When a task has once begun
Never leave it till it's done
Be the labour great or small
Do it well or not at all.
When I was 12 and leaving Primary School, my form teacher Mrs Wong wrote this in my autograph book. For some reason, it has remained with me and I could never seem to shake it off my mind.
I have learnt many things from Mrs Wong, e.g. that rice noodles are less fattening than wheat noodles (she had an excellent figure), or that if you worked at your Maths everyday, you'd get A* almost automatically during your PSLE, or that (even corporal) punishment is fine as long as it is fair and the rules clearly spelt out and agreed upon right from the start.
I was made a School Prefect in Primary 6 based on my good academic results in Primary 5 (Prefects then were selected from among the Top 10 in standard) - but a few teachers objected as I was a stubborn child who often defied authority. But Mrs Wong (who was both our Form teacher and the school's disciplinary mistress) ignored them and told me, looking me in the eye, that she was only interested in what I could and would do for her in the coming school year. She had understood that if I had defied authority before, it was because it wasn't authority worth respecting. Those teachers practised favoritism rather blatantly and I disagreed with them, often standing with those kids who were bullied by their favourites.
I learnt that it was important not to abuse one's authority. And for the one occasion that I had, I was caned in front of the class. It was shameful, of course, but it would have been even more shameful if I had not been given the occasion to reflect on and learn from my own mistake(s). How many more times in life would I come to wish that the ground would open and swallow me up, but of course I knew better than that. We cannot erase our mistakes, we can only hope to learn from them.
I do not know how much the opening 4 lines have affected my life since, but it is true that I usually do not entreprend anything unless I am quite sure that I'll be able to do it. It could be anything as ridiculous as filing paperwork, handing in homework or doing housework. If I cannot give enough time or attention to it, I simply wouldn't touch it (yes, any excuse not to labour is a good one) :-)
Truth be told, I am not that proud of myself. For decades now, my failure to write the script for my class play at Secondary School still haunts me. I was best at English composition in my class. As such, Mrs Smith (our Scottish teacher) gave me the job of writing a script for the inter-class drama competition. I took on the job but was incapable of producing anything (that pleased myself). In the end I refused to hand in something and another classmate took over the job.
This quest for perfection would prove to be my downfall a few times over over the years. I am grouchy, impatient, intolerant and unforgiving (especially with myself). Hub says that if the children lack confidence, it's because they have a mother like me.
Salvation probably came in the form of age. With time and experience I have come to understand, if not accept, that while I may try to do things well, I may never actually succeed in doing it the way I would have liked to have it done. I have also understood that what I think is good may not necessarily be so, that what may seem bad right now may in retrospect one day turn out to be a blessing (and vice versa). Fact is, life is not one straight line; it has to be taken as a whole. On fait le point de temps en temps sur le chemin, mais pour le meilleur ou pour le pire, il faut qu'on continue de vivre. There is no turning back. And at the end of the journey, does it really matter if it has been a success or a relative failure - as long as it has been a life well-lived?
Hub came back from Insead and got me my favourite stack of newspapers and magazines (in French, English, even Spanish...). I read about China's Communist Party's 60th Anniversary in power. As a Singaporean Chinese, this doesn't mean anything to me, or if it does, it was more a feeling of pity that many Chinese traditions and customs are lost no thanks to those atheist revolutionaries. And then a write-up in the IHT exposing how the city of Changchun had been starved to death by a PLA siege in the Communists' struggle for power caught my attention and troubled me for a few days. If blood has been shed to achieve political power, it rarely bears well for the people.
We all know that there is no one History in reality, only interpretations of it. Governments may try to impose their interpretations on the population, but usually that would only be in competition with the interpretations made by the country's or other countries' academics. But in China, they are so totalitarian that they actually manage to suppress almost everything, including other interpretations of history from existing at least on their soil. I tried to google up "Changchun" and most results would mention the famine but wouldn't tell you about the heartless ways the PLA allowed its inhabitants to starve to death. Hiroshima was bad, the Holocaust equally so - but at least we all know about it, read about it, visited exbibitions and watched films made about them. We will be paying a few hundred Euros so that Eldest Son could visit Dachau near Munich with his class this November and learn about the Holocaust.
I agree with Lung Yingtai, author of Big River, Big Sea - Untold Stories of 1949, that memories and experiences are precious because only when we know our own history better could we face the challenges ahead. Indeed what happened had already happened and there is no point crying over spilt milk, but it is nonetheless important to know. To open up the wounds, cry over them and give closure to those who had suffered - and lessons to those who come after. Like she said, the purpose of her work was neither accusation nor condemnation, but instead, to pay tribute to all those who had been downtrodden, insulted, or damaged by the past. “For the tens of millions of people who died through injustice, I want to pay respect to their souls by means of literature,” she said. I would like to read this book, but it would be too painful to read it in Chinese, I will have to wait for the English translation.
I couldn't help thinking that China is therefore a dangerous country because of its tendancy to write its own History and suppress other interpretations of it. If it doesn't face up to its past, it will never learn from it. When will its leaders understand that you cannot erase your mistakes, but can only hope to learn from them?