11 June 2014

Left Behind


I love the Asian concept of family where children are considered precious and there is great respect and consideration for the elderly. My heart is genuinely warmed when on Sundays I see tables at the many hawker centres here in Singapore full of three generations - sitting together and sharing a meal.

This is a weekly ritual for many families.

Singaporeans invest heavily in their children and the education system is one of the finest in the world. Parents make enormous sacrifices to provide the best educational opportunities that they can for their children. It is often however a heavy burden. From a very early age children are taught discipline to study. There is great angst in the battle for betterment and there is at times much pressure to achieve. Weekends are quite often reserved for additional classes and more study for children.

It is a tough gig.

The terms ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’ are used in addressing elderly men and women on the Island. They are titles of endearment rather than respect - but there is veritable warmth and affection in these that I have joyfully embraced.

“Hello uncle - take me to Marina Bay la please. Can?”

“Hey aunty – may I help you carry that bag. Can la?”

These are Singaporean phrases that I will use often during the course of a normal week in my encounter with local senior citizens. Many Singaporean taxi drivers are retirees who chose to work driving cabs rather than sit at home waiting to die. I chat often to them and ask why they are still working and they inform me that they like to drive to pass their time.

They like to talk too.

The aunties can be very sweet but some are also a little grumpy. When I recently offered to assist an elderly aunty with her shopping bag she whacked me with her walking stick.

I don’t know why she belted me but I backed off quickly.

Singapore is a wonderful place that is wondrous as well. It is a tiny little spot of an island. When I visit little schools in remote districts of Nepal I often take large maps of the world with me. I challenge the beautiful and inquisitive children of the Himalaya to find Singapore and it is no easy feat. One can drive from one side of the island to the other in a little over an hour if the traffic conditions are right.

Singapore has absolutely no natural resources – yet they are one of the world’s economic powerhouses. Its economy continues to grow at a steady rate and it is now one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to reside. The cost of real estate is ridiculous yet the income tax rates are almost negligible. I am in fact addicted to my high salary and the low tax and am comfortable with the most pleasant standard of living here. We are spitting distance from the equator and it is hot here all of the time. The humidity drives me mad at times but given a choice between hot and cold I will take hot every day of the week.

Which is exactly what I get.

My siblings and I were raised by our very middle class parents to appreciate our lot. We were taught to be respectful and considerate of those less well off than ourselves and that being a part of a community involves service – and helping where one can to help those who needed assistance.

There are always those less fortunate than us.

I recall being dragged kicking and screaming by my Mum to orphanages and elderly citizens homes at times when we just wanted to hang out with our mates. It probably wasn’t until my early adulthood that it dawned on me that volunteering and giving was actually just being decent. It wasn’t long after that there was a further realisation that I actually always got more out of social welfare than I put into it.

Always.

Perspective, compassion, appreciation and consideration were but some of the attributes that I received in return for tasks that were as simple as playing with underprivileged children or helping the physical or intellectually disabled try and lead normal lives.

Some of my greatest joy was volunteering in centres back in Australia where adults and children with Downs Syndrome were accommodated. 

Downs Syndrome is also known as Trisomy 21. It is a condition caused by the presence of an additional chromosome in the human body. This chromosome is numbered twenty-one and hence the numerical version of the name. The condition is typically associated with a delay in cognitive ability and in physical growth and people with Downs Syndrome have a particularly distinct set of facial characteristics. With the additional genetic material in their bodies, Down's syndrome children are particularly susceptible to many conditions such as congenital heart disease and a wide range of cancers.

Their life expectancy is significantly shorter than other people.

Downs Syndrome is named after the British physician John Langdon Down. He described the syndrome in the British Medical Journal in 1886 and as is the case with many egotistical scientists he named the discovery after himself. The characteristic that I mostly associate Downs Syndrome with is one of absolute happiness.

People with Downs Syndrome love to hug and laugh. They love to dance and play as well and I have always found it delightful associating with them. 

It really is.

When I first moved to Singapore – more than five years ago now I sought out a Downs Syndrome centre where I hoped to be able to volunteer.

It wasn’t easy.

Facilities for the physical and intellectually disabled are sparse on the island and it is rare that one sees such people out in public. They are hidden away. I eventually did find a Community centre way out in the west of the Island. It was run solely by volunteers and received no government assistance.

None whatsoever.

