We fear what we don’t understand.
And that fear, sometimes stops us from trying to understand what exactly is it that we fear.
When my old neighbour moved out, i felt really sad because Uncle Choon practically watched me grow up.
He’s the friendly old man that is always meddling with his plants along the corridor. He’s the one that helps us remove advertisement flyers from our gate, the one that we go to for help.
Uncle Choon is a retired teacher, that practically meant any issues i have with my school work, my parents will send me along next door to Uncle Choon.
He’s always ready to help and his door is always opened. Not just for me and my silly questions, but to other neighbours as well. I would often see Uncle Choon’s friends’ drinking tea, playing chess, both English and Chinese, hanging around just for a chat.
Sometimes they buy Kuehs and snacks up and have a mini gathering.
The sound of their laughs and chat will travel along the common corridor to my room. It’s like an open invitation for a 11 year old. I would peek in and when they saw my cheeky smile, they asked me to join them.
No prizes for guessing what i was after.
It’s the food.
My parents work long hours and they leave me alone at home most of the time when i turned 7 . With Uncle Choon around, it gave them a piece of mind that even while they were out working, there is someone i can go to if i needed help.
A good neighbour, is worth more than gold.
When Uncle Choon came with the news that he will be moving out to stay with his kids, it came as a shock to me. I suddenly felt fear.
It’s for the best i know, he’s getting on in age, his kids need help with their own kids and he’s the best person to do it. I stay in Bedok and Uncle Choon is going to move halfway around the world to Clementi. It was a town i knew only by name. A town i knew was connected by bus service 7 from Bedok interchange.
My family and i were sad by his departure of course. There was a small farewell party, a gathering of neighbours, and of course, exchange of address. We all knew where he is moving to, he promised to visit whenever he can and he too, invited us to visit him if we are in the area.
With Uncle Choon’s place vacated, it felt like someone removed a piece of my body or rather, my mind. It didn’t feel right coming home from school and not seeing him tending to his plants.
It didn’t feel right not hearing his laughs. It felt weird not having someone to go to for my school work and yes i admit it, i miss the kuehs and snacks, especially the fried banana fritters from Bedok interchange hawker centre.
I became the one removing flyers from his gate. It was the least i could do.
Before my fragile heart had time to heal, i saw movers pushing boxes of stuff along the corridor a couple of months later. Someone new is moving in.
My parents and i peeped out the window to try and see who our new neighbours are. We were devastated when we saw that it was a Indian man.
He’s tall and imposing. He looks scary. Exactly the kind i imagined my parents threatened to sell me to if i misbehave. Judging from my parents body language, i wouldn’t say they are scared, more of uncomfortable.
Our new neighbour came to say hi . His name is Yash. His voice is low and he speaks with a heavy accent. He’s not local, he told us he’s from Mumbai.
To the 12 year old, it sounded like Mandai,where the zoo is. I imagined him as that nasty zookeeper ill treating the animals before slaughtering them for the lions.
I remembered my parents giving awkward smiles and replying in broken English, saying hi to Yash.
That was the only time we communicated.
The idea of having someone from another country, speaking a language they don’t understand staying next to us scares them. It put this fear in their head they could not explain nor understand.
While my door and windows were usually left opened when Uncle Choon is around, they were now tightly shut. My parents reminded me to quickly lock the door, and bolt it from the inside when i’m home.
I was not to venture out into the corridor to play.
It sounds silly now that we think about it but back then, the fear is real.
The fear compounded when we see Yash dressed up for work. His long sleeve shirt, his tie, his pressed pants, his shiny leathershoes. He carried a briefcase, wore a nice watch.
Every bit of his dressing points to him as doing something important.
My parents does odd jobs and their choice of clothing could not be more different than Yash. Bumping into each other in the lift is fucking awkward too. It made me feel little, unimportant. It’s like whatever we are doing is nothing compared with what Yash is doing.
Awkward smile and the lack of eye contact. As i kid, i observed the adults and i can feel the vibe, the weird ambiance in the lift. I’m sure Yash could feel how uncomfortable my parents were around him. Even holding the lift door open for us when we got to our floor was just met with a hasty thank you.
There’s no way to mask the hurried dash to the door by my parents, who somehow manage to hold their breath, unlock the door, get everyone in and bolt it before breathing again.
To make things worse, my Dad’s brother just lost his job. My dear Ah Jek.
