“What do your parents do?” was a question often thrown around by my teachers and friends’ parents when I was in primary school.
I’m not sure why but everyone back then seemed to be interested in your parents’ occupations. It’s just like how, now that we are working, people would ask, “Oh, what do you do?”, as if your job is your most important characteristic.
My mum was a housewife. I had no problem telling people that because it was normal for mothers of young children to be full-time mums. All my friends’ mums were housewives, or homemakers, as they say now.
As for my dad, I would answer, “he’s a businessman”. While not a lie, to me, this is an embellished version of the truth because I was too ashamed to say it openly – my dad sells seafood in a wet market.
Fishmonger or Businessman?
I remember once, my primary school best friend caught me avoiding the truth when once again, the question was hurled at me.
“A businessman,” I said.
“No, he isn’t,” she argued. I then proceeded to have a five-minute-long debate with her about how my dad is, indeed, a businessman.
He sells fish, yes, but he owns the business. His staff may be called fishmongers but he isn’t one. At least, I didn’t want to think so.
There was another instance when I had to fill in a form for school. Sure enough, they asked about my dad’s occupation.
I wrote “businessman”, and trying to erase any feelings of guilt, I double confirmed with my mum that my answer was okay. That it wasn’t a lie. That I wasn’t a bad person for wanting to make my dad’s job title sound ‘better’.
I Wanted to Fit In
I was privileged enough to go to an international school – yes, smelly, fish money sent both me and my brother to an international school.
That meant most of my friends had dads in suits working on the top floors of buildings with centralised air-conditioning and big windows. Well, instead of air-conds, my dad has these big umbrellas that shield him from the sun.
Instead of the sounds of printers and people discussing deals, my dad’s workplace was, and still is, crowded and loud with competing offers from stalls shouted into the air.
“Mari mari! Lala satu kilo lapan ringgit!”
While my friends’ dads walked on carpeted floors in leather shoes, my dad walked around in his big yellow Phua Chu Kang boots on cockle shells that make the grounds.
So in between the CEOs and COOs, I wanted my dad to hold a fancy title too. You know, I wanted to be just like everyone else instead of accepting myself and my family as we were. Typical teen, huh?
Businessman or Loving Father?
I’m not sure when but somewhere between high school and University, I started being more honest with others, and myself.
I no longer saw shame in the smell of raw fish or the scales all over my dad’s clothes. Instead, I saw a man who works hard for his family. I started to see my father for who he is, beyond what he does for a living.
Then and now: the writer and her father.
And what I saw was the most caring dad I could have ever asked for. Not to mention, wise.
When I first came back from studying abroad a few years ago, I was going through a fragile phase because my time away had left me with no friends in KL.
I was writing something on my chalkboard one night when dad came in to check on me.
My dad is Chinese-educated and doesn’t know much English so he asked me what I was writing.
It was a reminder to myself. To be happy.
In that very instance, he asked, “Why do you need to remind yourself to be happy?”
I started crying.
I told my dad I was sad because I missed my friends.
Sounds a little silly of me now but the emptiness I felt all those months was hard to bear.
There and then, Dad gave me the best advice.
Translated from Cantonese, he said, “Imagine you are on a bus. Each time it stops at a station, some people get off and some get on. These are the people in your life. There will always be people who leave you, but you will also meet new people. You just have to keep going.”
I found out a day later he got the metaphor from my mum, who got it from a movie. Still, it was exactly what I needed to hear that night!
My Dad, My Inspiration
Having his stall in the market means my dad wakes up around 12.30am to start his workday.
That’s usually the time I get ready for bed, and whenever I see him sitting by the stairs getting ready for work (because his desk is in the bedroom and mum is usually sleeping by then), I am reminded of all the sacrifices he has made for us.
It makes me wish I had been more appreciative when I was younger and a part of me wants him to just retire already.
He might be used to working seven days a week and he might be okay with the chopped-up sleep, but the vivid picture of my dad sitting hunched by the stairs doing his calculations and jotting down his customers’ orders is a reminder to me that it is my turn now to take over and work hard.
My dad gave me a quote on my birthday a few years ago that says, “Find ways to success, not excuses for failure.” It’s stuck with me ever since and I’m going to keep it with me for the rest of my life.
The writer and her father on a hiking trip in Indonesia.
Whether he’s a fishmonger or businessman, it doesn’t matter. Because my dad is my dad.
Now, whenever people ask me what my dad does for a living, I say “He sells seafood in the wet market.”
Surprisingly, people would often be fascinated and ask, “Oh, what does he sell?” or “Does that mean you get fresh seafood all the time?”
Well, yes, yes I do. All the time.
Do you have any stories about your dad? Let us know in the comments.
For more articles on fathers, read How Losing My Dad at a Teenage Age Has Changed Me and My Dad and I Have Never Seen Eye to Eye, Here’s How I Cope with Life.