Goodbye, Zhao Lao Shi

I was at the Ipoh Specialist Centre visiting my grandmother (still recovering from the injury she suffered after an attack by snatch thieves) last night when I received a surprise phone call from an old classmate bearing bad news.



My Standard 2 primary school teacher, Madam Chow Fee Lan, had passed away on the 4th of January. She was 64.

I misheard her name when he called, thinking it was someone else, and then I felt a little confused, and had to call him again so that he could repeat what he said to me.

When the news was confirmed, I felt a twinge of sorrow and regret in my heart.

Calmly, I broke the news to my parents and my little sister.

Over the years, when I hear the passing of someone I knew, I would find myself sifting into my own memories, seeking images of this person. They are usually fragmented. Moments spent or conversations exchanged, or the last time I met this person.

I did the same with Madam Chow, whom, in all my life, I've referred to fondly as 'Zhao Lao Shi' 赵老师 ('Teacher Chow' in Chinese).

She was one of the two most influential schoolteachers I ever had during my childhood. My mother had jokingly called Madam Chow my 'godmother', because that's really what she was when I went through primary school, like a fairy godmother.

The funny thing is, she was officially my class teacher for only half a year. After that, she was called off for a special teacher's course, and we ended up with a substitute teacher. Yet my memories of her extended far beyond the classrooms of Standard 2, because I also had tuition classes at her place (along with the old classmate who brought me the sad news) for two years.

And up until the later years of primary school, whenever my parents were gone overseas (which happened often), Madam Chow was the one who carpooled me to school. Even after she had finished her duties as both my teacher and tutor. Perhaps once a teacher, forever a teacher, regardless of whether the student has graduated or not.

Obviously, memories of this period of my life are starting to fade, but I remember having meals at her house, befriending both of Madam Chow's children (who were cool back then, even though they were a decade or more older than I am), watching a Dragon Ball Z movie with her son and talking about the NBA (I was already a fan at the age of 8-9), or borrowing Spider-man comics from them.

I remember often talking about my own problems (arguments with classmates, deteriorating exam grades, pressure faced as a school prefect etc.) with Madam Chow in the car, and she would listen. I can't say that she had the answer for everything because that would be unrealistic, but by listening to me, and by talking about the stuff with me, I don't think I could've asked for anything more invaluable than that.

My primary school life was filled with joy, and it ended with me surprisingly getting straight A's for my UPSR (a national exam taken by all Standard 6 students before finishing primary school). So it ended with a bang, like a fairy tale. Much more flawless compared to my roller coaster-like secondary school life.

I cannot remember precisely the last time I met Madam Chow. I was in secondary school, mom and I paid her a visit so I could give her a Teacher's Day gift. It may've been one of my last two years in high school. My visit was brief, we chatted only for a while before I left with mom.

And thus my regret:

After finishing high school, and entering college, and then flying off to complete my degree in Perth , I never saw her again.

Many times, over these years, I would entertain, briefly, the notion of visiting her, even as recently as last year. Just so I could tell her about my filmmaking exploits, or maybe to bring her copies of my magazine and newspaper interviews. I've hoped that I could give her something to be proud about. Yet the notion would disappear just as abruptly as it came. Perhaps I took things for granted, so many things to busy myself with, I overlooked and underestimated the importance of visiting a dear teacher from primary school.

And this is a damning habit of mine, constantly so busy looking towards the future, or concern myself with the present, that I tend to trivialize my past. And in the end, while I still hold on to some strands of my primary school life (some of my closest friends are people I know from back then), everything else became mere memories.

The fact is, the process of excavating my memories of Madam Chow occurred only when I'm writing this post. As I moved into each paragraph, a remember a little more about her, and the feeling of melancholy gradually grows. And somehow, I realize my childhood isn't as colourless as I've thought. Yet there is nothing I can do, what has happened cannot be undone. As I was in Ipoh, I've missed the funeral, and also my opportunity to pay her my last respects.

So the only way for me to really crystallize everything I can remember of Madam Chow for now, of the everlasting impact she had in my life since I was a primary school student, her role as my teacher, tutor, friend, mother figure, 'godmother' etc. Everything will come in the form of this blog post because I don't know what else I can do. Once again I rely upon my writing, and feel relieved that I can write adequately enough to articulate how I feel and think.

And right now, for me, it's a feeling of regret that lingers.

Rest in peace, Zhao Lao Shi.