An aunty's musings

It was not too long ago when I held these babies in my arms and they grew up to be energetic kids and suddenly they are responsible individuals with lives of their own.

At Changi Airport with Jamie [Right]
and his sister Melanie [Left]
I’m talking about my six nieces and nephews.  Two in the UK, three in Australia and one in KL who would be joining the three in Perth, to further his studies, very soon.

I’m not sure what brought on this sentiment but as time is passing real fast, I’m reminiscing on these young people.  We are just four years to 2020 and then it will be the year 2525 – the stuff that some songwriter wrote about!

It’s interesting that I go by several titles and will answer to each respectful title they use to address me.  I’m aunty to our English niece and nephew, Ah Yee to my eldest sister’s boys and Kumaa to my younger brother’s children.  It took me a while but I realise that this Cantonese tradition is rather useful to identify which nieces and nephews are from my sisters’ families or my brother’s family.

I was brought up to address our uncles and aunts with titles like Aunty Polly and Aunty Sylvia or Uncle Billy and Uncle Arthur, and it was quite simple because my mother’s siblings have English names. 

I vividly recall that amusing situation when I discovered that I’m Ah Yee because it happened at my eldest sister’s wedding banquet held at her husband’s hometown. 

Jamie with his wife Kimberley on their wedding
in August 2014, with
my sister, Pearly [Right] and Melanie [Left] 
In the Chinese tradition, the bride and bridegroom’s family were seated together at the main table.  Her Cantonese father-in-law was seated across the table and we were chatting in a convivial way – me searching for the vocabulary and struggling to conduct the entire conversation in Cantonese – because he did not speak English. 

He was rather traditional and my sister was to address him, “Low Yeh” while I’m told that I should follow her lead to address him as, “Chan-Kar Low Yeh.”  It was quite a mouthful but I managed. 

In the course of conversation, he was saying the phrase, “Ah Yee” to me several times but I was so ignorant [even my mother did not prepare me for this!] that I thought he was talking to someone behind me.  So I turned around to check for who was behind me – there was no one – and suddenly it dawned upon me that he was referring to me! 

I felt rather foolish but that was how I discovered that my official title was “Ah Yee,” the way my sister’s children should address me [when they came along] because I’m younger to her.  Since then, I never looked back [pardon the pun!] and always answered to my official title with pride.

I remember Jamie was just three months old when my sister, Pearly and her husband brought him from the UK to meet the family in Malaysia.  He was just a tiny baby but he did very well on such a long journey at such a tender age.  He was the first of our parents’ grandchildren and we had fun introducing him to all the relatives here.

Since that first trip, he and his sister, Melanie, have made numerous visits to Johor and I particularly enjoyed our time together when they came to spend about four weeks with us – without their parents.

Melanie – our English niece – decided to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka for a month and planned to come to Malaysia after that stint.  She planned with Jamie to join us from the UK and we had an eventful itinerary together, visiting relatives and doing the touristy thing at various places of interest.  From touring the Petronas Twin Towers to white-water rafting in the chilling waters of the Gopeng River, we made many special memories together.

We also had fun with them when we holidayed in the UK and I treasure the pleasure of spending time with our English family, going on invigorating walks on Chinnor Hills, browsing for books and knick-knacks at charity shops and indulging in English fare – from buttered crumpets, pies and puddings to my favourite Walkers crisps!

In 2014, we received a message from Jamie, asking us to save that date in August.  It was a much anticipated event and in the summer of 2014, my siblings and I were in the UK again to witness Jamie’s wedding to his sweetheart, Kimberly.  It was a joyous and memorable day – and rather cold too – but we were together for a lovely wedding celebration.

Andrew and his Ah Yee
One of my fondest memories of Andrew, the older of my eldest sister’s two sons, was when he approached me to ask for the meaning of the word, “enormous.”  He probably discovered this word while watching shows in the Cartoon Network but I was both touched and amused that he was curious for the meaning of this word.  I can never forget the pleasure of explaining its meaning in simple language to such a young child.

Another unforgettable experience with Andrew and his brother, Aaron, was when my sister was suddenly taken ill and her husband rushed her to hospital.  They could not leave their young boys alone at home so Ah Yee came to stay with them. 

Aaron with his Ah Yee
While I was with the boys, there were a crucial few hours at the hospital, waiting for the doctor to examine and diagnose my sister.  A feeling of dread and uncertainty prevailed because the boys saw their mother in great pain and discomfort for the very first time.

Instead of trying to distract the boys with something, I spent time talking through the whole incident with them.  It was simply therapeutic to talk about it and listen to their comments so that I could reassure them that the doctors would do everything necessary to help their mother get well. 

I can still picture their innocent, young faces when I encouraged them to talk about it.  They were both clearly shocked to see their mother in pain and I was too but I remember their courage when I asked them to pray with me for their mother.  Their childlike words and sentences simply wrung my heart out as we talked to God about our concerns and asked for His healing hands to touch my sister.

Ah Yee and Andrew's family with his mother in Cape Town
My sister was admitted and when my brother-in-law came home, I went to the hospital where I stayed overnight to accompany her.  By God’s grace, my sister made a full recovery and this sudden illness never recurred again.

