Okay, so I drew the above a while ago. I guess, a sketch should have at least a story or reflection behind it. So here goes…
While growing up, I am fortunate enough to have shelter over my head, my parents often would tell me not to worry about getting a part time job after ‘O’s or even ‘A’ levels, yet I felt that I needed that exposure. I felt that I was too sheltered. In fact, too ignorant. Throughout my school years, I have had been part of Community Involvement Projects (CIP) – it was compulsory – where you go out to the public with a donation tin and ask for donations. You know, I honestly dislike it. I dislike the fact that I did not know the people whom I was helping. Even more so, I did not know the circumstance of them, to which I was helping them for.
On the other hand, there were instances where we went to one-room flats to collect old newspapers, or Christmas caroling at an old folks home. Those struck me the most. The interaction between the elderly and younger generations like myself was what I enjoyed the most, what stood in the way was my nonexistent ability to speak any dialect. But just by our presence, to them it was gold.
When I was growing up, I thought that everyone was taken care of. Like how I was.
How wrong I was to think that.
Poverty is not a word often used. I daresay it was one of the many taboo words in the society. There was an aunty who used to collect empty soft drink cans, or the rag and bone uncle who collects our old newspapers every month, and even that rather famous blind basker at the Orchard train station who graced the peek hour human traffic with his Ray Charles voice, I used to think that it was their job. While it may seem to be their job, I often wonder could they survive on what they earn by doing that they do?
And the question was left hanging…
While I was studying overseas, I noticed that the society was different. There were homeless people along the street, begging for money, sleeping at train stations. I thought, ah… at least we do not have that at home. Not until I learnt why – there is a Destitute Persons Act that prevents begging and/or loitering around a public place without reason.
If I had millions of dollars, would I be giving $10 to every blind basker I see at the train station? Or buy 3 packets of tissues for $2 from every tissue aunty that I see? That’s the dilemma I had. How do I know if they really need it?
Once, I tried to giving a tissue aunty $2 without wanting the tissue, and I got scolded. She did not want some pity donation from a teenager; she wanted the dignity of earning it. So, lesson learnt, I apologized, paid for the tissue packets and went on my own way.
Another time, with a different lady, I decided to talk to her, after noticing that she was going to each table, while pulling her wheel trolley filled with tissue packets. She said she was doing it so that her children did not need to give her extra monthly allowance. She wanted to do some work on her own and not be a burden to them.
Do we often shake our heads and brush them away? Do we look away, avoiding eye contact, just so we do not have awkward encounter?
As I started working, coming across people from different woks of life, really opened my eyes further, to the struggles that they faced. From having two jobs to maintain their household, to not giving their children’s phone number so as not to burden them with hospitalization charges. I feel so helpless on the larger scheme of things.
Yet, coming across A Packet of Rice, Willing Hearts etc., makes me feel that we are all in this together, whether the government policies change or not, that is a whole different matter.
There are many types of low paying jobs, and not just the elderly who are employed in that area. The aunty, who tidies my dustbin, could be old enough to be my aunty. The lady, who freshens the toilet, could be old enough to be my sister. The construction worker, who is up working at the Downtown line daily at 6.30 a.m., could be old enough to be my brother.
I may always feel hopeless at such encounters, yet, most of the time, when I meet them throughout my day, I would pause and offer a smile or a hello. I would feel that they would probably prefer heaps and heaps of money – if you would like to put it in a straightforward manner, to get out of the struggle that they are in. But that’s not always the answer, is it?
What do I know right? All I have in millions in my bank is my smile and a chat.