Tamil & Thousand Island

Dad with my older sisters,
Ruby [Left] and Pearly
He speaks Tamil and loves Thousand Island

AFTER dinner, my dad would usually say, “Vallai palam” with his eyes fixed on the bunch of bananas at the opposite end of the table and Amanda, my niece, would respond by plucking one for him.

Friends and relatives, who at first were shocked to hear “Vanakkam” when dad answered the phone, are now familiar with his affinity for the language.

For as long as I can remember, dad enjoyed teaching us words like these in Tamil and over the years, our vocabulary widened considerably.

When dad joined the Johor Baru Senior Citizens Association (JBSCA), he would go regularly to play petanque, a lawn bowling game, and table tennis.  

With diminishing strength in his knees, dad had to give up his favourite game of table tennis where only recently, he was still able to beat players in their 40s.  Then when the Association offered lessons in computer skills, Mandarin and Tamil, dad signed up for the latter.

Dad already had a working knowledge of Tamil because he learnt conversational Tamil from his colleagues during his early years working with the Johor Baru general hospital, as it was known then. 

Dad and his girls at our Government Quarters home,
Jalan Dato Wilson - Peggy is in the front seat

He said whenever they finished their rounds on night shifts, he would spend time learning Tamil from his friends. So, when dad joined the JBSCA Tamil class, he was the star student. 

However, dad stopped attending when the class was rescheduled to Sunday morning, but he continues to diligently practise the Tamil script on sheets and sheets of recycled paper with the help of a book I bought him, Learn a Little Series Tamil that came with an audio CD.

If you are compelled to take a second look at my surname to check if I’m Indian, I will tell you that on paper, I’m Chinese. 

But unlike Chinese families, we don’t use chopsticks at home unless we were having noodles, and if it was Indian food, we will use our hands because we know that it always tastes better when eaten with hands.  

Forks and spoons are the preferred cutlery in our house and dad had long established the rule that everyone should sit down for dinner together at 7.30pm sharp.

We have an ancient grandmother clock that will strike on the hour and every half-hour, and when the clock goes “Dong!” for 4.30pm, dad will be at the dining table, ready for his afternoon tea.  

This is a legacy from colonial days when afternoon tea was a must and dad must have his hot cup of coffee with either cake or cookies. This is such a daily practice in our home that friends and relatives know that they will be welcome at our table if they dropped by at 4.30pm.

Dad and his favourite girls at Lido Beach
After dad’s angioplasty procedure in March last year, he maintains a less active lifestyle and is wise about what he eats.  

While he enjoys home-cooked small meals, his only indulgence probably is the mandatory serving of Thousand Island dressing to go with his salads. To dad, a salad is not a salad unless it was served with Thousand Island.

At this year’s Fathers Day dinner, there were 13 of us around the table of a chic café with three fathers — my dad, my older nephew’s father-in-law and my brother who’s a father as well.  

As we were making our selections from the menu, I couldn’t help smiling when I overhead my niece gently reminding her grandfather, “Yeh-yeh, there’s no Thousand Island sauce in this menu.”

That’s because the salads offered only came with cream or vinaigrette dressing and we are familiar with dad’s usual gripe about restaurants that do not serve “real salad” with Thousand Island.

During the drive home, my brother asked dad to rate that night’s dinner on a scale of one to 10. Dad came back with a question, “Do you want an honest answer?” We said, “Yes!”, and then he promptly replied, “Below five.”
Dad and his favourite girls - Peggy is on far left

We often joke about carrying a bottle of Thousand Island dressing along to any restaurant because it is dad’s preferred choice and it looks like we should start doing it. After all, it takes so little to please him.

Dad has a great sense of humour and he takes our teasing about him and his fondness for Thousand Island dressing in his stride. 

I remember Candid Camera was dad’s favourite TV show in the early days of television and now, his daily staple is a healthy dose of a similar show, Just for Laughs.  

Even if dad’s quirky sense of humour and jokes usually causes a frown on mum’s face, I think it’s important to be able to laugh together as a family.

Just the other day at lunch, the soup mum served was brewed with meat stock and lotus roots. The roots were cut across in thin slices to look like circles with multiple holes in them.  

During the course of conversation, I quizzed dad if he knew what that vegetable was called and his quick reply was, “Nostrils!”

This is typical of dad’s wacky sense of humour and I’m grateful that I can always share a laugh with him. Thanks for the laughs, daddy.  Despite it being past the date, it is never too late to say again: Happy Fathers Day!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 4 July 2011

Here's some feedback I received from friends who read this article:

Rose said:  "An interesting article. I hope to get an opportunity to converse with your dad in Tamil."

Bryan said: "Handsome Mr Loh - treasured photos!"

Alicia said:  "Thank you for sharing about your dad's sense of humour. I'm going to watch my daughter's face when I tell her I boiling nostrils soup!"

July 2011

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