Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor

Make time for grandest stories ever told

A conversation between generations is precious for the perspective it provides

Last month, I went to watch Singapore play against Thailand in the opening round of this year's Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup.

The Lions lost, but that did not spoil the night for me.

I went because I wanted to see the new National Stadium with the two people who took me to watch my first live football match back when I was a little girl - my parents.

They initiated me into the mysteries of the Kallang Roar and the offside rule, although I must admit that what I remember most vividly from that night so long ago was not the cheering in the stands or the action on the field but what happened after the match - the feeling of being swept up in a strange, noisy human tide that flowed across streets in the inky darkness and paid no heed to traffic lights or road crossings.

In those days, there weren't many parking spaces near the old National Stadium so most people left their cars some distance away in Geylang and walked back there after the match.

Fans also showed up at the stadium hours before the match started to "chope" or reserve seats since there was no assigned seating. In fact there weren't any seats, just cement slabs we sat on. There was no roof either - except over the VIP stand - to keep the rain off, and certainly no green-tech cooling system like the one we have now.

Football-watching was a noisier, messier and sweatier affair than it is today, and my parents' memories and stories about those times are part of what make the game beautiful to me.

Whether they are football tales or war stories, a conversation between generations is precious for the perspective it provides. It fleshes out Singapore's history - not in the propagandistic way that textbooks or official speeches tend to do but through what our own family members have seen, heard, smelt, felt, tasted.

I have also heard uncensored accounts of the years my parents spent working in Woodbridge Hospital, now renamed Institute of Mental Health. That was where they met as they were among the first psychiatric-trained nurses here.

I heard stories of abuse, of hospital staff who took advantage of their positions to bully and silence patients. But I also heard stories of courage, including one of a female matron who stared down the male nurses who threatened her for disciplining them.

The thing about stories, though, is that they take time to emerge. And storytellers need listeners, listeners who are attentive and interested to receive their stories.

Perhaps the year end is an occasion to make time for these family stories. There are few gifts that can match the joy of really being listened to.

I applaud the people behind the Singapore Memory Project for being ahead of me in this area, and for having organised in November 2012 an event called The Grandest Story Ever Told, an afternoon to "lim kopi, tell story" with your parents and grandparents at Chye Seng Huat Hardware Coffee House. The Hokkien phrase lim kopi means to drink coffee.

The poster for the event read: "The Grandest Story Ever Told may have the lofty ambition of igniting the conversation of a lifetime, yet in many ways this is what we experience in our everyday lives, in unannounced moments of lucidity and poignancy when a grand/parent conveys a distilled nugget of life experience and memories. Rather than let these 'when I was your age…' moments slip by, we'd like to help capture them for future generations."

In the summer of 2001, two psychologists from Emory University taped the dinner conversations of dozens of American families and compared the results to the battery of tests they had put the children of these families through. They were following up on a hypothesis that children who know a lot about their families are better able to deal with life's challenges.

Of their findings, Professor Marshall Duke, one of the two psychologists, said: "We were blown away."

They found that the more children knew about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The children with the most self-confidence had what the two researchers called a strong "inter-generational self" - they knew they belonged to something bigger than themselves.

In my role as associate opinion editor, I read commentaries every day, including those by world experts and brand-name columnists.

One of the most moving was Korean-American writer Marie Myung-Ok Lee's account of what Thanksgiving means to her family.

She writes about how as a child growing up in the American mid-western state of Minnesota, she found Thanksgiving - with its butterball turkey and canned pumpkin pie - all too predictable, even banal.

It was years later that she realised why Thanksgiving was special to her parents. They had endured the Japanese Occupation of their homeland, a time when they could not speak their own language or use their own names. Her father had nearly starved to death during the early part of the war. Her mother had fled to South Korea just before it was sealed from the North, separating her forever from her parents.

Thanksgiving was, she writes, "the ultimate gift my parents could have given their children, of optimism and safety, the feeling that the next Thanksgiving would be a lot like this one, a predictable celebration of abundance and family".

Perhaps it is time to unlock the meaning behind the rituals our families cling to.

So this December, I invite you to share a drink and a few hours with a parent or grandparent. You might be surprised by the stories they tell.

lydia@sph.com.sg