Ah Jek told my dad he was let go during a restructuring but the company is still hiring foreigners.
This is a recipe for disaster . Do the math and put all the ingredients into the same mixing bowl.
A neighbour we don’t understand, a uncle that lost his job to foreigners, and a economy that is in the shits, our fear slowly grew to hate. The equation naturally formed in our head. Foreigners are here to take our jobs.
Yash is an educated man. He could sense how uncomfortable my family is around him and there are times i saw him deliberately going to the letter box to avoid going into the same lift as us.
There are also times when he was ready to leave his house but he remained a few seconds longer in front of his gate so i can go into the lift first. We kept to ourselves, while the physical distance between us is less than 10m away, the mental distance between us grew.
It changed however on the day of my last PSLE paper. I came home to see a present from my Ah Jek who has since found a new job. A SEGA console.
I had my first mental orgasm that day.
Do you know what that means ? It’s like the best thing a kid could ever ask for.
What about the games ?
Bareknuckles III & Sonic the Hedgehog.
I was practically jumping around the house and shouting. I even put the console in front of the altar of deities and i started to pray to it. I could not wait to start playing with it.
Then i realised there i have a problem. I don’t know how to set it up.
I waited for my parents to come home from work and they too, did not know how to set it up. You might think what is so hard about plugging in a console and connecting the coloured AV cables to the TV, but to my parents who are not educated and very adverse to touching anything remotely IT, it’s like defusing a bomb.
Coloured cables only appear in their world through Jacky Chan’s Police story movies. They don’t appear in everyday life. Everyday life only consists of black cables for the kettle, and white cable for the iron. Period.
Then how like that ?
I still have yet to learn the term ‘ Lan lan suck thumb’ back then but if i knew, i might just end up sucking my thumb.
Then something hit me. If Uncle Choon was around, i would have asked for his help, but he’s not. No Uncle Choon, but there is an Uncle Yash. The scary neighbour from another country. The one that speaks a different language. The one with skin colour that is different from mine. The one that i associate with taking my uncle’s job.
Looking at the console, i struggled with the idea of asking Yash for help.
After much consideration, between dying with the console in my arms or engaging someone i’m afraid of, i chose the latter.
I told my parents i will ask Yash to see if he can help set it up.
My parents first replies in a mixture of Hokkien and Chinese are as follows’
Mother : Huh ? you crazy ah… he very busy… you don’t disturb him…
Father : He won’t have time for this kind of things…. don’t.
It is at moments like this when i remember what Uncle Choon told me before.
Words always sound wiser when they come from a old man.
“If you don’t try, you never know “
I ignored my parents and i hugged the console tightly against my chest as i opened the gate and slipped on my ultraman slippers, praying that the cartoon character that i have been stepping on for a year would give me the strength to carry out my mission.
I could feel my heart beating faster with each step i took towards Yash’s place.
His door was closed but i could see the lights on, and i could hear the TV. It was playing some program in Tamil or Hindi, not sure.
I hit the doorbell and honestly, i was on the verge of turning and bolting when Yash opened the door.
No longer in his long sleeve shirt and pressed pants, Yash was dressed in the same manner my father dressed when at home. A old worn out t-shirt and casual shorts.
He was eating the same brand of peanuts we ate, drinking the same brand of beer.
The sight of the familiar furniture Uncle Choon used to sit on brought back memories i long buried. It felt oddly comfortable to see something familiar being used by someone on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Uncle Choon may have moved but the house remained pretty much the same. The same tables, chairs, TV.
Yash : Hi James…. wow !!.. is that the new SEGA…
James: Yes… and errmmm… ermmm… we… i mean i…. i don’t know how to….set up…..do you know how…?
Yash smiled and replied.
Yash : Of course….come…i’ll go over….
My heart started beating faster than before as i watched Yash come out of his place, leaving his door wide opened. I ran on ahead to my place and told my parents Yash is coming to help set up the game console.
They didn’t know what to do.
My dad jumped up from the table, dropping the section of the chinese newspaper he was reading , my mum tried to tidy up the living room but it was all too late.
Seconds later, Yash appeared in front of our door.
Yash : Hello…. good evening….
My parents stood up awkwardly, unsure of how to receive a guest that has been our neighbours for months.
Mother : Boy ah… Gei Ta Kek Huay Ke Yi Ma ? ( Can we serve him chrysanthemum tea ? )
I never expected Yash to look at my mum and reply.
