Lesson #1: Be curious about the world around you
I want to buy a house.
And build a secret room in it.
And not tell the kids about it.
Until we’ve moved out.
It would just come up in casual conversation one day.
Oh, we kept that stuff in the secret room.
"What secret room?” they’d ask.
The one in the old house on Elm Street.
“Oh my god! Where was it?”
Just off of the living room. You’d pull a certain book out of the bookshelf and the whole case would swing out, revealing the hidden room.
“That sounds so cool!”
“Why didn’t you ever tell us about it?”
Well, obviously because we didn’t want you going in there.
“What was in it?”
Stuff we didn’t want you to know about. Birthday presents, valuables, alcohol…
“Aw,” they’d say, “we wish we had known about it.”
Well then, you should have spent more of your childhood looking for it, tapping on the walls, jiggling the fixtures and pushing on all the rocks in the fireplace.
Like I did.
Lesson #2: Strive to be a better person
“Why can’t you be more like Barney?”
Barney was the kid two doors down who was, evidently, perfect. He was polite, well behaved, the best son in the history of good sons.
“He’s so obedient.”
“You make him sound like a dog.”
He spat when he talked, had a really bad bowl haircut, wore the tackiest thrift-store clothing and cried at the first sign of discomfort. On his sixteenth birthday, he found out his uncle was actually his real father, and that’s why his other father hated him so much. Years of abuse finally made sense. He stopped crying so much, but he didn’t smile anymore, either.
“Why can’t you be more like Gordon?”
Gordon was the kid who destroyed the curve. Straight As, top of the class, won all the scholarships.
“You have to study more, then you could catch up.”
“I can’t, I’m falling asleep walking to school.”
He had coke-bottle glasses, a creepy laugh, arrogance to spare and the world’s worst posture. In his third year of university, he was caught hacking into the school’s mainframe. His defence in court was that the security was so poor that it wasn’t really hacking. Virtually unemployable after his expulsion, he maintains his innocence to this day.
“Why can’t you be more like Danny?”
Kind, generous, helpful and compliant.
“Danny’s so good, never any trouble.”
“Danny’s never anything.”
He let his parents control his life, make all his decisions for him. They told him what to wear, what to eat, what to do, when to do it. He just turned forty and still lives at home, huddled in the cold basement surrounded by years of old newspapers, clipping coupons and watching TV.
My kids will never hear the phrase “Why can’t you be more like…” I’m not going to compare them to other kids. They’ll stand alone, comfortable and confident, no insecurity or doubt tracking their steps. I want them to grow up happy, humble and out of the house.
And that’s where they’ll find out they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Lesson #3: Nothing is as important as a good education
Just before he died, my grandfather gave my mother a homemade, handwritten book containing our family history. Unable to read Chinese, I asked my mother who our ancestors were and what they had done. “They were mostly scholars,” she said.
That is exactly not what a young boy wants to hear. A young boy wants to hear that his ancestors were at least remarkable. Great explorers, perhaps, or pioneers of something. To know that he is descended from brave and fearless warriors is to know that some of that heroic blood may be coursing through his veins, that he too may be destined to do great and heroic things someday.
I’m descended from people with book-smarts. My ancestors went to school and studied various topics in the library. Maybe they became authoritative experts in some field and dispensed knowledge to younger students.
And so, like them, I went to school, and studied hard, and went on to higher learning. And, as I grew older, I gradually pried more stories from my mother’s loosening grasp.
There was my father, who died when I was very young, who came over when he was twelve and lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown when it was still closed in and dangerous. He was part of the gang of Chinese kids who protected it, with secret calls and whistles to alert the others that the white kids had come down to make trouble again, to gather the troops to drive them out.
There was my great uncle Loy, who taught hand-to-hand combat to Canadian soldiers during World War II. A martial artist so accomplished, there wasn’t a belt black enough for him. To harden his hands, he would slap a brick every day—his hands were as tough as leather and the brick was smooth all over and half the size it had been when he started. If a Chinese family anywhere in Canada was having racial problems in their community, they could write Loy and he would travel to their town and try to negotiate a peace. Failing that, he would beat up their tormentors, warning them that if there were any more problems, he would come back and beat them up again.
And there was my grandfather, a poet and a dreamer. His wife hated him and his lack of ambition, his idiotic musings and his worthless writings. He would see a leaf fall in the backyard and then spend a whole afternoon composing a poem about it. When he died, as is the custom, his wife burned all his possessions, probably with glee. The homemade, handwritten book is the only thing that he wrote that still exists, and it’s probably not his best work.
Here, son. My grandfather gave this book to my mother, she gave it to me, and now I’m giving it to you. I have no idea what it says exactly, but it contains our family history. Apparently, your great, great, great, great-grandfather was a pirate or something. Pretty cool, huh?