We have a flight to catch in a few hours and the bags are not packed yet but I must still make that one last dip. Even if it’s just a quick one.
Ever had one of those experiences, which resonate with you on such a personal level that, despite calculated odds, you yearn to fulfill it? For me, it was that one more dip in the open-air bath of Ki Niseko Hotel from our recent trip to Hokkaido, Japan.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to onsens but there’s just something about this open-air onsen that’s alluring. I wondered what it was even as I took my last dip. It was certainly not the scenery as there was virtually none – the onsen overlooks a large heap of pure white snow that obscured any other scenery. It was not the water – it was the usual hot spring water which is available at other onsen resorts we’ve visited and the ambience, well, is typical of any Japanese onsen. One thing for sure, it was certainly not the sub-zero temperature I had to endure before plunging in.
But as I tarried in quiet solitude, I looked up and there it was.
The open-air onsen had no roof except for a row of wooden trellis. In between the open squares of the wooden trellises, pure white snow were falling gracefully, each having a rhythm, speed, size and design of its own. As it neared the onsen, some would evaporate as they meet the rising steam from the onsen or, for those ‘luckier’ ones, they would reach the surface of the water and inevitably dissolve. More than feeling magical – to have all these snow falling gracefully around you soaking naked in the onsen, this experience brought about a deeper revelation.
By any account, 2016 had been an extraordinary year. In fact, extraordinarily more stressful than any other. However despite all these challenges, here I am, vacationing with my family, with the year behind me while with a new job posting and family expectations squarely right in front of me in a couple of days.
The falling snowflakes seemed to remind me that life is a series of transitions. Events and episodes in life, happy or sad, stressful or not, are never permanent. Some arrive gracefully while others may hit us in a gust. Whatever it is, it is not permanent because life in itself is transient and our existence is like snow – beautiful, exquisite but not permanent. Whether early or late, it will dissolve like snow falling on the onsen.
Like snow which dissolves eventually, its temporal existence has an impact on the people who experience it. Feelings of happiness and wonder in the eyes of a child. Fuzzy feelings of love and delight as a parent play snowballs with their children. Feelings of caution and care when we drove through a snowstorm from Sapporo to Niseko.
What are the lessons which life, in its transient nature, has inspired you in the past year? For me, it’s summed up in the following 7 lessons.
Studies, Studies, Studies:
I felt a need to upgrade myself after 15 years working in education. From classrooms to stage; from parents to Presidents, I’ve been there and hosted them all. I felt the need to take a step back to recharge mentally and to be inspired. Given that I’m in education – how can I lead my students (and even my own children) to where I myself have not been? How can I change mindsets when mine remains narrow and outdated?
On my second attempt, I was finally awarded a scholarship to pursue my Masters. I’m grateful for the opportunity but it was no mean feat. To complete 10 post-graduate modules in 10 months (including a research thesis) is no walk in the park. Through the late nights and early mornings, my children saw me study, read notes, eat, sleep and type at the table…These tough moments enabled me to role-model diligence and perseverance to my kids, particularly my school-going daughter, Dana.
Upgrading is an important part of renewing our passion in our careers. If nothing, it helps to expand perspectives and mindsets. I am relieved I finally cleared my Masters and will be returning to the workplace to contribute back to education.
Due to my studies, I had the chance to be a partial ‘Stay-Home Dad’ for a large part of the year. Due to the demands of my studies also, my ‘Stay-Home Dad’ time was largely curtailed by assignments, readings and research. I did not exactly had that much of free time to be with the family as much as I wanted to as my days/nights were filled with readings, lectures and discussions.
Nevertheless, I did manage to walk the daughter to school daily and chauffeur my son and my wife respectively. Functional roles but I decided to make them meaningful – by engaging in conversations, by asking my daughter about the details of her day, helping her to unpack her thoughts and feelings. Sending my son to his child-care centre, singing with him in the car. Driving the wife to work and what precious time that was – to catch up with each other within the confines of the car and start the day with a prayer before she starts her work day. I miss those times already.
Being an effective stay-home parent lies in the level of engagement one has with the family. Presence alone is not enough if there is no engagement. Getting caught up in the mundane of daily chores may rob us of precious interaction time. As much as the stay-home parent needs to meet the daily needs of the family, he/she also needs time out for self-care to see things in the wider perspective.
Strength through Unity:
Our trusty Filipino maid of 4 years went home for good in March after CNY. For the months after, I had to step in and together with the wife, performed the maid’s roles until we found a stable and suitable replacement (finally!) in Nov. It was an extremely stressful few months, juggling our studies and work commitments with the daily running of the home. It didn’t help that I had unending assignments and copious amount of readings.
