“You Are Not My Friend!”

She will say, fold her arms and pout her lips. Other similar phrases she may hurl at me are “I don’t like Mommy!”, “You don’t love me!” and, my favorite, “You are not my favorite person!” The reason? Sometimes, because I do not agree to giving her what she wants, often, because I need to discipline her over a particular offense.

I like this anecdote about parents my generation (those born in the ’80s and ’90s): we are the last generation who listened to their parents and the first generation who has to listen to their children. While it is so relatable it’s hilarious, I do wonder what happened in between. My parents never bothered themselves with whether or not their kids would put them on the top list for their best friends and I am glad they didn’t. Because they were, after all, my parents. They knew that and were secure in that knowledge.

“It’s easy for me to make you like Mommy,” I always say, “I just let you do as you wish and I’ll instantly be your favorite person, your BFF.” And she will look at me with a “then why don’t you do just that?” look. To which both she and I already know the answer.

“I am your mother. My biggest care is not whether you would like me, my biggest concern is whether you know and are doing what’s right.” Of course it’s never pleasant to play the bad cop, of course all moms would love to please their children. But as her mother, I need to do what a mother should do and that is not something that a friend can do for her. “If I let you do as you wish just because I want you to like me now, that is not love,” I add, at the same time horrified by the thought of such parenting with its inevitable consequence, “then you will grow up hating me.”

There will come the day when children will mature (God help us) into the responsible and sensible adults they need to be. There will come the day these children will be capable of a loving and meaningful friendship with their parents. Until then, we need to be their parents. Precisely because of that prospect, we must be the parents who know their role and carry out their duty faithfully. The duty to love and also to discipline, to nurture yet never neglect to train.

I am not your friend, daughter. I am your mother. In due time, I pray you will see that I love you. And when you know what it means to be a true human, one with wisdom and virtues, I pray for your friendship.

Raising Happy Eaters

First of all, I am not writing this as a trained nutritionist, nor am I any expert in pediatrics. I am certainly not the know-it-all parent. Children’s eating habit is a HUGE concern for almost all modern parents, one that leaves them (me included) scratching their heads and pulling their hair. Despite being told multiple times “Wow, your kids eat so well!” I have had my share of pleading, bribing, threatening, and shoveling food down their throats, trust me.

So, back to the title. I am sharing a compilation of what I think have worked for our family in our attempt to raise the girls into happy eaters who enjoy mealtime around the table. All of these are wisdom from the past generations (the seniors we consulted with) and cultural observations documented in books.

1. Food is relational, it is not merely nutritional.

The table has a special place in community. It is general knowledge that food is associated with fellowship in any culture. A shared mealtime is when people come together sharing not only food but also their time and lives. There is a reason to why it is said “Food tastes better when shared” and “Family that eats together stays together.” Some of my fondest memories are those that happened during shared mealtimes with families and loved ones, I believe this is not singular to my experience. Make effort to create that wonderful association. Eat together as a family.

2. Food is a blessing, eat with gratitude.

I spent a big chunk of my childhood eating with my late paternal grandma whom I dearly called Ah Po. Being a tough woman who had single-handedly raised eight children through the hard times, she would make sure we all understood how privileged we were to have food to eat. Not a single grain of rice was to waste. The same expectation was enforced by my father, and so it was the kind of tables we grew up with. How, you may ask, did they instill such attitude in the children? They guarded against the sense of entitlement. The mantra was always “Ai ciak ciak, mai ciak suak.” A Hokkien remark for “eat if you want and starve if you won’t.” And so they never hesitated to let us go hungry.

When the kids refuse to eatĀ šŸ˜›

3. There must be a time for play/work, and a time for meal.

Common sense has it that when one is hungry, one will eat. And a reasonable and good way of how that maxim operates is seen in a healthy cycle of energy exertion and energy re-fuelling. In our home this is translated into a routine of starting the day with breakfast, letting the children play and exert their energy, eating again only at lunchtime, napping for the youngest and quiet activities for the eldest, followed by snack time in the afternoon, outdoor playtime, and finally dinnertime. We do not snack around the clock nor eat apart from the four appointed mealtimes. This way, the children are hungry when they do eat. They will not not eat.

