• Zafirah Zulkifli

My Father Rarely Means What He Says

Updated: Oct 5, 2018

The first time I opened up to my father was on a train, of all places. We were on our way to Japan with the rest of my family, and besides the bulky 30-over kilogram suitcases we lugged around and a toddler we took turns carrying, I brought around something that felt even heavier. I had been having a thought, a rather big life decision, gnawing at the back of my mind for some time.

My father is a retired engineer, one who used to spend his days in back-to-back meetings in different offices and golfing with partners and clients. Not much has changed; now his meetings are in mamaks and restaurants, and his golfing sessions are no longer for corporate reasons but for recreational enjoyment with his decades-long ex-colleagues and best friends.

He is the eldest among six children, spent his formative years in boarding school and went to a military school in his later school years. You can imagine how this bode for his children. Still, my father, with his deep belly laugh that would echo across the room, possesses the drive, persistence and a sense of humility that rests in concealed timidity, all of which I had always admired from afar.

There is no one perfect or ideal father, as every father is a person with their own unique experiences and special traits.

Growing up, I never got to see much of him because of his work. But even when my family and I would spend time together with him, topics mostly revolved around work, politics, current affairs and the weather. He would never talk about his day, his dreams or his personal plights with anyone, not even with his friends or wife.

Which brings us back to the historic train ride.

I told my father my fears and my anxieties, what had been marinating in my mind and brewing deep within my soul. He proceeded to tell me a “when-I-was-your-age” anecdote (a classic), and detailed everything that I did wrong and what he would’ve done instead if he were in my shoes. But the further along the conversation went, the more he showed me empathy and tried to understand where I was coming from. Or at least, as best as my father could.

See also: What I Hope My Children Will Remember Me by as a Father

Finally, he stopped and said, “If you feel like you’re going against the grain, maybe it’s time you find a different direction.” Vague to everyone outside the conversation, I know, but this resonated with me and suddenly provided me an answer to what I had been grappling with all this while. Not only had I just opened up to my father like never before, but this was the first time he gave me advice that had nothing to do with what he wanted, or what he thought was the right thing to do.

More than that, I saw my dad for who he is—not who I wanted him to be.

It was much more than a nugget of advice to me. In those two lines, or rather between the lines, I heard him say that this was my life, not anyone else’s. I heard him say that I had the power to make what I can of this world, even if it means saying no to other people’s wishes. I heard him say that my happiness should be my number one priority, no matter what anyone else may say—him, included.

And then it dawned on me: this stoic figure whom I call dad, is a person with a complex web of feelings even he himself had difficulty unravelling.

Since then, I’ve been learning not to take what my father says at face value. I realise now that some of the things he says are not always what he means. Things like...

“Is that right.”

What I thought it meant: An easy way out of the conversation.

What he really means: “That’s a very interesting point/fact/detail. Do tell more.”


What I thought it meant: A courtesy question or filler for when he’s bored and he has no exciting plans.

What he really means: “It’s been a while since we’ve spent time together as a family.”

“When I was your age...”

What I thought it meant: “You should be more like me.”

What he really means: “I was once in your place. You’ll end up okay.”

“Not bad.”

What I thought it meant: “Not terrible. But not good either.”

What he really means: “Quite amazing.”

Last night, after handing my dad his Father’s Day gift over dinner, he just said one word: “Cool.”

No hugs, no kisses, no thank-yous, no oh-you-shouldn’t-haves or any variation of it.

I've come to peace with the fact that this is just who my father is, even if that means letting go of my starry-eyed idea of what a perfect father should be. Part of being in a family and having a healthy relationship with someone is accepting them for who they are, all while still encouraging them to become better (not for you, but for them), and giving them the space to do so themselves.

Whether or not they act in a way that you think they should, or in a way that you would like or prefer, shouldn't determine how you treat them or love them. To hold someone to such unrealistic expectations is doing both yourself and the other person a disservice, especially if that other person is your parent. We want so badly to be understood by our parents, that oftentimes we forget to understand them.

Perhaps my father's one-word response was unusual and not what most people would say, but my dad's not like most people. And that's fine with me. Because within that clipped reply, I heard more than I needed to hear.

Zafirah likes eating and travelling. Her biggest inspiration is Neil Gaiman, and her favourite genre (both in film and literature) is horror... even though she still sleeps with the light on.





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