Johnny Tan is the author of the best selling book "From My Mama's Kitchen.' His FMMK Talk Radio show has amassed over one million listeners and ranks in the top 1% of all 73,000 shows on Blog Talk Radio. Guests have included New York Times bestselling authors, publishers, artists and experts in the field of personal and professional development and relationships. Johnny recently shared his own life story in an interview from the heart with Australian based author and therapist Veronica Farmer from www.madebeautifulby.com
Some of us are fortunate to realize the contributions and sacrifices our mothers made on our behalf early in life. Others take a little longer to appreciate motherly love. Regardless, our mothers love us the best way they know how. They usually miss us more than we miss them.
My sister Leng, and I experienced a wonderful childhood growing up in Melaka, Malaysia. We were pretty much showered with all the love any children could expect from their parents. As a younger brother by six years, my constant desire to engage my sister’s attention eventually led to many and at times testy sibling squabbling. It was during one of these trivial infuriating episodes when my sister told me that I was adopted, and that was why my unbecoming behavior was reprehensible. Leng really reached for the bottom of the barrel that time to put an end to my relentless bedeviling personality. She surprised me with that antagonistic comment. I knew my sister was adopted, but me, no way! This can’t be true! I remember, my birth certificate clearly stated that I was born to my parents, no aliases like it was on my sister’s document.
Finding out that I was a replacement child shocked me. At the time I was 14 years old, and was beginning my journey to discovering life as a curious teenager coming of age. In an instant, I was paralyzed with these questions; “Who were my birth parents?” “Why didn’t they want me?” “Why did they give me away?” The last question was immensely significant because in the Chinese culture, it was extremely rare for a baby boy to be given away.
Overwhelmed with these questions and the feeling of uncertainty I slowly made my way towards the kitchen where my mom was busy preparing our family dinner. She saw me walking towards her as she plated one of the dishes. It seemed her heart skipped a few beats while mine started racing when I uttered the words, “Leng told me that I was adopted. Is this true?” Immediately I saw in her eyes how upset she was. Not sure if she was furious at me for asking the question, or that my sister divulged something she shouldn’t have. Just as I had feared, the frozen moment of silence validated my sister’s remark. I was indeed adopted! Both of us stared at each other until my mom walked over and took my hand, and led me to the kitchen table. We sat down, and she began telling me the story about my adoption.
With a gentle nervous voice, my mom shared how difficult and stressful life was for my dad and her when they first got married during the last days of the Japanese occupation of Malaya in the Second World War. Afterwards, living through the transition back to being a British colony, and finally gaining independence as a country was equally arduous as well. In spite of the challenges, my parents made everything work. The one conundrum of life they could not resolve was to have children of their own. My parents decided to adopt my sister after my mom had her first miscarriage. In the subsequent six years, she went on to experience two more miscarriages, before adopting me from a distant relative on my father’s side of the family.
My mom explained my adoption was kept a secret because I was adopted at birth as declared on the birth certificate. Another reason for the secrecy was that both she and my dad were afraid as I got older, if there came a time for a stern disciplinary action they needed to render upon me, I might run away because I was not their blood son. The reasoning was based on other adopted families’ terrifying experiences. Noticing how sincere and distressed she was in her belief about the latter, I quickly expressed to her that I would never succumbed to such an action. I reassured her that she was the only mother I knew and the Tan family was the only family I had. Sensing this heart-felt revelation needed to end, l left my mom and dawdled towards my room feeling inebriated with all the information. The conversation about my adoption never came up again while I was in Malaysia.
My friends and I were excited about attending college after graduating from high school. Some of them were already making plans to study aboard in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and England. Attending one of the local universities was a foregone conclusion for me. My dad had fallen sick and stayed unwell from when I was 15 years old. Although his prognosis wasn’t good, the Tan family were hopeful. However, my college plan changed drastically when I received a letter from my cousin James who was at the time studying in the United States. He encouraged me to apply to the universities in the US, and advised my parents to allow me the opportunity to study abroad. Stanley, his older brother, also encouraged my parents to allow me to pursue the once in a lifetime chance. My parents agreed. At 18, with enthusiasm and adventurous attitude I travelled halfway around the world to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. However, the euphoria ended just as I finished my freshman year at Louisiana State University (LSU) when I received news about my dad’s sudden passing. The letter arrived three months after his funeral. My mom decided to delay the notification because she did not want to interrupt my studies, and moreover, the cost for the trip home would have been astronomical. The timing of his death produced both emotional trauma and a financial crisis for my mom, my sister and me. The ensuing challenges led me to make decisions setting the course of my life, which caused me to not set foot in Malaysia again for 15 years.