4. Food is pleasure, enjoy it.

I had the other big chunk of my childhood spent around the table of my late maternal grandma whom I dearly called Ah Ma. The opposite of my Ah Po, she doted on her grandchildren very much, to the point of indulging them. I cannot recall any memory of her raising her voice at us. She would cook our favorite foods all the time, always whipping up whatever dish we asked of her. She did not make much fuss on nutritions, and from her kitchen we learned that food is pleasurable. Indulge your children sometimes, whip up tasty meals if you could. Also, a dash of MSG and an occasional plate of deep fried processed food will not kill them. Let them taste that food IS delicious.

5. Food is nutrition, eat healthily.

When it comes to food, nutritional value is normally what parents are most concerned about, and rightly so. After all, who wouldn’t want their children to grow up healthy? Our parents believed that there needs to be a wide variety of food served for meals. There were always rice, 2 meat dishes, 1 leafy vegetable dish, and 1 soup dish for lunch and dinner. This, they believed, provides a balance and complete nutrition for the body. The rule was, “You don’t have to eat much of all but you must try all.” In the words of my father, eat more of those you like and less of those you dislike. It is unsurprising to find that the Japanese and the South Koreans, the two cultures with non-picky eating population that boast the lowest obesity rate in the world – at 4 percent (Christine Gross-Loh, “Parenting Without Borders” p. 62), share the same meal philosophy, both in their emphasis on dish variety and their insistence that children should try at least one bite of all the dishes served. Now, I am not saying we must prepare 4 different dishes for every mealtime, I can’t. But we can encourage the children to try out a wide variety of different foods. Children love what they know. And they can know only what they try.

And finally, I have to acknowledge that we Asians often associate a chubby child with a good eater. The logic is a child that eats well must eat a lot and therefore must be chubby. This. Is. Not. True.

Many moms have endured the unnecessary pressure to pump-feed their kids in an attempt to fatten them up and felt like a failure when their kids stay lean. We don’t have to, we should not. The goal is not to produce the most plump little Michelin’s mascots. If they are healthy, are thankful for and enjoy their food, and have a warm table fellowship, they will be happy eaters. And you’ve done well, Momma! šŸ™‚

They Know

“Why did you spank me that hard?”
“No. I know that it was not too hard.”
“But you were angry and that was not the right way of doing it! And you didn’t really like me when you hugged me afterwards!”

Her words sent a chill down my spine. She knew.

When we had our Bible discussions with fellow parents about “how to properly discipline our children,” she had been listening. When I spouted out all the doctrinal truths which I ought to have adhered to, she had been taking note. When I disciplined her without yelling, yet without love, she felt the absence. When the reconciliation hug was just a mere going through the motions, she knew. And, especially as an Asian, if I spank her to “save my face” and not for her restoration, she will know. She always knows.

I like to tell my children that I know them best and what is best for them, but what I didn’t really realize was that they, too, know me best. My day to day attitude, my response to things, my emotions, speech and deeds; my life is always at full display before them. I can write, say or show others what I want others to think about who I am but it’s my closest ones who know who I really am. Or more profoundly, they know whether what I write, say or show to others is what I really am.

Such realization is a constant cause for both trembling and joy. Trembling, because I will inevitably leak out to my closest ones the ugliest side of my sinful-self, and how I am so full of potential to lead them away from the faith I profess. My greatest fear is to have my children see me as a hypocrite and by hypocrisy subject them to condemnation.

But thanks be to God who is faithful and promises victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ. He has not only designed for us parents to be His authoritative representation to our children, but has also set family as a place where gospel is continually portrayed. We are fellow sinners to our children, who constantly offend them in our sins and must constantly repent and seek their forgiveness. I thank God for He made little children very forgiving, they do not hold grudge and they forgive freely. To be forgiven and be genuinely loved despite my failures is a joy unspeakable. It is the gospel.

I wish nothing more than to have my God and my children find me faithful and truthful. May God help!

Homekeeping Freedom

The first thing that came to my mind after a good sweating of scrubbing the kitchen top and the cooking hob was “How wonderfully clean things will stay if only no more cooking should ever be done here!”

