Calling My Guru


21 July 2021

Film poster celebrating full moon of the lunar new year in my ancestral home of Kinmen Island where my Chinese calligraphy teacher and his wife came from

Two days ago on the eve of Hari Raya Haji, I managed to locate the contact number of my chinese calligraphy teacher and expressed my gratitude for his teaching some 17 years ago.

With my Chinese calligraphy teacher, Mr Khoo Seow Hwa, on Racial Harmony Day where he was guest speaker to students of Nanyang Girls’ High School. (2003)

Mr Khoo speaks Hokkien (Minan dialect) in the same way my grandma did. When I first heard him pronounce the name of my ancestral city during a lesson at the Singapore Buddhist Culture Centre at Upper Dickson Road, I felt a keen sense of familiarity with him.

The author of many books and teacher of local & foreign dignitaries treated me with respect despite my lack of Chinese cultural & literary knowledge.

I found this picture of my teacher online recently.

My inability to master brush strokes and lack of commitment to practice did not deter him from checking my homework. He pointed out that I was drawing lines and not writing. But I did not feel slighted because Mr Khoo spoke truthfully & kindly.

His other students were way ahead. They wrote out line upon line of ancient poems from memory as their paper unrolled and sometimes drapped over the edge of their tables. They made room for him respectfully as he weaved among them to inspect their work. His comments were received with reverence. 😊

Even though I couldn’t really follow the intellectual exchanges between him and his more mature & advanced students who had been with him for a long time, Mr Khoo often explained short chinese sayings to me so that I would feel included. His students took after him in his graciousness and were always welcoming towards me.

One unforgettable ancient saying that he taught me was this: the elegance of a room does not depend on size, just as the fragrance of flowers does not depend on numbers. In Chinese it reads “室雅何须大,花香不在多”. How compact! ❤️

When I apologised for my lack of progress in my writing, I remember Mr Khoo saying something like, “这是我们华人的字,你再写不好,也要写下去.” (Transl: This is our Chinese writing. Even if you’re not good at it, you must carry on.)

How refreshing it is to know that there are other more intangible reasons for doing something other than being good at it! Because of Mr Khoo’s approach to learning, I’ve become mindful of using marks as the only measurement of a student’s suitability & aptitude to continue with a subject.

“Guru” in Sanskrit means “Dispeller of Darkness,” and “Bringer of Light.” In Hindu and Tibetan practices, gurus are essential to one’s path to self cultivation & liberation.

Mr Khoo taught me not because I showed any promise in calligraphy nor was I a deserving student. In the ways he generously shares his knowledge and patiently deals with my ignorance, he is in every sense of the word, my guru.

I wish my teacher and his wife peace & health as they lovingly support each other through the years and I hope to be able to pay them a visit one day.

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