Wednesday 11 January 2012

Have a heart for foreign workers

By Akshita Nanda, The Sunday Times, 8 Jan 2012 

Guo is a short-order cook working in a local cafe. Back home in Guangzhou, she managed a small eatery, but she came to Singapore two years ago to fund her dream of opening a big restaurant.

Now she washes dishes, chops vegetables and buses tables, in between taking accountancy courses at a private school.

Her dream is to return home flush and educated and make her family proud. Her nightmare is that her mother will find out that her well-brought-up, middle-class daughter is not running a cafe in Singapore like she did in China, but is instead on her feet 12 hours a day taking orders, sweeping kitchen debris, cleaning counters and dealing with surly customers who cannot understand her broken English.

Her take-home pay is barely $1,500 a month at most and she supplements it with odd jobs at other restaurants or by cooking and cleaning for neighbours. She also runs errands for her elderly landlady, not in lieu of rent but out of common decency and kindness.

Guo is in her 30s, not much older than I am. We hit it off because we liked each other's smiles and share a common determination to surmount the language barrier. She wants to improve her English, I am easing into the possibility of picking up Mandarin. Over servings of food or as she takes my dirty dishes away, we exchange a few words.

Our friendship has deepened over the past two years. Sometimes she sneaks me treats to take home - fresh dumplings or fruit. In return, I pass her Deepavali sweets and little gifts from overseas. I have yet to give her a tip or present of money. Every attempt is refused with a puzzled smile: 'You are my friend! I do this all free for you.'

Late last year, we exchanged cellphone numbers and began trying to make more time to talk. Girl-talk is a powerful thing, bonding women across cultures and countries and language.

We talk about our families, cultures, fashion, hairstyles and love, in all its forms. Exchanging dating experiences, she looks at me and sighs. 'So difficult,' she says. 'Life so difficult.'

Guo met her significant other not long after coming to Singapore. She was lost and desperately trying to get to work, he was the driver of the bus she had taken by mistake. After calming her down, explaining the route and telling her what stop to get off at, he yelled before the doors closed: 'May I have your phone number?'

She mostly works in the afternoons and evenings, he during the day. Still, they make time to meet and talk and share food. It is never enough time, of course, and they have limited choice in how to spend it.

Holding hands in a hawker centre lacks romance but that is what their budget stretches to. Neither can take a romantic partner home to their rented rooms - even if they were not 'traditionally minded', the landlord would either object or want to chaperone.

Where do they find the time and space to learn more about each other, have long conversations, argue, fight, patch up and decide if they can build a future together? On sidewalks and in nature parks, in too-short hours snatched from time better spent either in sleep or working overtime to fund their separate dreams.

'Very hard,' Guo tells me, eyes moist. 'So many problems.'

Her love story is just the tip of the iceberg.

Last month, The Sunday Times ran a report about romances blossoming between work permit holders here: maids, cleaners, construction workers. Consider them the other category of expats, the ones who do not get to write columns or make eyes at attractive prospects in Clarke Quay pubs, but who harbour the same powerful need for affection as any other human being.

We are intensely social creatures and mostly define ourselves by our tribes. We crave companionship at the best of times, and our desires for friends and soulmates are exacerbated when we are ripped away from all that is familiar. This is true even if that sundering was a well-thought-out choice, made for a better future.

Look at any online social networking or dating site and there is an overwhelming number of ads from newly arrived expats craving human connection, 'activity partners' or 'someone to show me around Singapore'. Nobody bats an eyelid at the thought of white-collar workers seeking new friends or romance in a foreign land. Put forward the idea of flings or casual hook-ups and even conservatives would likely accept this with a cosmopolitan shrug and the words 'live and let live'.

That need to be appreciated, that need to receive and give affection remains whether one is a banker or lawyer or waiter or toilet cleaner.

In fact, I would argue that this need may be even stronger in someone who has been hauling rebar and concrete around all day - surely they crave someone to put balm on their bruises?

For someone who spends hours scraping greasy food off innumerable plates, a compliment on her beauty probably means very much more than it would to me after an hour spent choosing the right outfit and lipstick and perfume.

I have a friend who dismissed her maid because she brought a boyfriend home in the family's absence. My friend's concern is understandable. At the same time, the question remains: where then can the lonely foreign worker find a safe space to meet a friend or flirt with romance?

To start with, when can they find the time?

Scheduling a girl-talk session with Guo is like a military strategy meeting, as we compare schedules months in advance. Every hour I have free, she usually has to work.

Joke about pencilling in a date with the dashing bus captain and her face falls. 'So busy,' she says. 'Maybe next month?'

Guo's case is not too bad - after petitioning her boss, she usually gets a Saturday free. It might have been different were she a domestic helper. This is a nation at war with itself over whether maids should be given a day off - even though, honestly, one day out of an entire week is hardly enough time to remind yourself that you are human.

The men and women who build and clean and cook for us are not mere useful appendages, they are human beings, with all the inconvenience that entails. They deserve rest and relaxation and to encounter tolerance and respect as they decompress from the working week. They deserve the same latitude and forgiveness the better-off get as they attempt to find themselves and their soulmates.

But for this to happen, we would have to first acknowledge that their needs and dreams are as important as our own.

And they are. Anyone who says differently is fooling himself.

The writer is from India and a reporter with Life!

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