The next thing, of course, was to realize how foolish could that idea be. What’s the point of having the kitchen there if there’s no cooking to do?

I see now, I was doing the cleaning with the intention of freeing myself from the cleaning itself. It’s of little wonder why I get disappointed and discouraged by the mere thought of having a mess to clean again soon from the next cooking, or meal, or play. I see now why, especially after a thorough house cleaning, I get easily irritated just by having living beings living in the house.

My housekeeping serves no one but myself. I think that summarizes why. The irony of it all is, the freedom that I am chasing is an elusive one, and is in fact not a freedom. Instead, it binds me and my family away from living freely in our own home. Because every act of living we do will inevitably violate the cleanness and tidyness of the house. And that is absurdly funny, is it not? Having a house that you can’t live in?

I see now the real freedom housekeeping affords me is the freedom to serve my loved ones again and again. And the real reason why there is a need for my housekeeping is because my loved ones are fed, clothed, and taken care of in this house. As the proverb goes, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” In my current season of life, mess is the mark of productivity, and cleaning is the means to continuity.

As sure as there is pleasure in doing others good, so it turns out, the true pleasure that homekeeping gives is the repeated pleasure of providing hospitality, joy and happiness for others (often, the dearest ones). The satisfaction felt in seeing a sparkling clean and tidy house after a good sweating out is then a ‘bonus’.

Our Wonderful Dad – Happy Father’s Day 2017

We have a wonderful dad
Whose shoulders we’ve always had
As a friend he is not bad
But don’t you dare make him mad!

He reads to us every night
He slides with us from the height;
He teaches us the Lord’s way
And joins us too in our play

Though he won’t listen as we say
“Daddy, please don’t go to work today!”
We are well fed and well cared for
What could daughters ask for more?

So Daddy, Happy Father’s Day!
Please know we love you everyday!

Your Little Nonas
18 June 2017

Not Mini Adult


Children are not adults in wee little size. Though often we, the adults, expect them to be and treat them as one, to our own frustration. It’s probably about time we accept that being children means:

1. Covering their mouth AFTER, not before, sneezing (God forbid, with a full mouth, at someone’s face).
2. Asking pointless questions endlessly.
3. Cannot sleep when you want them to sleep.
4. Cannot wake up when you want them to wake up.
5. Wearing their slippers the wrong side.
6. Needing to pee, poo, at the wrong time.
7. Asking you to do the same thing again, and again, and again (please auto repeat).
8. Cannot find the ‘missing’ toy that is right in front of their nose.
9. Being so engrossed in what they do that they are deaf to you calling them.
10. Being so in tune with your voice that they know it when you whisper to yourself “let me get some chocolate”.
11. Do not understand/operate based on/respond to common sense.
12. Always moving (or talking).

And a thousand more.

Science will tell us that some of the above are because it’s in their wiring, and the rest are because it’s not yet in their wiring. What then, if it’s their wiring and there’s nothing that adults can do to make these little ones otherwise, does it not make more sense to conclude that this time window must have been meant to be a learning and growing opportunity for the adults?

Apparently, children are not the only ones growing and learning. Adults must, too. When the adults learn to forebear children’s childishness, with tenderness and compassion, that’s when the adults learn to be parents.

God help us to be parents.

“TheĀ LordĀ is like a father to his children,Ā tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.” – Psalms 103:13-14

Happy Lunar New Year 2017 – More Than Just Food


Even though this year I am again unable to make the trip back home for the reunion dinner, reliving some of the taste of home certainly brings me back to the fragrance of our late grandma’s table and the merry chit-chat of three generations’ folks around it.

Growing up in a close knitted family and having a tradition to remember is indeed a blessed thing. I hope our two girls, too, will grow up with a table and family tradition to cherish. Because a shared meal means so much more than just happy tummies. As the saying goes, the family that eats together stays together.

Wishing all of you a warm reunion and blessed Lunar new year!

P. S.
Sharing with you our favorite pork belly family recipe so that I will not be the only one coming out with belly excess this CNY šŸ˜‰

Emotion Is a Gift from God


The Tantrum Specialist

Our second daughter, Mila, is one emotional child ever since her newborn-hood. Her will is unbent, her tantrum intense. She cannot contain her excitement, and she expresses her sadness in manner that (I think) is beyond baby.