But the episode drew us closer as a family as we involved the children more and had more contact time with them. From washing the dishes together to bathing the toddler; from cleaning soiled bed sheets to cooking simple meals, the new routines meant everyone, big or small, had to chip in. Looking back, it was tough having a slew of bad maid encounters but tough times don’t last, tough families do.
Never belittle these daily, simple chores. These opportunities allowed the kids to rise up to take up more responsibility in the home. During the very trying periods, we saw friends and families stepping in to lend their helping hand, these are kindness we will never take for granted and we aim to be the extended arm for them (and others) in return.
Scandinavia with Kids:
Having toured Central and Eastern Europe before the kids arrived, we set our eyes on Scandinavia for our June family vacation. I was initially quite apprehensive. While we are used to travelling with kids, we were travelling with a hyper-active two year-old to a faraway Nordic destination. I was also concerned if the place would be a bore to the eldest, after all it isn’t exactly Disneyland and there were no theme parks or zoos planned at all in the itinerary.
But our fears were unfounded. For the daughter, we asked her to tag along the local tour guides when we visited churches, monuments and castles. She was intrigued to listen to stories of their history and origins. They were, literally, like fairy tales coming true. For the younger one, we let him run when there are open spaces and green pastures. It helped that our kids were the youngest in the entire tour group – so the tour mates adored them and didn’t mind entertaining them.
Children take cues from their parents. If we think they can’t, they can’t but a little faith, a whole lotta research and a large dollop of patience, you’d be surprised how robust our kids can be on travels! Travelling as a family is one of our favourite ways to bond and create unique memories.
Research shows that children’s cognitive abilities grow exponentially with the exposure given between the ages of 0 till 9 years of age. As parents, we believe strongly in exposing our children to as many different experiences as possible. Skiing is one of them. Having heard how powdery soft the snow is in Hokkaido and how fun skiing can be for kids, we gamely took the step of faith to plan a vacation to enroll Dana in ski school. Our efforts were rewarded when we saw her taking on the slopes on the very first day with a big, wide grin despite the heavy snow-fall and subzero temperatures.
People we met were surprised by the fact that we ourselves do not ski but yet travelled all the way to a ski resort just to let our daughter learn skiing. But parenting is like that, isn’t it? We give our children the best, which often mean giving them experiences that we never had the chance to be exposed to.
Parents make sacrifices for their children all the time and we have no qualms putting our children’s needs above our own. The wife and I were not born with silver spoons but we try our best not to let our past dictate our children’s future. Within our means, we will provide them with enriching experiences and give them wings to soar higher than our own dreams.
(‘Surprise Seventy’ photos by Andrew Su)
Apart from my studies, this was the next biggest project for 2016 – giving my mother a surprise 70 year-old birthday dinner by inviting 100 of her closest friends and family members to celebrate it with us in Penang. The occasion gave my brother, sister and I a platform to work on something collectively despite living apart in 3 different countries.
I had left home for my studies in Melbourne at the age of 18 and quite honestly, my plan was to return home and settle down in Penang after graduation. Evidently, that did not happen. I have been working and living independently in Singapore since. My mother’s 70th birthday party was a resounding success but it also served a loud reminder to me that time and tide truly wait for no man. All of us are growing older, including our kids. Soon, that little toddler that we’re teaching how to walk will be making his own strides in society, carving his own destiny.
Our time with our children is fleeting. They say, the days are long but the years are short. Our time as a family is not as long as we would like to think it is. Time, the frailty of the human body and the uncertainties of life will tell us to treasure each moment we have with one another.
Significance for 20 Seventeen:
The year pushes on, and a new year has arrived. Whether we like it or not, happy or sad moments happen and they vanish. Opportunities come and they go. Moments appear and then they are gone, forever.
Just like snowflakes, our lives and those of our parents’ and children’s, are unique and precious. Just like a snowstorm, life passes each of us at different speeds and different paths. Just like snow flake, life appears, tarries a little then wanes.
The transient nature of life reminds us to cherish every moment. Lasting meaning can still be made from our seemingly mundane lives if we allow ourselves to take a step back, take stock, overcome challenges, rediscover our passions and create unique memories with those we love.
While the snow at the onsen dissolves, at least for me in the short term, I am here to witness my kids grow up. My moments with them as a father disappear faster than I can say ‘Wait, Daddy is busy’. New year or not, these people and moments matter to me and I am resolute to make my moments with them matter, this year in 2017.
Have a Happy and Meaningful New Year.