Yash : Kek Huay…. eh sai… eh sai…. ( Chrysanthemum ? CAn… can… )
My parents were pleasantly surprised to see Yash speaking in our lingo. Something he picked up from his colleagues at work.
Yash unboxed the console and he did not help me set it up, rather, he taught me how to set it up.
15 minutes later, i popped in the cartridge and when i saw the screen for bareknuckles III pop up, nothing could describe the sense of satisfaction i was feeling in my body.
Yash : Nice…. next time you know….
Yash drank the chrysanthemum and my dad, ever the opportunist, asked Yash if he happen to know how to operate the VCR my Ah Jek gave us some time back.
While i could not wait to start my game, i found it far more interesting watching my Dad and Yash trying to communicate. One spoke perfect English, while my dad used a smattering of words he could think of.
Still, the 2 of them managed to understand each other.
30 minutes later, my dad finally got about learning how to use the VCR.(an old school tape recorder for those who has never seen one)
That was our first interaction with Yash but it was not our last.
While what we saw were how different we were from each other at the start, time slowly opened our eyes to how much similarity we had.
Yash cleaned the corridor the same way Uncle Choon did, with the metre long brush made up of coconut bristles. He buys food from the same coffee shop we eat at. He dries his bedsheets along the corridor when the sun is bright.
He sells old newspaper to the Garang Guni man, he grew curry leaves, Basils and some other herbs i don’t know along the same stretch Uncle Choon used to grow his orchids.
My family slowly warmed up to Yash and the doors and windows opened again. After about a year or so, Yash invited his parents over to Singapore. I saw them dressed to the nines, with gold bangles and jewelries on their arms, they must come from some fancy rich family.
I found out later that set of clothes was the best they had. It was their first time on a plane too and they will not be caught looking anything but their best.
Clothes maketh the man.
I thought they are royalties.
However the moment they changed out into something casual, the looked no different from the uncle and auntie you see along the road or in the market.
I saw them clueless at the coffee shop the afternoon after they arrived in Singapore for the first time trying to figure out our currency which has a lot less zeros.
They were trying to buy milk tea.
The coffee shop assistant from Malaysia told them ‘Teh Susu’ ( Milk tea )
They were trying to argue no.
They want milk tea.
I eventually found out from Yash that ‘Susu’ , meant Pee in India.
His parents thought they were going to get Pee in their tea.
I helped them get their tea and we walked back to our block together.
Along the way, i had a lot of questions for them. Questions i probably would not ask as an adult but the innocence of a kid functions like a ‘anything goes’ barrier.
There are no questions deemed too sensitive. From why they smell the way they do, to the food they eat, to the clothes they wear. I had questions for everything.
There were no internet, no google back then. And pictures of their house and village in India offered me a glimpse into another world.
One that remained etched in my head today.
Heading into secondary school, i went to Yash with my math and science homework.
I watched Yash get married, have a baby boy, i watched him become a Singapore citizen. We even went to the voting station together during polling day.
And yes, i watched Yash lose his job.
I bumped into him on the last weeks of my NSF life. As i start bringing my army gear back home in batches in my Ali baba bag, i saw Yash doing the same, albeit his files and belongings came in brown boxes.
He was sad of course, and i could see the worry in his face. With a wife at home, and a kid to feed, not to forget he is still paying rent to Uncle Choon, losing his job pretty much meant he’s fucked.
I thought he was immune to things like retrenchment.
That he’s special. He’s educated, he has experience, he dresses well. Why would he get retrenched ? He’s a talent from another country isn’t it ?
After i ORD, i became the one wearing the long sleeve shirts and pants along that same corridor. If there was a best dressed award for level 7 of block XXX in Bedok, i was sure i would get it.
Yash found another job which did not require him to dress up. He goes to work in jeans and a company t-shirt.
He earns lesser than what he used to but life goes on. As a provider for the family, you provide. It doesn’t matter what you need to do.
So what if you do manual labour ? So what if you don’t work in an office ?
So what if you don’t dress up and look like you are a million bucks ?
Fortune changes, no one is immune. It doesn’t matter if you are a local or foreign talent, or one from Mars. The day the company no longer requires your service, you’re done.
As i worked my way up the corporate ladder, shirts and pants moved on to suits and travel suitcases. Yash changed jobs several times over the years, but he never got back the one that allowed him to wear his shirt and pants again.
Not one that allowed him to put on his leather shoes.