In this video was one of her emotional moments. It was taken when the eldest and I went to catch the Christmas Wonderland at Gardens By The Bay, leaving her with Hubby at home. We left while she was napping. I was told later that she was visibly upset but was rather quiet the entire evening. She finally broke down in tears after a lonely dinner.

Being blessed with an emotional child provides parents with its own challenge to struggle through. While dealing with their emotion, we may very often be overwhelmed ourselves, but we must remember to look at it as a blessing.

With it, humans are enabled to live their lives meaningfully. They are made able to love and be loved, to know grief and therefore learn to cherish, to fear and revere what is beyond them.

Ultimately, emotion equips man for a rich relationship with the Creator, with which they may feel the wonder of His love and be fulfilled by His joy, presently and even more so in the eternity. What a powerful gift! A gift when rightly used, blesses mankind in ways that are beyond the capacity of any other creatures, but when corrupted, turns them into the worst ofĀ beasts. And herein lies both encouragement and solemn warning for parents. Nip it not in the bud, as it is not meant for suppression, trim it dutifully whileĀ basking it in the Light of Heaven’s Sun, andĀ see it bloom into the beauty it isĀ meant to be.

To the God who has bestowed this child with the gift of strong emotion, we will turn our gaze and plea.

Grant us, OĀ Lord, everything we need
to raise this child to be the master of her emotion.
And if it pleases Thee,
a fierce lover of Thy name.

Hidup Hemat: Kebajikan dari Masa Lampau


(This is the Indonesian translation ofĀ the original post Frugality: Virtue of The Past, as it was meant to be a tribute to my parents, who will better understand the article in their national language.)

Baru-baru ini saya nganterin anak ke pesta ulang tahun temannya, biasalah, kalau sudah punya anak, kita pada cuma jadi supir atau bodyguard, anak-anak inilah yang menjadi tamunya. Sore itu cuaca panas dan acaranya di ruang terbuka, pas sekali para tamu disuguhi cemilan Es Ganefo – es yang biasanya dibuat dengan membekukan minuman bermacam rasa dalam wadah plastik silinder. Sering juga dikenal dengan sebutan Es Lilin.

Gegara Es Ganefo ini, saya jadi teringat kenangan masa kecil, kenangan baik yang membuat kangen. Oh bukan, saya bukannya sering jajan Es Ganefo semasa kecil, saya lebih sering dengar cerita tentang Es Ganefo. Soalnya Es Ganefo ini obyek ceramah favorit Papa di rumah, semacam kuliahĀ beliauĀ di meja makan.

“Kalian ini tidak sadar diri seberuntung apa ya? Waktu Papa seumur kalian, Papa mesti keliling-keliling berpanas-panas jualan Es Ganefo naik sepeda!”, begitulah Papa memulai ceramahnya, “Yaa elahhh Es Ganefo, Es Ganefo lagiiii…”, pikir kami diam-diam.

Orangtua kami memegang standar yang ketat kalau urusanĀ membelanjakan uang. Seperti umumnya etnis Cina keturunan generasi mereka, mereka besar dalam masa yang sulit. Mereka mengalami dan tau jelas apa itu hidup miskin dan berkekurangan.

“Habiskan makananmu!”
Papa selalu membelikan makanan apa saja yang kami minta, tapi jangan coba-coba menyisakan makanan sehingga terbuang. “Tidak tau bersyukur ya kalian ini, waktu kami kecil, mau makan yang kalian buang ini pun kami tak bisa! Tau tidak, mie pansit pun kami cuma bisa makan setahun sekali!” Belum lagi cerita beliau tentang gulai ikan.. “Kami delapan bersaudara kalau mau makan gulai ikan, cuma bisa beli ikannya satu, minta kuahnya sepanci.”

