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The day dad cried

In all my 28 years, there have been only two instances when I have seen my father cry.

The first occurred a few years ago, during a small surprise party we threw for his 60th birthday. Having grown to know my shipping captain father for his firm handshakes and steely exterior, I recall feeling slightly dumbstruck as I watched him choke up while thanking his close friends for their companionship over the years.

The second happened a few weeks ago - this time while he was giving a speech at a luncheon that was thrown to celebrate my recent engagement.

Both instances were joyous and did not really warrant the melodramatic barrage of tears that ensued from my parents.

But as my father later said over a family dinner: "When you talk about your children, it can get emotional. You can see in front of your eyes how fast they've grown up."

As a child of immigrant parents, I have not always consciously thought about my parents in the context of their larger extended family, most of whom still reside in India.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

When my father got a job at a shipping academy in Malaysia, I was only two years old.

At that time, my parents - despite having never lived outside India - decided to take the plunge and move to a new country where they barely knew anyone.

They did it again two years later, this time to Singapore on account of better education prospects for my older sister and me.

For them, each relocation meant leaving behind their parents, siblings and fragile new friendships. In both instances, they gave up a part of themselves to ensure the prosperity of their children.

For me though, having been so young when it happened, living in Singapore and away from my extended family just became the norm.

I got used to the idea that I would see my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins for only a handful of days during our annual visits to India.

As life got more fraught with the demands of school and work, even those visits became fewer and further in between.

Over time, I came to expect that my parents would always be around to take care of me. The gap from my lack of extended family was easily filled with the many friendships I made over the years.

When our December school break rolled around, my sister and I would grumble about having to go to India yet again.

"It's not a holiday for us," we would moan.

Later as a teenager, I would selfishly sit in stony silence each time my mother floated the idea of spending a few weeks back home with her family. Most times, she would relent and shorten her trip.

Somewhere along the line, I forgot that my parents are also someone's children. That they, too, might miss the connections and friendships they have back home - the same sort that I so deeply treasure here.

Recently though, perhaps because I got engaged and am planning a new phase of life myself, the realisation of living away from my family has begun to hit close to home.

Now having to grapple on a small scale with what my parents go through every day, I am forced to confront the enormous sacrifices they have made over the years for me and my sister.

As my parents - and their parents - get older, I am quickly realising how each moment I can spend with them is a little more precious than the last. Time away in turn becomes a little more fraught.

My new home post-marriage will at most be a 40-minute MRT ride away from my home now. My parents, however, have spent the past 25 years living a five-hour plane ride away from their families.

Thanks to technology, they have been able to connect much more closely with their loved ones back in India.

But the distance that separates them has also meant they have missed countless birthdays, anniversaries and more heartbreakingly, the deaths of both their fathers.

Perhaps it was seeing their child grow up and reach a big milestone that brought my usually stoic parents to tears.

But the fact that their own parents were not there to share that special moment with them has not escaped me.

I, for one, cannot imagine raising my own children without their grandparents there to watch them grow every step of the way. But my parents have done that and more - all while keeping up a strong front for the sake of their daughters.

Today, Singapore is very much home for them as it is for me. Here, they have a small but tightly knit community of friends, many of whom have, over the years, become like their surrogate family.

Still, there remains a debt - of missed celebrations and panicked late-night phone calls - that they have shouldered for my sake.

And it is a debt that I can likely never repay.

My parents started their lives in Singapore from scratch and worked tirelessly to give me and my sister a life that was never in want of anything. It was by no means easy on them. But if given a choice, I know they would do it all over again.

Perhaps it is true then, that the sacrifices of immigrant parents are lost on their children.

But as I move into this new phase of my life, I now know to check my privilege each step of the way.

I cannot give them back the time they have missed out on with their own families.

But I can give thanks for each new milestone I get to celebrate in their midst - happy tears and all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'The day dad cried'. Print Edition | Subscribe