.

If you are happy, then he is happy. You being the friends he knows of too. What more could you ask for.

Happy Birthday to my Dad, Mr Li.



One response to “My Dad, Mr Li

  1. ALB says:

    Hey sis, luv luv luv your blog. You’re so witty, it always makes me laugh out loud wherever I am. And happy birthday to my lovely smiley uncle, who has always treated me like his own daughter. In fact, I remember running away at 15, after my mother beat me with a steel knife sharpener cos I didn’t chop the mushrooms as I was revising for my GCSEs! It was my uncle who dragged me home that day. I thank him for that, as I could have ended up on the streets….God only knows what I would have become! Most certainly not a Finance Director!! Cannot believe he is 77, he still looks the same as he did when we were in Scarborough. It’s funny that parents pass on their totally ridiculous advice and my mother was the worst for this:-
    1. Don’t drink coke and eat ice cream after, it gives you the shits (hence the reason why I like coke floats and drinking it in front of my mother drives her crazy!)
    2. Don’t look at rainbows as it gives you a hunchback (def no pots of gold then!)
    3. Girls are not allowed to ride bikes as it makes them not virgins anymore (though Jackie had a bike at the age of 4)
    4. Don’t kiss boys as it can make you pregnant (she told me afterwards that she thought this was true until the age of 19)
    5. The baby caught a chill cos you didn’t put enough clothes on her (nothing to do with the fact that she had a virus!)
    6. Make sure you wrap her warm (even though she has a fever of 104?!?)
    7. If you split up with your Chinese boyfriend you will regret it for the rest of your life (erm! I’m now married to the most wonderful man in the world, who completely and utterly adores me and blessed with 2 beautiful children)
    8. You can’t let Carmen go to the shop on her own, she’s only 9 (and then I remind her that I walked to school at 5 and a half, with my bro who was barely 7 on our own to school, crossing 3 main busy roads, whilst she was in bed after a night of gambling! She got a bit flustered after that!)
    …..clearly, I could go on and on….and I too leave the best ones for my kids.

    Thank you for writing this as it enabled me to go down memory lane, so tonight I shall raise my glass to my lovely uncle and wish him good health!! xxx


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