Soal mainan, Papa sedikitpun tidak melonggarkan standar. Saya masih ingat dua kalinya saya pernah minta dibelikan mainan. Yang satu adalah boneka beruang berwarna unguĀ saatĀ masih duduk di bangku TK. Berkali-kali kami mendatangi toko kelontong penjual boneka ini, dengan rengekan yang tidak berhenti, akhirnya saya dibelikan juga. Yang satunya lagi adalah Playstation set, kira-kira sewaktu saya kelas 4 SD. Saya danĀ adik terus-menerus meminta untuk dibelikan Playstation. Setelah lama didesak terus, akhirnya beliau mengalah, tapi bukan tanpa mengomeli kami dengan “Bapakmu tukang cetak duit ya.”

Sering juara kelas itu tidak bisa dijadikan alasan untuk minta dibelikan macam-macam mainan. Nilai bagus untuk mainan? Tujuan pendidikan kami bukan untuk sesuatu yang sedangkal itu.

Segala sesuatu pakainya harus hemat. Kami paling takut kalau Papa sudah mulai merapikan isi lemari TV, biasanya tanpa terduga. Kalau sudah kami lihat Papa mulai beberes, biasanya kami cepat-cepat kabur ke kamar. Tak lama pasti terdengar omelan Papa sambil mengumpulkan banyak penghapus, pensil dan barang-barang kami lainnya yang kami sangka sudah lama hilang dari dalam lemari. “Terus! Beli baru, beli baru terus ya!”

Almarhumah Nenek dari pihak Papa bahkan lebih ketat lagi standarnya. Pernah sekali saya dimarahi beliau karena minta pulpen baru setelah menghilangkan yang lama. “Kecil-kecil sudah royal ya! Besar mau jadi apa?” Padahal juga bukan Montblanc (memang sih anak kelas 2 SD juga tidak kenal Montblanc), cuma pulpen murah yang semua anak tahun 90an pasti pernah punya. “Tuh kan, memang keturunan..”, kami biasa bergosip dengan para sepupu. Kaum Hainan memang katanya menjunjung tinggi nilai berhemat. Tapi untuk anak-anak seperti kami pasti berpikir itu namanya pelit. Tiga sepupu kami bahkan berasal dari kelompok dialek yang lebih hemat lagi dari kaum Hainan. Kami hanya bisa menyelamati mereka, semoga bertahan.

Kami juga dilatih untuk memakai air dan listrik secara teliti. (Setelah bertahun-tahun diomeli, mematikan saklar ketika meninggalkan ruangan itu menjadi kebiasaan yang otomatis, seolah-olah akan ada alarm yang berbunyi kalau lupa mematikan.) Menampung air dalam ember juga umum meskipun kamar mandi kami sudah modern.

“Coba jual kerupuk Jangek ini, baru kalian tahu untuk mendapatkan lima ratus rupiah itu usahanya seberapa.” (Kalau dikurs ke mata uang Singapura saat itu kira-kira senilai 10 sen.) Uang dinilai dengan kerja dan usaha, bukan dari bunga bank ataupun bunga saham, ini pegangan kami ketika membelanjakan uang. Jadi memang “uang hasil keringat” dalam arti sesungguhnya. Dalam enamĀ bulan pertama saya diĀ Singapura untuk studi, berat badan saya menurun sebanyak 8 kg. Sama halnya dengan kedua adik saya, berat badan mereka menurun banyak ketika awal-awal keluar kota melanjutkan studi. Datang dari kota kecil seperti Pematangsiantar, biaya hidup di kota besar, bahkan biaya sekali makan saja, bisa berkali-kali lipat dari normal kami. Wajar kalau kami akhirnya menghemat makan dengan ketat untuk mengurangi rasa bersalah kami yang sudah menghabiskan banyak uang hasil keringat orangtua (tentu saja orangtua sedih ketika tahu kami berbuat demikian).

Dengan begitu banyak omongan tentang bagaimana kami harus hidup hemat, mungkin membuat orang berpikir bahwa Papa seorang kikir yang pantang mengeluarkan satu peser pun. Tapi kebiasaan keluarga kami seminggu sekali untuk makan bersama di luar, dan juga pemakaian uang untuk Mama berbelanja pakaian maupun untuk tujuan amal menunjukkan sebaliknya. Kuncinya mungkin bukan ‘tidak membelanjakan uang’, melainkan ‘memanfaatkan uang secara bijak dan bertanggungjawab’. Sesungguhnya nilai uang itu terletak justru pada penggunaannya, sebab uang yang diam dan tersimpan selamanya itu sama tidak bergunanya seperti talenta yang terkubur dalam perumpamaan Yesus tentang talenta, atau seperti seguci kepingan emas yang terkubur dan akhirnya dicuri dalam salah satuĀ  dongeng karangan Aesop, tanpa guna di dalam simpanan.

