As a child, I would get dropped off at my grandmother’s (婆婆, “Popo”) house in Ang Mo Kio, where I attended the neighbourhood kindergarten at 8 in the morning, and get picked up at 5 in the evening for dinner.
I loved going to my grandparents’ place. There, I could indulge in endless hours of television without getting told off. I would rewind and listen to stacks of cassette tapes (which I found out recently are foreign to youths today) repeatedly until the tape would tangle and become a ribbony mess.
My Elusive Gonggong
My grandfather (公公,”Gonggong”) was the more elusive of the two. I would see him only when he got home from work, in a white short-sleeved tee and dark blue pants. He would always kick back on our forest green sofa with the newspaper.
I only found out much later on, that Gonggong worked as a ranger at the Jurong Bird Park and had been for over twenty years — a fact that I was extremely proud of, especially when we went there on school excursions. I loved showing off my inside connections to the Bird Park through Gonggong and his sweet buggy ride.
Popo and Gonggong had a big basket of coins in the kitchen. “Shillings”, Gonggong would call them. On a special day, I could take a few coins from the basket to buy my favourite figure 8 candies from the convenience store (“mama shop”) downstairs. On not so special days, I would nip a few coins secretly to buy that figure 8 candy anyway.
When I got a bit older (and a bit wiser), I realised that Gonggong’s job was actually really tiring for him. He was practically on his feet from 7am to 4pm on a daily basis. Gonggong said he would retire from his job if he earned enough to fill the basket. From that day on, I stopped taking coins from that basket.
In 2002, Popo was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and passed away soon after.
Life and Lessons with Gonggong
Gonggong eventually moved in with us. To my surprise, he was savvy around our house and even took charge of many household chores. I remember after Popo passed, I told myself that I would be deliberate about spending time with my Gonggong and my loved ones, because life was just so short. That was when I finally got to know him like I do today.
Gonggong soon formed his new routine with us. He would go to Johor Bahru (JB) once a week for cheaper groceries, walk up and down Bukit Timah Hill three times a day (each visit), five times a week, meet his friends once a week at Toa Payoh Bus Interchange for coffee, and watch TV in the rest of his time. Sometimes he would even go on overseas tours with his friends or with my cousins.
His Bukit Timah Hill routine involved him climbing up and down the first third of the hill (which would also be the steepest part) three times, before he would venture to the top. After the hill climb, he would find a spot at the base of the hill where he would do twenty push-ups and twenty sit-ups before leaving for his lunch and walking all the way back home (this takes 20-30 min). Did I mention this entire routine took him less than 1h and 30mins? It’s fast, by anyone’s standards, much less an 83-year old man.
I had to make some adjustments myself, such as choosing to spend time conversing with him despite a draining day. At family dinners where he would sit silently listening to our conversations, I would ask for his opinions on what we discussed. His matter-of-factly replies were blunt with a whit of nonchalance that always got us laughing. But it was really his replies that helped me learn more about him, his beliefs, his thought process – how much stemmed from the past and how much has been shaped by the present.
Despite his tiredness, Gonggong would always take the effort to get things that we needed.
Eggs short on supply? Gonggong!
No more salmon for my meals? Gonggong!
What? No more cut fruits in the fridge? Gonggong!!!
He would always respond within the day, topping up groceries where we needed it, running errands for us when we were busy. It was through these interactions that I learnt about Gonggong's love language — acts of service.
It took me a while to understand that perhaps the love language of the older generation did not come in the form of words, nor the public displays of affection on social media we see today. They love us in their own ways, in action and as they listen with concern to our achievements and setbacks. They empathize with us quietly, and celebrate with us in silence, but their emotions are always palpable – if we choose to notice.
And just as I try to keep him up-to-date with my life’s milestones, we too, must realise that they want to be a part of our lives, even if it means living through our successes. They will cry with us, rejoice with us, and love us even when we fail. Because our dreams have become theirs.
Dreaming with Gonggong
Having lived with him for some time, I got to know him so much better than just this elusive person who lived with Popo. I found so many things about him that were admirable. But I also realised that he was a man with many dreams. No matter what happened, he would adapt and find new ways to keep moving forward. They might not be goals as we know them today, but it was evident that was what he was doing.
One such example is how I loved that my grandfather put himself up to challenges daily. He would read the papers every day and peruse through Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs. When he got his mobile phone, he asked how he could add contacts and send messages. He would reply us with emojis 😭 😂 🤔 👌🏻 too! We passed him an iPad so that he could watch YouTube, and even taught him how to search for keywords so he could find videos that might pique his interest. He now uses Netflix as well.
The way he was so teachable and eager to learn in these little things made me admire his spirit and desire to not give up on a world that seemed to be moving faster than him. He taught me to never quit learning, and to always be open to change.
I put these lessons into practice in my own life. Now, as a business owner and athlete, I have to constantly be adaptable and relevant to changing industry demands and innovative in the way I develop myself and my business. Having to set my own goals and pursue my own milestones would mean that I would always have to look for resources to learn from. He inspires me to seek growth with whatever opportunity I can get.
When he cracked out his old photographs of him competing in his youth, I was amazed at the lithe and strength that he had. I used to think that I would never be able to do certain things in the sports world, or that I would be limited by past injuries, but he would tell me, "Just try. If you fail, then start again."
"Just try. If you fail, then start again."
No wonder carrying heavy grocery bags at his age today is still a walk in the park for him.
“I keep telling my brother (who is wheelchair bound), that he needs to get up and try to walk, otherwise he will suffer until his deathbed.”
His active lifestyle has led him to travel to more countries in the past ten years than I have ever travelled in my lifetime. If I ever wanted to visit a new country, I’d simply have to ask him what his experience was having been there. 9 out of 10 times it would have been a place he had visited before.
Yet now, we have noticed that he has gotten slower, in both his speech and gait. My grandfather who would usually leave me in his dust when he brisk-walked through the customs and up the hill was now just on pace with me. My aunt pointed out that he would elect to adjourn to his room early, when they took him on holidays, to rest.
A man who is so well travelled would now rather not go on trips with his friends because these trips were now ‘tiring’.
“Gonggong, I’m home! Did you go to Bukit Timah Hill today?”
“Yeah. Eat lunch already?”
“Eat liao lo. You? Did you climb up three times today?”
“No today two. Tired lah.”
“Cassie, I fell down when I was in Toa Payoh today.”
“What! Are you ok?”
“Yeah, I just stood up. A bit painful but it’s ok.”
Gonggong has slowed down in most aspects of his life. While I know it's all part of ageing, it can still be scary. After all, he has been there all my life and has been such an inspiration to me. I do hope that though he might have to adapt once again to his slower pace of life, his quest for new experiences and dreams will not.
My grandfather has lived every moment of his best life to the full. He has experienced, taught, laughed and loved. But the dream will never die. And as he continues to have new dreams, I will do my best to let and help him realise these dreams.