Jeans, t-shirt, sports shoes. That was his attire.
Getting into the lift with Yash brings back a sense of nostalgia.
I see his kid staring at me on my way to the airport and i looked at Yash in his shorts and slippers. His once youthful face has aged. There are a lot more white in his unusually black hair from what i remembered, but that smile is still the same.
Yash eventually bought the house from Uncle Choon after paying rent for many years.
I could hardly recognise his son now that he is all grown up and i got a shock when i saw the tall imposing neighbour in his army fatigues calling out to me.
” Uncle James ”
He’s a literal duplicate of his dad but beefier and more handsome.
James: yozz…. wah…. si bei fit leh… hahaha…. which Unit…. ?
Yash Junior : going to OCS haha….
James : How’s your parents…. ? all ok….. ?
Yash Junior : Pa….driving Taxi now……..not bad la…. pass days… my mum working at Daiso…
I squeeze his biceps and nodded.
James : bloody hell… si bei fit ah……20 years ago i also like that leh…. now left tummy la… haha
We walked along the same corridor and parted ways at the door where i saw Yash Junior looking through the window and waving to my parents.
Yash Junior : Uncle, Auntie…. Jiak ba buay… ? ( Have you eaten ? )
My parents waved and replied with a smile.
I found out from my parents that Yash Junior came over recently and helped dismantle some old cabinets that is falling off it’s hinges.
I felt a sense of relieve, one that i find it hard to describe. In the same manner that my parents depended on Uncle Choon when i was young, i found comfort knowing there is Yash and family staying beside my aging parents.
We all fear what we don’t understand, and sometimes, it just takes one party to make the first move.
It makes me wonder sometimes, is Yash and his family really that different from the rest of us ?
What exactly is it that makes a Singaporean, a Singaporean ?
The skin colour ? The pink IC ? your heritage? (My grandfather is from Fujian China btw)
It’s a tough question to answer.
We all seek a better life, some of us have a choice to leave the country to do it, while some of us don’t. It’s the same for Yash.
I left my parents place in the evening and i saw Yash cleaning his Taxi in the carpark.
James: Uncle Yash….Ho seh bo…. ( how are you ? )
Yash : yo James… hahah…. where’s your kids….
James: Today is my alone time…. hahaha.. they’re at the in laws with my wife… ahah…
Yash : Drink beer ai mai…. Kopitiam ?
Over a couple of beers at the coffee shop, i casually asked Yash.
He has gone from a corporate job in an MNC, to taking on small roles in SME, and now he’s a cab driver.
James : do you feel upset… ? angry… ?
Yash : Of course i’m upset…. but this is life isn’t it…. time wait for no one…. there is always someone better out there… willing to do what you do, at a lower price….
James : but i’m sure being a cab driver is not what you had in mind when you came here right…
Yash : Of course not….hahah… but since when we get a choice at what life throws at us… ?? you take it on the cheek like a man and you get back up….
James : and you try to survive…..?
Yash : it’s not hard to survive James…. the hard part is to thrive isn’t it….. hahah…
As i emptied the 3rd bottle of beer between the 2 of us, i rounded up the night with the last question.
James: did you…. you know.. sort of hate us…. when you first move here… i mean…. i’m sure you could feel the hostility and the awkwardness… hahah… and i was quite afraid of you….
Yash thought about what i said and replied.
Yash : I had to drink from the same stream where my neighbours upstream bath and shit in back where i came from James hahaha….
James : hahahah
Yash : Compare that to neighbours who don’t want to take the same lift as me or thinks Indians like me is a kidnapper, a job snatcher and a wife beater, i choose here anytime….
After the laughing stopped; Yash added.
Yash : I want my son to thrive James….i hope he can thrive… i’ll be happy for him……… for me…. i’m happy to just survive….
I touched his mug with mine and he emptied what’s left of the melted ice cube from the bucket between our glasses.
James : Ahhh…. a decrepit father that takes delight….to see his active child do deeds of youth….
Yash laughed heartily.
Yash : We all get old and lame….. and fortune will spite us eventually James…..hhaha…. but you’re only as old as the man you feel…..and i still feel like a million bucks…..
James : You meant after you drink ? hahaha
Yash : Hahaha…. bottoms up…
James : Bottoms up….
This is golden, James. Especially right after GE.
Thank you : )
Wonderful story. Full of meaning and the Singaporean identity.
Thank you : )
Really good read thank you!!
thank you 🙂