Adalah bijak untuk mengingat pentingnya uang, tetapi kita pun harus berhati-hati untuk tidak menggelembungkan uang hingga melampaui ukuran sepantasnya. “Ingat, jangan memandang koin uang sampai sebesar roda pedati.”, demikian nasihat rutin Papa. Kalimat inilah yang menjadi penyeimbang terhadap semua ajaran beliau tentang pentingnya uang dan berhemat.

Kini, kami mengelola rumah tangga kami sendiri dan membesarkan anak-anak kami sendiri dalam kehidupan yang cukup nyaman di Singapura. Mungkin tidak lagi ada keperluan untuk hidup berhemat. Hemat itu tidak gampang, tidak nyaman, dan tidak menyenangkan. Tapi kita sejatinya sedang melakukan pembodohan terhadap diri dan anak-anak kita kalau kita berpikir dan mengajarkan bahwa hidup hemat dan beririt itu hanya respon semata terhadap masa sulit. Rasa berkecukupan, bersahaja, pengendalian diri, pemakaian sumber daya yang bertanggungjawab, dan tenggang rasa terhadap kaum tak berpunya yang dipupuk melalui kebiasaan hidup irit, uang lebih yang boleh disisihkan dari hidup berhemat untuk tujuan amal; kebajikan-kebajikan seperti inilah yang menjadikan kita manusia yang lebih baik. Seperti kata William J. Bennett, anak-anak (manusia) itu pada dasarnya adalah makhluk moral dan rohani, dan inti dari pendidikan adalah nilai-nilai kebajikan.

Orangtua yang memaksa dan melatih anak-anaknya untuk hidup irit mungkin bukan orangtua yang disenangi (untung saja mereka tidak mempermasalahkan suka tidaknya kita kepada mereka). Setiap didikan memang sepertinya tidak menyenangkan pada saat diterapkan, namun seiring waktu ia menghasilkan buah kebenaran danĀ damai bagiĀ mereka yang dilatih olehnya (kitab Ibrani 12:11). Melihat ke belakang, saya mensyukuri dan mengagumi dedikasi orangtua dalam menerapkan hidup hemat dan sikap irit. Semoga saya pun bisa mewariskan kebajikan ini kepada generasi selanjutnya.

“Isilah pikiranmu dengan semua yang benar, semua yang mulia, semua yang adil, semua yang suci, semua yang manis, semua yang sedap didengar, semua yang disebut kebajikan dan yang terpuji.” – Rasul Paulus, kitab Filipi 4:8

Frugality: Virtue of The Past


I went to a birthday party recently, my daughter’s friend’s party to be exact because once you are a parent you don’t get to attend a birthday party as theĀ guest anymore, your kids do. It was a warm outdoor party, and we were aptly served Ice Ganefo – frozen snacks made by freezing flavored liquid in a clear and slim plastic tube. It is also known as ‘Es Lilin’ in Indonesian.

The thing about this Ice Ganefo is, it brings me back to my childhood. Fond memories, they are. No, I didn’t grow up eating it, I grew up hearing about it. It’s my father’s favorite topic of preaching, his kind of ‘table talk’.

“You bunch of ungrateful brats, be mindful of how fortunate you are! When I was your age I would be out there under the hot sun selling sticks of ice Ganefo on bike!”, he would start his lecture and we would roll our eyes thinking “here comes the ice Ganefo. Again..”

My parents were very strict about how money was spent. As was common for the Indonesian Chinese of their generation, they grew up in a tough time. They knew poverty and were acquainted with wants first hand.

