In the previous vomit I talked about the fragmentation of all things, particularly social fragmentation. It was triggered by me paying attention to what people chose to talk about at a family gathering for new year’s eve. So much of the conversation was superficial – which isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, I don’t want to be someone who acts all superior because he thinks other people are being stupidly superficial. By that I mean – people were talking about the shirts they were wearing, what somebody else said about somebody else, and then, as the beers went on, started talking about politics and life experiences in the past. About the price of beer, about the injustice of some law or other, about perceived slights from other people, about things like cars and house gates and toilets and money.
And yet there’s this whole class of topic that never quite gets raised. How are you feeling? How is life? What are you stressed about, what are you afraid of? What are you hurt by, what are you angry about? When I look back on my life, there are few things I cherish more than the conversations I’ve had about those things with my close friends. And I’m not sure I’ve ever really had those conversations with family.
I think when family gets really close, and it’s really late, and people are tired and have been drinking, they start talking about their pain. They talk about how unfair and cruel grandpa was, and how selfish, how destructive, and how they kept quiet through it all, wiped their tears and held it together. How grandma didn’t do anything about it – how she kept silent while her children despaired. They talk about how they had to struggle with being broke, or with not being able to do what their friends were doing, and so on.
And everybody pitches in and contributes their own story – your grandpa did those bad things, I’m so sorry you had to deal with that, but my grandpa did THESE bad things, and I still have the scars – on my back, on my face, in my heart, in my soul. It affects the way I relate to people. It affects the way I think about money. It explains my periodic alcoholism and why I’m terrified of looking at my bills. And there is some amount of catharsis in all of that, when all the grandkids gather around and go, wow, I didn’t know you had been through so much. I didn’t know granddad was such an asshole.
Granddad, of course, if he could still talk, would tell you how shitty HIS parents were, and how proud he was of all the ways in which he managed to transcend them. How they beat him and tortured him, and how he was mercilessly mocked and ridiculed by the world around him. Grandpa was villainous, but he was a banal sort of villain. He was an insecure tyrant, who was bullied and insulted and belittled in countless ways, and he was incredibly resentful and hurt. A scared little boy thirsting for validation and triumph that would never be his, because he was never able to get past his incredibly constricted view of reality, his hurt ego. He saw himself as a victim, not a villain. But this victim’s hurt lives on in the shallow breathing and furtive glances of his grandkids. Grandpa has all sorts of rationalisations as to why he’s a good man, why he’s the victim and hero of his story.
Anyway, it’s not like you can do anything for grandpa any more. He’s old and dying and bedridden, and everyone does have a couple of good memories of him, when he was smiling and laughing and smart and helping them learn to ride a bicycle, buying them ice cream, swearing at the television while watching football, multiple cans of beer crushed on the coffee table in front of him.
We all live in the shadows of our ancestors. I wonder – there are so many Asians who practice some form of ancestor worship, of respecting their elders. How many elders were truly worthy of respect, and how many weren’t? How do you bring yourself to light a candle for grandpa, the dictator-tyrant at the head of the household? How do you resist the impulse to desecrate his grave, and to erase his name from your lips?
I suppose it has to do with a broader sort of social conditioning. Because grandpa, for all his vitriol and performed independence, was utterly at the mercy of what other people thought. He soared and crumbled at the praise and slights of others. And you, being grandpa’s progeny, you are no different. You too are afraid of what other people will think; and because conversations typically happen in a very limited space – comparing accomplishments, comparing holiday photos, comparing wedding announcements and baby celebrations, you too live in this odd vortex that you never chose. Unless you decide otherwise.
What happens after that? I can only speculate. But surely we are not the first to think about this. Surely there are others. This is what people write award-winning books about; tracing their fingers over their history and then moving forward into the future. You know, great-grandpa came to Singapore with tremendous fear and uncertainty. You can see him all around you today, we call him ‘bangla’ and ‘apunehneh’. He knew what it meant to try and strive forward, even when it meant leaving home, leaving every one you knew, every thing you knew, and entering a space that didn’t belong to you, that wasn’t designed for you, one where you were destined to be a second-class citizen, either to be ignored or spat on. And you look at all the grandpas-to-be around you, cutting trees and drilling holes and building the Starbucks where you’ll reflect about your middle-class-guilt as you sip your overpriced latte.
All you can do is move forward. All you can do is try better. All you can do is let go.