I had dreamt of joining the World Health Organization once I graduated with an Agricultural Engineering degree. I wanted to travel and be of service to others in helping to build a better world. However, at 19, I was working seven days a week in between classes, and selling my blood plasma twice a week to help pay for my college fees and food. Compounding the financial challenge, the university raised the out of state tuition fee by almost double for the first time in years. Resolute and determined, I kept the pace for as long as I could. However, the bi-weekly sale of my blood plasma finally caught up with me. I fell ill with a low white blood cell count, and had to drop out of school in the middle of the spring semester of my junior year. By then, the only thought I had every morning was how am I supposed to pay for the living expenses rather than my grades. The shift was frightening. I was desperately looking for solutions. I remember asking myself, What the hell happened to me? What is my destiny? Why am I in this situation? I was twenty years old and felt stranded in America, without solutions. Too proud to share my circumstance with my mom and others around me, I kept to myself. I was ashamed and embarrassed of my life’s performance. Experiencing constant fogginess, I couldn’t think straight. I thought I was toast and done!
Amidst nursing myself back to health, I remember what my mom told me just before I left for the United States. She said, “Since you were a child, you have been exposed to all kinds of experiences. Your father and I have done our best in raising you. Now you are about to embark on a journey where you will continue to encounter and gain new life experiences. Some of them, good or bad, will stay with you for the rest of your life. Always remember, it is how you manage these experiences that will ultimately determine your idea of success or failure in both your personal and professional lives.” I didn’t fully understand my mom’s advice at the time, but now it seemed surreal. I also remember what one of my teachers, Mr. Hoe, told me when I shared the news about furthering my studies in America. After congratulating me with his normal “Happy Buddha” demeanor, he got uncharacteristically serious. He went on to say, “I want to let you know something, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. When you go to the United States, if you decide to hang out with other Malaysians or live in Chinatown, you may as well stay home. Don’t go if you are planning to do that. Your goal is combine the best of both worlds while you are there. Take the best of the Malaysian and American cultures, and create a new culture. That will be your competitive edge.” His words of wisdom framed my thoughts ever since then. The process of my assimilation began immediately when I boarded the plane in Kuala Lumpur heading to Baton Rouge. I met a very interesting Chinese lady from Hong Kong married to an Englishman. Later, I had an American singer as a seat mate. In Los Angeles, during my final flight layover, I ate dinner with an American who later became my foster father. Throughout my college years, my roommates were either Americans or students from other countries. During semester breaks I worked at my foster family’s Italian and Mexican restaurants in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. I also assisted my foster father with his fireworks business, and traveled the midwestern states. The exposure gave me a true taste of Americana.
I read somewhere that humans are engineered for survival. It took me two months to recuperate. Despite feeling insecure about my future, I used whatever monies I had to enroll in summer school. It paid off, as I aced the four courses I studied. The achievement boosted my self confidence. The excitement didn’t last long, as I was faced with the dilemma of not being able to afford my fall tuition. However, the newly found inner strength ushered in a bold decision to sit out for one year, and work off campus. I was working the maximum allowable hours a student could work. Ending the cycle of stress, I applied for a position as a manager trainee at a local franchised restaurant chain. The owner needed a fresh start, and I needed the money. This pivoting moment led me to new exciting challenges with rewarding benefits. By the end of the audacious year, I was steered onto a new trajectory in my life’s journey. The path took me away from going back to college full-time. Instead, I educated myself through the available resources that best complemented my work schedule. From business seminars to Harvard Business Reviews, I equipped myself with all the knowledge that eventually propelled me to the position of Chief Operating Officer. As a young COO, I led a multi-generational workforce. Using the principles of always engaging with authenticity, listening with empathy, and speaking with humility, I created a corporate culture that built relationships, bridged generations, overcame diversity, and championed equality. This led to the hiring of quality people and college graduates as managers. Earning everyone’s collective enthusiasm, loyalty, and support, the company experienced tremendous growth and success. By the time I left the company to pursue my dream of owning my own business 18 years later, the organization had grown from 5 restaurants to 25 restaurants. With over 600 employees, the company was on target to open 2 new restaurants a year.