“Finish up your food!”
While we were never denied the food we crave, leaving food to waste was a big sin in our family. “How ungrateful! In our childhood, we didn’t even dream to enjoy what you are wasting now. Wonton noodle is a once a year treat, you know!” And don’t get him started on the curry fish; “…we eight siblings would carry an empty pan to buy only one curry kembong fish while asking for a full pan of gravy…”

On toys, my father was no less strict. I still remember the two times I pressed him hard to buy me certain toys. One was a purple teddy bear, I was in my kindy. We visited the mama-shop several times with me nagging constantly before I finally got the teddy. The other one was the Playstation set, probably when I was in grade 4. My younger brother and I pestered him a lot and for a long time, he gave in but not without nagging back at us with “Right, your father is a money printer.”

Topping the class regularly had no bargaining power on him. Toys for score? Our purpose of education was never for something so banal and shallow.

Resources were to be used thriftily. As kids we dreaded the moment when our father would declutter the TV cabinets, which he did unpredictably once in a blue moon. We would all quickly siam*Ā to the bedroom at the first sign of it. Because soon enough, he would be heard nagging while digging out many of our ‘supposedly-already-gone-missing’ erasers, pencils, and whatever sorts of stationary. “Everything buy new, buy new, buy new…”

My late paternal grandmother was even more strict. I was once strongly rebuked by her for asking for a new pen, having misplaced one previously. “What a young spendthrift! What will you be when you grow up?” No Montblanc here (not that a grade two kid would know a Montblanc anyway), just a simple pink with white stripes pen all the 90’s kids probably owned before. “See, it’s running in the bloodlines,” we cousins would gossip among ourselves. The Hainanese pride themselves forĀ being frugal, or so we heard. But to us kids, it was just plain stingy. And three of our cousins are fromĀ a paternal dialect group that is known to be even more frugal. We bid them good luck.

We were trained to use water and electricity mindfully. (After years of being nagged at, turning off the switches when leaving the room just became a second nature, as if an alarm would go off if you stepped out while leaving one switch on). Having pails of water in our modernized bathroom is also common.

“Sit here and try selling this Kerupuk Jangek (fish cracker) then you’ll know how much effort goes into earning your 500 rupiahs.” (That’s probably the equivalent of 10 cents in Singapore currency of that time.) Money is valued by the amount of real work, so we are to base our calculation on this when spending. It’s hard-earned money in its literal sense. When I first came to Singapore to study, I lost 8 kgs in the first 6 months. Just as my two younger brothers did as they went to major cities for further study as well. Coming from a small town as Pematangsiantar, the cost of living, or a mere meal, in big cities is many times our normal. So we naturally skimped on meals to ease our guilt for spending so much of the hard-earned money from home (to our parents’ heartache of course).

With so much talk about thriftiness and frugality, one would probably think of my father as a scrooge who clutches his wallet tight unwilling to part with a buck. But our weekly family dining out and his approval for my mother’s occasional wardrobe spending and charity commitment proved otherwise. The key is probably not ‘not spending the money’, but rather ‘spending it wisely and responsibly’. Indeed, its meaning lies in its spending, for an idle, or permanently kept money is as no-good as the buried talent in Jesus’ Parable of The Talents, or the buried gold coins that were stolen away in one of Aesop’s fables, being good for nothing in the keeping.

While it is important to acknowledge the importance of money, one must also guard against magnifying it unproportionally. “In your mind, do not enlarge the coin to the size of the cart wheel, ” is my father’s regular advice. And it provides the much needed balance to our view of frugality.

Today, as we run our own household and parent our own kids in a generally comfortable life in Singapore, the need for practicing frugality may be virtually nonexistent. It is inconvenient, it is uncomfortable, it is unpopular. But we are fooling ourselves and our children if we are to believe frugality is merely a response to hard times. The contentment, modesty, self-discipline, responsible stewardship and empathy towards the needy it instills, the extra resource for charity it affords; virtue makes us better human. As William J. Bennett pointed out, children, human, are essentially moral and spiritual beings and the central task of education is virtue.

My father, and the elders who insisted frugality on us, might not be the most likable adults of our childhood (as if they’d care). But no discipline seems pleasant at the time, only later does it produce a harvest of righteousness and peaceĀ for those who have been trained by it. Looking back, I admire and am grateful for the persistent pursuit of a frugal life instilled by our elders, and I wish to carry this legacy forward to the next generation.

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” – Saint Paul

*siam: evadeĀ in Hokkian/Singlish.