Well, if there was a child who was openly affectionate, it must be Aaron.  He was on the plump side and I used to brace myself whenever we met because he had a habit of giving me a running-jumping hug!  Meeting him was like…Oof!...getting the wind knocked out of me!

Every time he came at me with his flying hug I thought he was going to pluck off my earlobes (bleeding from my dangling ear-rings!) and give me a few cracked ribs… but I’m grateful that I lived to share this fond memory.

Dinner in Delhi with Aaron, his fiancee, his mother and Ah Yee
While Andrew and Aaron furthered their studies in Perth and found work there, we remain in touch with the help of modern technology.  I had fun exploring Perth when I visited them several times.  I’m truly blessed to have a relationship with these boys from young and thanks to regular group chats and frequent Facetime conversations, it has kept our bonds close.

Last year I was with Andrew and his family on a visit to Cape Town, South Africa and this year, I was on a trip to Delhi-Jaipur-Agra in India with Aaron and his fiancĂ©e.  Spending time with them on holiday showed me another side of these young men and how they have grown to become individuals that their parents are mighty proud of.

Finally there’s Amanda and Brendon, who spent a great deal of their early years with me because I used to ferry them back from school.  When we saw these pint-size kids and considered the long hours they had to spend commuting on a school-bus, I volunteered to drive them.  So I planned my schedule around their pick-up times and did the routine of waiting with other parents and guardians outside two different schools.

Amanda and her brother, Brendon
My car was a familiar sight, first outside the primary school and then outside the secondary school for a total of 11 years – waiting to pick up Amanda.  In her secondary years she had tuition, music and extra-curricular activities or extra classes and when she sometimes forgot to tell me, I would be waiting endlessly – watching girls leave without any sign of her and it worried me if something had happened.

When the waiting got too stressful, I would phone her parents – both busy with high-powered jobs – to let them know.  They would put me out of my misery with the confirmation that she had some activity after class and should be picked-up later…

Apart from sometimes failing to inform me about changes in pick-up times and causing panic, she was a responsible student who took her studies seriously.  I remember how she laughed when she discovered that I’m quite a dud in Maths because doing well in Mathematics and Additional Mathematics just came naturally to her!

Growing up in an English-speaking environment, Amanda enjoyed the language and also did well in this subject.  Very often she would show me her English class work and test papers to ask me about the answers that her teacher insisted was correct.  

I would then explain the context of the sentence or scenario to her – to give reasons why the teacher reached that conclusion.  Sometimes I would agree that there was something wrong with the answer and gave her alternative answers to show her teacher.

Amanda, ready to leave for her first day
in secondary school
Every now and then, Amanda would tell me about her experiences in school on how some of her schoolmates misused English words or phrases.  One unforgettable incident was how a group of girls wished to find a path through a crowd but instead of saying, “Excuse me, let me pass” or something to that effect, she yelled, “Let me pass away!”

While it was unkind to be tickled by their atrocious command of the language, it just saddened me that the standard of English in secondary school was simply shocking.

When Brendon’s school friends saw my car coming to pick him, they would shout in chorus, “Brendon, your mummy is here!” and I remember how Brendon would yell in reply, “She’s not my mummy!”  Which is true because I’m his aunt and only a part-time mummy.

Every time when Brendon hopped into the car, I would gauge his mood and respond accordingly if he felt like chatting about his day at school or not.  Sometimes he was tired and quiet but sometimes he would regale me with tales of the day’s happenings.  Then he told me about how a bully was doing terrible things at home and at school.

One incident that remains engraved in my memory must be when Brendon became a victim of this school bully.  That day, Brendon came into my car sobbing.  When I saw it, my maternal instincts went on high alert.  I coaxed him to tell me why and when I heard what that bully did to him, I told him to wait in the car while I went to speak to the teachers.

Brendon wearing the medal he won
in his school's Merdeka Day run
When I reached the office to ask for the teacher-in-charge and the whereabouts of that bully boy, a group of Brendon’s friends was trailing me, obviously eager to help.  When the office staff was unsure of where these people were, the boys were quick to volunteer the information, saying they knew where and quickly led me there.

These boys claimed they witnessed what the bully did to Brendon and when I met the boy, I reasoned with him and his guardian and urged him never to do that again.  This boy had picked on others like Brendon who was well brought up, never to retaliate with violence.  

From what I already heard about him, I know the poor boy was from a broken home and was probably doing silly things to get attention so I also had few choice words with his guardian.  I then asked the bully to apologise to Brendon and he did. 

Since that incident, the sight of Brendon’s aunty struck fear in would-be bullies because they knew that if anyone ever touched Brendon, they would have to answer to his fiercely protective Kumaa!

Speaking of Kumaa, the Cantonese title for aunty that my younger brother’s children use to address me, we often have a laugh because this word sounds similar to the Indian name, Kumar.  So when non-Cantonese speaking people heard the children calling me, “Kumaa” they often wonder if there is an Indian in the family!

Time is passing fast.  In a few months’ time, all my nieces and nephews would have flown their nests to start new chapters of their lives away from home.  This is an exciting turning point for the parents as they adjust to the changes in their proverbial empty nests. 

Meanwhile this aunty is still here, wishing them well and sharing the pride in seeing them grow strong feathers to fly and soar to their greatest heights of achievements.

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