Lessons in Learning and Teaching from My Grandparents

I’m blessed to have four awesome grandparents, Yeye and Mama on my dad’s side and Popo and GongGong on my mother’s side (my parents went with grandparent titles that don’t discriminate between paternal and maternal ancestry). They are four amazing people who surrounded me from Day 1 with so much love and wisdom. They are all so accomplished and intelligent in their own way.

Let’s start with GongGong. Gonggong is an amazing learner. As a child, he learned to speak Malay and Tamil while working with his father at the market. He has always believed in the importance of education, and attended two schools, Mandarin Chinese and English in his primary school days. He speaks multiple Chinese dialects. Gonggong was forced to leave school very early, but he later jumped straight to tertiary education and nearly finished a masters degree. That is amazingly impressive. He’s also the most thankful and grateful person I know, and is an amazing cook. Circumstances may have stopped Gonggong from finishing secondary school but they never stopped him from learning – working as a teenager in a bookstore, he picked up every bit of knowledge and skill he could. There’s more to his story – I haven’t even scratched its surface.

Popo has always been an educator. I’m sure as the oldest of eight siblings she was the leader and role model from an early age. She spent part of her childhood hiding in the jungle during World War II in occupied Borneo and survived polio with no lasting side effects (what a miracle). She didn’t care about stereotypes restricting girls at the time and played every sport she could (football, basketball, etc.). She met GongGong while studying in Singapore and later started a kindergarten for children in her hometown, incorporating music and dance into the curriculum which was revolutionary in the 1950s. She taught herself to sew as a young girl – her mother didn’t have cloth to spare, but Popo’s friend gave her fabric and she used it to prove to her mother that she could be trusted to sew clothes. She went on to teach in and run many kindergartens and also teach a succession of music students. Her own parents were teachers, so you could say that I come from a line of teachers.

Mama and Yeye were both educators. Yeye taught in a military school for the first part of his career and his students still respect and remember him today. He took his students to climb one of Malaysia’s toughest mountains and came out in the newspaper because of that feat. From a teacher, he became a naval officer and then an engineer who travelled the world to work on all kinds of projects, including one of the earliest forms of GPS technology. He is exceptionally brilliant and loves computer technology – he has traveled to remote parts of Borneo and Myanmar to teach computer skills to young people 1/4 of his age.

Mama passed away in 2013 from esophageal cancer. She read storybooks, especially Laura Ingalls’ Little House books, to me from an early age. She was an English and art teacher – that was her profession. In her retirement, she also did special education volunteer work and I know that she always had a great, big loving heart for children with disabilities. She could sit down and have a conversation with anyone, and taught my brother and I to treat everyone with respect and love. When she tried to teach me, she would always annoyed because I am stubborn and always ask “why”, questioning everything I’m told. I didn’t believe her when she taught me that “I-R-O-N” is “iron” – it didn’t make sense to me. Mama taught us that art is about expression and that art is not about being perfect but just having fun, which is a really valuable lesson. She taught me about nature and how to love trees, birds, flowers and herbs.


It is a privilege to come from a family of brilliant people with skills in different areas. I think I have a little of each of my grandparents in me, which explains why I have so many interests – I cook and love languages (like GongGong), I sew and love music (like Popo), I love computer tech and teaching (like Yeye) and I love English and Art (like Mama). I strongly believe that it’s not just genetics but the richness of the environment surrounding a child that enhances their development.

Despite coming from a family of educators, no one ever suggested that I go into education. It did not occur to me at all until I suddenly decided to study early childhood education at age 19, the day my O Level results were released. However, to think about it, it makes so much sense, both in terms of my upbringing and also in terms of my personality and interests.

Interestingly, all my grandparents were horrified at the idea of homeschooling, because it was so unusual. To them, children should get every chance of a good education. To my parents, they wanted to give us the best education they could at home. However, since then, homeschooling has proved to work very well for my brother and I, which is a huge relief to my parents due to the extremely high “risk” they took.

Parents are children’s first teachers, but often, so are grandparents. They have so much to offer and having grandparents has been and continues to be a privilege. They provide informal education and lifelong learning skills that no school, curriculum or exam can teach.





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