Aug 12, 2013

    Parenting is just like calligraphy

    ON A Tuesday afternoon, my son and I were sitting side by side, patiently making brush strokes on thin paper.

    I looked over at him and he was wearing a racoon's mask: He had rubbed his eyes and accidentally smeared ink over his face.

    I chuckled while wiping off his ink stains. Then, we went back to writing in companionable silence.

    For the past few weeks, we have been attending a free parent-child Chinese calligraphy workshop at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, one of our favourite museums.

    The teacher, grandfatherly Mr Lee, hovered over our heads bent in concentration, and patiently exhorted my seven-year-old son to write slowly.

    "It's not a competition to see who's faster. It's a contest to see who can write slowest," he said in Mandarin, as the boy filled sheet after sheet with his lopsided characters - some too big, some too small, some sporting extra or missing strokes.

    The boy nodded dutifully, and then continued churning out his unruly, expressionistic words like a stubborn automaton.

    We wrote simple words: "Hao", good - comprising the symbol for "female", and another for "child", next to each other. The private universe of my son and me, writ small on the page.

    We wrote complicated words: "Bi", avoid, retreat - two components on a boat, steadily, solidly retreating. "Bao", explosion - a fiery companion, next to a unit that looks like a soldier in ancient armour, his skirts flaring, sparks flying in four directions.

    The teacher did not explain what these words mean, nor how to pronounce them. Instead, he told us how to space each component in the character so that they were aesthetically pleasing.

    Slant this stroke up; dot this stroke in this direction; close up the gap here; pull the brush until that stroke tapers like a knife.

    Soon, we were in the zone. Both of us Zen-like, calm, moving in unspoken harmony. When my ink ran dry, my son poured more from a bottle into my saucer. When he reached the end of his 12-grid sheet, I pulled him another from the stack next to me.

    And, like that, two hours passed.

    I had signed my son up for the workshop, hoping to further fan the embers of a passion for learning Chinese in him. A calligraphy class seemed perfect, in that it would get my normally-frisky son to sit still and pay attention to details. It was another step in my one-woman blitz to keep my two sons in touch with their Chinese heritage.

    What I hadn't counted on, however, was that I would rediscover the deep, therapeutic pleasure of calligraphy - something I used to do as a schoolgirl long ago.

    I also hadn't realised that I would arrive at a new epiphany while guiding my brush up and down, trying not to end up with ugly scarecrow words on my paper.

    "Press the brush harder to make the stroke thicker here. Lighter. Harder. Pause there," instructed Mr Lee, trying to make me give my words more beauty and dimension.

    I complied. This stroke required a deft flick of the wrist, that stroke was an exertion of slow pressure.

    And then I got it.

    Calligraphy is a metaphor for parenting. One has to know when to use a light hand, and when to come down a little harder, in order to bring up a child who is a lovely character.

    It may look easy, but a single character requires years of patience and repetition - just as we hone the rough edges off our offspring with constant reminders.

    I looked at my son. He had fallen asleep amid his piles of calligraphy, ink stains around his mouth. I smiled and let him be.