When we were living in Singapore, my parents would take us to McDonald’s once every month as a big treat. This is probably weird for most of you who grew up in the developed world. I understand. It’s pretty weird for me, thinking back on it now, but I think about those trips in a slightly wider context. Let me explain.
We moved from Bombay to Singapore in the summer of 1995, when I was four, my sister was one, my dad was 33 and my mum was 28. It was our first move abroad, our first plunge into the expat life of milk and honey.
We lived in a nice flat in a decent condominium called Spanish Village, which was a nice mix of professional Singaporeans and expats. It wasn’t as boojie as the flat and apartment complex we later lived in in Hong Kong – at least that’s not how I remember it. Our car was a Honda Civic. Most evenings were spent by the big shared pool in the middle of the all the apartment blocks.
Once a month, my parents would pick us up and take us to McDonalds. The McDonalds at Queensway had a koi pond and lush greenery around it. It was unique. Though it was never said explicitly, it became ingrained in our minds that fast food was to be a rare treat. We never associated it with being cheap and readily available. It was just something that was done once a month. McDonalds meant a morning out at the turtle pond. My dad would talk up the “big breakfast” like I now describe a filet mignon. My mum loved the hash browns. McDonalds and the turtles that swam below were for savoring.
I don’t know to what extent my sister would agree, but after that it never occurred to us that cheap, unhealthy fast food could be had on a daily basis. It never occurred to us that you could go to McDonalds more than once a month, let alone once a week. It’s not like we didn’t have the money. Despite being a rotund little tyke who loved his food, I grew, because of my parents, away from the clutches of burger-craving. It was a trap I could easily have fallen into when I had more autonomy to buy my own food later in life. My parents had subtly, profoundly influenced my thinking. It was a masterstroke on their part.
How did they know?
How did they know that that strategy of setting up fast food as a monthly treat would save me from the fast food trap? Did they know? Did they sit together and plan it? Did it just fall into place? Were there other such maneuvers that we weren’t privy to, that have made us the young adults we are today? Did they just wing it? Will I just wing it?
I think about these questions as I see my own friends begin their journeys into marriage and parenthood. There’s nothing I love more than seeing two young people take a chance on each other as they jump into the unknown. There’s nothing I find more exciting. The chance to have someone there who will take the plunge into koi-pond Happy Meals with you. Is there a manual for how to do these things?
Zaheer the vacuum guy
I remember one day, when I was about nine and we were living in London, I was talking to my mom about cricket. I had just discovered cricket and I couldn’t get enough. I would practice in our back garden with a tennis ball. I broke windows. Then, like now, I never shut the hell up. It was glorious infatuation.
One of our family-friends gave me a video-cassette of the 1996 Pakistan tour of England. Pakistan’s two legendary fast bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, were at the peak of their powers. I loved that Pakistan team and I must have been yammering on to her about it as she was reading something in bed. I remember this clearly. Major kudos to my mom, who tried to engage me in some cricket conversation. Major, major kudos to my mom, who somehow remembered Zaheer Abbas, the great Pakistani batsman and started telling me about him.
He was before my time and I didn’t know who he was. “Who is he, the vacuum guy?” I asked.
Some context: I had recently watched Home Alone, where the hotel’s concierge says to Macaulay Culkin, “You know, Herbert Hoover once stayed here on this floor.”
Culkin replies, “The vacuum guy?”
“No, the President,” the concierge says.
After my mom told me about Zaheer Abbas, I said to her, “Who is he, the vacuum guy?”
I was just repeating a cool line I had seen on TV, as kids do. I didn’t know what it meant, it just sounded cool. But she perked up immediately and asked me what I meant by that. I was a bit taken aback. She asked me again. I explained the reference and she explained again who Abbas was.
Maybe she thought that I had associated a Muslim name with someone who works in a “less respectable” job? I think she was weary of me having picked up some sort of anti-Pakistan/anti-Muslim sentiment and wanted immediately to nip it in the bud. I remember this so clearly. I already loved the Pakistan team but she wanted to make sure there was no sign of disrespect shown to a guy named “Zaheer Abbas”.
I’m telling you this because I find these largely unseen, often forgotten interactions between parents and children fascinating. I think it is these little cut-away moments that forge character. It is those potentially malignant wisps of child-like thought that can turn into prejudice and morph from subconscious throwaways to acted-upon behavior. I wonder if my parents had a talk among themselves to sharply correct any such indiscretion. Or did they just wing it?
Are you supposed to check in with your partner and figure out how you’ll respond? Do you de-brief after an event and pick up the pieces?
How did they know?
Did someone tell them? Did they read a book? Did they learn it from their parents?
How did they know?