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Life lessons from friends

My inter-generational friends guide me in living the second half of my life

A fortnight ago, I spent a couple of nights in Tokyo en route to Mexico.

It helped me break the tedium of a long journey but, more importantly, allowed me to drop in on a dear friend Mrs Eiko Tatsumi.

The 82-year-old lost her husband Yoshihiro Tatsumi - an illustrious figure in Japanese manga - last year to leukaemia.

Friends have told me she still misses him terribly and I just wanted to find out how she was doing.

A common friend Masato helped to set up lunch at a Chinese restaurant tucked away in the mammoth maze that is Shinjuku Station and acted as interpreter.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Mrs Tatsumi rushed over to give me a tight affectionate hug when she saw me. I was relieved that she was as sprightly and lively as ever, although she looked thinner.

After we had settled down and ordered our set lunches, she whipped out a small piece of paper.

"I wrote down what I wanted to tell you, I was afraid I might forget," she said before proceeding to read the contents in her soft and gentle voice.

Among other things, she thanked me for the sympathy bouquet I sent upon Sensei's passing and how he would have been touched. Sensei is the Japanese honorific for teacher or mentor, and my friends and I used the term to address her late husband.

I met her about six years ago through Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo, who adapted Sensei's autobiography A Drifting Life and five of his short stories into an animated feature which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

She and her husband spent about a week in Singapore. There was a language barrier, but that did not stop us from striking up a firm friendship especially after I invited them to dinner at my apartment, where she made light work of my chilli crab and tomato prawns.

She insisted that it was the most "oishii" (delicious in Japanese) dinner she had, something she would reiterate each time we met.

Our paths crossed again several times. I would drop in on the couple on my fairly frequent visits to Japan. Among other things, they introduced me to Jinbocho - a charming district in Tokyo filled with bookshops and publishing houses - where Sensei had an office.

I loved hanging out with them because they were such a dignified and loving couple. She worked as a waitress and stood by him when he was a struggling artist; he, in turn, never stopped adoring her.

As we talked and reminisced about old times that afternoon, Mrs Tatsumi reached into her bag and took out a small stack of Post-its.

She pushed one over to me and asked if I would pen something for Sensei.

Apparently she keeps an altar to him at home and writes him a note every day.

"Sometimes, it's just a short sentence to tell him what I bought at the supermarket," she said as I swallowed the lump in my throat.

When Masato translated what I had written, she looked at the note happily before carefully putting it away in her handbag.

We spent nearly two hours together that Sunday afternoon. At one stage, she came over and gave me a neck and shoulder massage.

When it was time to go, the tiny lady cupped my face in her hands in a busy Shinjuku alleyway, kissed me on both cheeks before reluctantly saying goodbye.

As I made my way out of the station into the bright sunshine, I started thinking about the nature of friendships and why I take such delight in the company of a woman nearly three decades older than me.

Research has shown that there are at least three expectations people harbour when they make friends: they want someone they can talk to, depend on and enjoy.

I have a lot of friends my age and younger who tick all those boxes, but friendship with someone older, I find, offers a reciprocity which is unique. It is also often drama- and judgment-free.

Take Ms C, a 72-year-old retired corporate leader I met in the course of work. Over time, we bonded because we are both Cantonese-speaking, experienced poverty in our childhood and like to chat over a good meal.

Although she has run corporations and is extremely well-connected, she treats me like an equal.

Perhaps she is astute and knows it does not hurt to cultivate the friendship of a journalist, you say? Well, she is retired and could care less about media exposure.

When my mother died two years ago, Ms C called me every Sunday afternoon for a few consecutive weeks just to make sure I was okay.

She never put herself on a pedestal and styled herself as a bearer of wisdom, but I learnt a lot just chatting with her.

To use a piquant Cantonese saying: "She has eaten more salt than I have eaten rice". Indeed, this grandmother has shattered quite a few glass ceilings and weathered more than her fair share of personal storms.

Recently, I observed how she refused a lousy table and authoritatively demanded a much better one at an Italian restaurant.

Later when we were seated, she told me about an unpleasant encounter with an officer who gave her a tongue lashing for no apparent reason when she was clearing United States immigration.

As someone who held her own in several boardrooms, Ms C is more than capable of putting belligerent men firmly in their place.

But she didn't with the obnoxious officer. In fact, she was surprised she felt no anger or indignation.

"If I had been younger, I would have given him a piece of my mind. But I thought to myself: maybe his wife gave him a hard time and he's taking it out on me. True enough, he toned down after he had his rant.

"I felt there was no point fighting. I've learnt to pick my battles. Mind you, if it's something that I want, like this table, I will fight for it," she said with a grin.

Her experiences and stories enthrall me, as do Mrs Tatsumi's anecdotes about life with Sensei and the trials and tribulations they went through. It's like taking precious lessons in human existence to augment my own experiences, sweet and bitter, happy and sad, challenging and demanding.

I have crossed the line demarcating the start of life's second half and, like many people my age, I want to thrive and live out the rest of my years as meaningfully and as positively as possible.

My inter-generational friendships have offered me more than just a glimpse into my own future. They have also given me a few tips on how I should shape it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Life lessons from friends'. Print Edition | Subscribe