One of my best friends, Sheng Wai and I used to have this running joke: Whenever we wanted to give our opinions or offer unsolicited advice to each other, we'd place one hand on our hips, wag the index finger of the other hand, shake our heads in "wise contemplation", and preface any incoming cock-talk with "*mou mou mou...... lei tehng ngor gohhhhngg....." like those old uncles at Chinese coffeeshops who spend their mornings spouting cock to one another. Oftentimes, the forthcoming nonsense was overwhelmed by belly-aching laughter.
*"no no no... you listen to meeeeeeeeee......."
It's not so funny nowadays. If we still use the phrase, more often than not it's accompanied by a cynical laugh. Sheng Wai actually uses the phrase like he means it *sigh*.
IMHO, Growing up is the hardest piece of shit that you will ever experience. And despite your parents' best efforts at protecting you and shielding you, there are no shortcuts. When you attend the "How to be a grown-up" school, you have to learn every lesson.
If you're a protected little brat, Life will eventually dig you out of your velvet vault, and then throw the lessons at you with all the violence you can imagine. The best you can hope for is that every lesson you learn doesn't scar you, give you phobias, or otherwise leave an impression that will mar every interaction you have for the rest of your life.
Recently I've been getting this sick-in-the stomach feeling everytime I learn something new. A lot of people would consider themselves grown-up at my age, knowing enough not to kill themselves if left unsupervised - Don't play with scissors, don't play with fire, don't punch the bully who has 4 grunts with him and is double your size.... That sort of thing.
I'm fairly confident that I've learned enough to survive, but I honestly doubt if I've learnt enough to thrive. The old "The more you learn, the more you realise there's so much you don't know" adage, right? Nowadays It's almost like there's a monotonous tape recorder repeating that line whenever there's something to learn.
Probably the only thing keeping me sane is that at least I'm aware of it, and how easy it is for a lesser mind to just close off, take life's lessons at face value, and just let your prejudices colour every experience you have, choosing only to see what you want to see, and stop learning altogether. That's what causes misunderstandings and wars and a desperate need in the human psyche to impose his or her beliefs upon others.
The last weekend while we were eating a very awesome, very delicious dim sum brunch in Ipoh, a skinny old man who was waiting to pay the bill approached out table, pointed to a half-eaten fried dumpling, and said jokingly,"You're not allowed to leave if you don't finish that."
I turned around and gave him the obligatory non-committal smile that you reserve for uninvited old men who make stale jokes to strangers, saying nothing. We were all surprised at his interruption into our conversation, and I bet every single last one of us was wondering when this irritating man was going to leave us in peace. I for one was fixated on the bill he was holding, and was willing him with all my non-existent psychic power to walk that extra one meter to the counter behind us, present his bill, and leave us the hell alone. Thanks to our Chinese upbringing, none of us grown adults could bring ourselves to tell the old gentleman that he was interrupting us.
He started talking and asking us questions, and slowly but surely, my irritation turned into curiosity and eventually, to fascination. He started out acting like a typical old man, forgetful and overbearing, asking my name a few times and forgetting it each time. But after he told us his life story, and after I found out he was 84, I was astounded beyond belief. He still had all the hair on his head(and most of it was still black!!!) and I could see he had all his own teeth! My god, I thought, he's 84 and still walking straight, visiting his favourite breakfast spot 6 out of 7 days a week, and he had a good enough sense of humour and natural curiosity to strike up a conversation with total strangers( who weren't too friendly, I might add). What struck me most of all was this joie de vivre, this enjoyment of life, of wanting to know and learn about people. I probed and found out that he had a business distributing fabric and clothes, a huge shop, and best of all, he was still active in business, managing the accounts and keeping track of stock while he let his children manage the place.
The old uncle never once said "lei tehng ngor gohng", and was humble to a tee. I could see in his shirt and watch that he was a wealthy dude, but this didn't stop him from being friendly, even to people who didn't want to talk to him at first. Asked the secret of his health, he told us this, which I have read time and time again in many interviews with very old people: Listen to your body. Don't consume what it can't stand, and everything in moderation. Very consistent logic.
He left us with this gem: Woh hei, or "harmony" in Cantonese, was all-important. Do not insult or cross others, and to give way whenever possible. Very very zen, but he was nothing if not successful, was happy, and had a huge family, and I wasn't about to allow a morsel of wisdom, gleaned from almost a century in experience, pass me by. I haven't yet fully digested the implications of giving way instead of fighting, but you can bet that I will. Life is too short to make my own mistakes.