Although studying aboard was a dream come true for me, however, the distance kept my mom Nyah and I physically apart. Her motherly presence was never far away because we kept in touch as often as we could, first through letters and then by phone. I would time our calls perfectly to coincide with me cooking dinner in Baton Rouge, and Nyah ready for a rest after completing her morning chores in Melaka. The conversations allowed her to participate in the cooking of my favorite Malaysian dishes, and experienced the mother and son bonding we were privy to when I was home. It was eight long years before Nyah and I were reunited again in person. When she finally arrived in Baton Rouge to spend six months with me, no words could describe how we felt seeing each other for the first time after all those years. One night after dinner, while sitting at the kitchen table, Nyah rekindled the conversation about my adoption. She wanted me to know the rest of the story. Nyah shared that her last miscarriage was truly devastating. She was pregnant with a seven month old baby boy. Shortly afterwards, my dad and her adopted a baby boy, however, the baby lived for only a month. Grief stricken with what seemed to be an endless tragedy of not being able to have a son she became reclusive and kept to herself. It was during this moment of sadness that my maternal mother came up to her and said, “Don’t worry. If this is a boy, he will be yours. I will give the baby to you.” Shocked at the proclamation and nervous about the opportunity to adopt again, she went to see a local spiritualist.
The well known Sage told her that “this baby boy” was meant for her. He recommended that the new baby should not live with the Tan family for the first 30 days. The Sage advised my mom to have the baby be spiritually adopted by Lady Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. He also told her the boy would bring prosperity into the house and that if he was born at night he would be a “Wandering Ox that no-one could own.” The Sage informed her that there would come a time her son will have to go far away from home. The further he went, the better he will be, so not to stop him. My mom said she reminded my dad of these words when they were in deep discussion on whether to let me study in America. She explained that I had come from a family with 10 children, and I was the youngest. Two of my older sisters had been adopted by other families. One of my sister moved to Australia and became a nurse, and the other became a nurse in England. Nyah was convinced that my sisters and I were fated to succeed overseas. I kept silent while absorbing this fascinating story. At 26 years old, I finally had closure to the circumstances leading to my adoption, and a better understanding to my life’s path.
During the years I was away from Nyah, if someone were to label me as a mama’s boy, I would say, heck no! However, my actions contradicted my sentiment. While living in Baton Rouge, I began the journey of meeting and accumulating eight other wonderful ladies as surrogate moms, one at a time over the next 18 years. I met my first two moms during my college years. My next three moms came into my life after I had begun working. I met my last three moms during my leisure time in the ballroom dancing community. The timing of these remarkable women appearing in my life was God-sent. These ladies found a way to mold my soul and guide my heart. They were my teachers, coaches, and counselors, always available to listen to my ideas and console me during times of need. Having met all of them over the years, Nyah was delighted and appreciative that these ladies were always available to dish out unconditional motherly love whenever I needed some. Most of my nine moms have since passed away, but each of them left me with timeless recipes for living life that collectively formed the basis of my success.
To honor my nine moms, I authored From My Mama’s Kitchen - “food for the soul, recipes for living." Composing the book was a humbling experience. I am forever grateful for the motherly love and wisdom I was privileged to enjoy. The riches I have accumulated from these relationships helped me to experience the American dream in a unique way. I came to the United States to earn an engineering degree, but instead I received an education about the power of relationships, the nature of love and the meaning of life.
Thanks to my nine moms I have learned that real connections, true love, and success are the results of authenticity, empathy, and humility. The epiphany that follows was the creation of From My Mama’s Kitchen®, a platform dedicated to enriching humanity with engaging powerful inspirational messages, and best practices delivered through FMMK Talk Radio shows, inspirational signs, workshops, and keynote presentations.
From an adopted child in Malaysia to a man living in America, I have found that smiling sows happiness, gratitude cultivate blessings, and generosity reaps abundance. In challenging times, faith comforts, hope inspires, and love empowers. The best decisions are made when we are mindful that, regardless of where you are in life, always lean towards heaven. And finally, success is the result of dreaming larger, achieving greater, and becoming spectacular.
This has been an excerpt from Johnny's story for the latest book in the series of Made Beautiful by Scars, due out 2018. To read more inspirational stories, get your e-book copy of Book One, a 2017 Amazon Best Seller with $2 of each US$9.95 book going to lion and wildlife conservation.
About Johnny Tan
Johnny Tan is an award winning and bestselling author of From My Mama’s Kitchen “food for the soul, recipes for living.” He has amassed over one million listeners for his From My Mama's Kitchen® Talk Radio. Johnny is a Retreat Facilitator, Life Coach, Mentor, and Inspirational Keynote Speaker. His is also an accomplished ballroom instructor and performer. To find out more see http://www.johnnytan.com
Veronica Farmer, Author and Therapist, Brisbane, Australia. Passionate about sharing raw human stories that matter!