Reflecting on Andrew, Dim Sum Dad

Season 1, Episode 8

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“Favorite comfort food?” I asked Andrew during the warm up to our interview. “Dim sum,” he said, noting some classic dishes as well as a modern innovation from Toronto, kalbi short ribs with maggi sauce.

When he said it, I thought it was simply a nice answer to one of several warm-up questions that I ask guests before we get into the actual interview. But after struggling to come up with a good title (Canada Dad? CanaDad?) my mind wandered back to “dim sum” as his favorite comfort food. What is a comfort food anyway? Something tasty and indulgent, true, but the best comfort food also carries deep personal meaning, reminding you of when you were little and other important moments in life, as well as the people you love and who loved you through food.

I listened again to Andrew answering the question of favorite comfort food. When he says “dim sum," he says it with a question mark at the end - dim sum? - and I understand why.

Pizza, mac n cheese, ice cream - these are popular comfort foods, singular dishes and thus prototypical answers to the question. Dim sum, on the other hand, isn’t a food. It’s a multi-generational touchstone of nurturing and exchange, delivered through a meal that, by its nourishments, brings past and future into the present; a ritual used by Chinese families who have put down physical roots in the west to conjure their cultural, spiritual, and historical roots from the east. It’s an experience that combines the people and the food to create memories that are both culinary and personal. That, I realized, is what I felt when listening to Andrew tell his story.

Andrew shared his dad's story as an immigrant from Hong Kong saying, “When my dad moved to Toronto, he moved with his younger sister, just the two of them.” Teens sent to a foreign country, fending for themselves - hard to imagine for many of us who won’t let our kids out of sight in our own neighborhoods. And yet it’s humbling to consider how our lives today are the fulfillment of great risks and sacrifices taken by those before us to make a better life for the family, a shot taken at creating a better future for future descendants, including those they will never meet.

As dads - and I'm pretty sure moms feel this way, too - our hope is that the good parts of our parenting leave a lasting impression with our kids, winning out in the long run over the imprint of our shortcomings. For Andrew's dad, based on his son's words, this hope was fulfilled. Andrew remembers how hard his dad worked to succeed as an entrepreneur, attributing that success in part to his dad's confidence, skills, and force of personality. "I have so much respect for his path," Andrew says, "the confidence to see things he understands; and once he understood it and had conviction, he didn't waver."

Andrew also recalls that, contrary to the stereotype of Asian dads from prior generations, Andrew's dad was very expressive with his love. But what made this part of Andrew's story especially strong to me was how Andrew appreciates his dad's love as a father in context with his dad's challenges as a man who became a man as a teenager far from home. And the indelible mark left on Andrew was love. Andrew recalls, "His love language was to give you a big hug; speaking to you, telling you how much he loves you, how much he cares…the constant is that he loves you and that he cares."

Andrew’s mom’s life has different facts but a lot of the same truths. He tells her story saying, “My mom, she had six siblings but she was the second mom in effect because her parents were dirt poor and always working, so when you have 5 younger siblings looking up to you, she's really the big sister, she really is the extra mom, so I think that's the way she's always been, so she was already well practiced by the time we came around." With this background, it's no surprise to hear Andrew give immense credit to his mom for everything, including shaping him to be well rounded.

Now remember for a second that we aren't just talking about Andrew’s story, we are with Andrew and other important people from his life at dim sum, where values, lessons, and customs are passed with as much fervor as the dishes themselves. That's exactly what happened in our conversation when I asked him how his dad made him a better man. It's as though Andrew receives a dish from his dad and says, "There are things that my dad did really well that I absorbed that I didn't give him credit for when I was younger."

After taking his portion, it's Andrew's turn to circulate the dishes around the table. While doing so, he talks about the importance of the unintentional modeling that you do as a parent as well as, in Andrew’s case, as a leader and manager in the workplace. Andrew explains, "If our priority is to be good stewards for our children…it's not just the direct communication that matters, it's the indirect communication, it's the observations that you don't know and that you can't see and that you're not necessarily an active party to…both in the workplace as a manager and as a parent where I have 3 kids who I'm trying to teach and bring along and protect, I think that matters a lot." And then he concentrates this line of thought into a single sentence that has stuck with me since our conversation, "It matters more not just to work on how you parent but to work on yourself."

The table barely has any space left when Andrew waves down a rolling cart carrying one of his favorite dishes. I ask him about it. "What is it about leadership that animates you? Why does it matter enough that you would do it for free?" His answer is straight to the heart. "The world is short on leadership." He opens up his vision, "Leadership can be a skillset; the ability to communicate, to empathize; lead small groups, big groups; it takes reps, it takes learning." Although he hasn't fully nailed down the concept, his passion is strong and the topic of leadership pairs perfectly with his perspectives on parenting, where he and his wife emphasize personal responsibility, and corporate talent development, where he's an active change agent from within and outside his company.

Dim sum is almost over. The plates have been cleared, so I pour Andrew one more cup of tea and ask, "How's your dad bod?" He shares with me that he lost a ton of weight after he started running a couple years ago, but after getting injured recently, it's been hard to keep up with the running and so he's gained a lot of the weight back. Adding to that, he and his wife decided to dedicate her energy and focus to the kids - a decision they feel good about but that makes him the sole breadwinner. Also, two important people are no longer in Andrew’s day-to-day life: his boss and mentor, who retired recently, and his dad, who passed away suddenly a year and a half ago.

Although Andrew’s answer started with the state of his fitness, it quickly broadened to this convergence of stresses on Andrew’s life that makes exercise all the more necessary but also that much harder to prioritize. I think we can all relate to Andrew, because we know from experience that your health is not something that you manage separately and distinctly from the rest of your life. And there may be no other season in life - young kids, aging parents, career malaise, relationship issues, financial pressure, health challenges, just aging in general - that makes it clear: your body is a physical thing, but your Dad Bod is everything.

Andrew’s story has been a source of strength for me. In addition to offering insightful lessons on parenting, leadership, and personal growth, it made me think of all the important people that would be joining me at my own dim sum table. They are the people who raised, mentored, cared, inspired, taught, and, of course, fed me with the nourishments of their stories, wisdom, presence, and love.

I guess I'm a dim sum dad, too.