The Centre was started by a support group and mainly to provide respite for parents. They are also assisted by a group of university students and they are all very kind people. Like many things in Singapore - these Saturday afternoon sessions are very orderly and structured. There are different themes every week where there is a focus on things like hygiene and self help. We spent countless hours practicing washing our hands and brushing our teeth and we also practiced skills such as balancing and hopping and skipping with ropes.

I was the only Ang Mo volunteer at the centre. An Ang Mo is a white man or westerner. I was given one of the more rowdy kids whose name was Qi Shan. I say kid inaccurately and offer inadvertently when referring to persons with Downs Syndrome. It is because they have such child like qualities. Qi Shan was actually 35 years old and he lived alone with his very elderly mother. He wasn’t particularly rowdy actually – that is a bit unfair – he just was on the move constantly.

Qi Shan didn’t speak much at all but he was pretty sharp and he did all of the routine hygiene tasks very easily. He loved to play and I quickly discovered that he was a much better hopper and skipper than I am too. He laughed a lot and after only a couple of visits to the Centre he always greeted me with crushing hugs. He loved to dance and whenever he was delighted – which was often – he clapped his hands and jumped up and down.

So too did I

Music is played very loudly in the community hall and we all danced in a big circle. There is no air conditioning in the Centre so it gets very hot and for an old bloke like me it is quite exhausting.

With my work travel schedule I am often away from Singapore for weekends so I asked the Volunteer coordinator if it would be all right if I took Qi Shan on outings. She told me that would be quite OK and so I asked Qi Shan what he wanted to do. He always told me that he wanted to ride on trains and so this is what we did.

I would arrive at his HDB flat and Qi Shan would be all packed up and ready to go. HDB is an acronym for ‘Housing Development Board” – which is public housing apartments here in Singapore. Qi Shan always wore his Thomas the Tank Engine tee-shirt and he carried a Thomas the Tank Engine back pack in which was his water bottle and a sketch book and pencil.

Qi Shan loved to draw and he drew very well.

He loved trains more than anything else though.

When I knocked on his door to pick him up it was always Qi Shan who opened it clapping his hands. When he saw me he threw himself into my arms and he would give me an almighty hug. 

He squeezed me tight. 

He was very excited.

Qi Shan and I would walk to the Admiralty station from his flat but often we would skip a part of the way as well. When we got on the train Qi Shan never wanted to sit down. He wanted to stand near the doors and watch them open and close. After a couple of stops he usually alarmed me by alighting and rushing down to jump into the next carriage. We would carriage hop for much of the journey and he thought it was great fun.

Me too.

He clapped his hands.

Me too.

On the train quite a few people often looked at Qi Shan as if he had a communicable disease. Many Singaporeans seem to feel uncomfortable around people with physical disabilities and there is an unattractive stigma attached to people with Downs Syndrome and autism.

It is ugly actually.

As I have already mentioned one does not see many of them out in public.

They are locked away. 

I think that this is a terrible shame and I believe that it is an indictment on Singaporean society. It is somewhat of a paradox as well as Singaporeans are generally very nice and kind and considerate people.

They really are.

I recall one time as we rushed into the carriage during our hopping at one stop - a group of young Singaporean adults looked at us with open derision and scorn. I told them not to worry and that Qi Shan didn't bite. I warned them however that I did. I gnashed my teeth at them and told them that if they didn't stop staring I would set them on fire and then eat them alive.

Qi Shan squeezed my hand very tight and he gave me a big hug when I said this, and the horrible people got off at the next station.

After an ice-cream stop at the Dhobi Ghaut station we would catch the train back to Admiralty and I would walk back to Qi Shan’s home. He was always very tired after our outings and he would go straight to his bed for a nap.

Qi Shan died suddenly and unexpectedly last year. This is not uncommon with Down’s Syndrome adults but I took it very badly. I had been away in India working and only found out when I returned that he was in hospital. I should have gone to see him that evening but I was tired and grumpy and put it off to the next morning. When I arrived at the hospital I was informed that he had passed away during the night.

My grief was immediate and profound and I have yet to fully forgive myself for my delay in seeing him.

I don’t think I ever will.

I attended his funeral - a traditional Chinese event with much chanting and singing and symbolic gestures. It was very beautiful. A bus full of his friends from the Community Centre came to the service – as did the other volunteers – and his mother of course - and we all wept together and then hugged.

It was a terribly sad moment.

To my great shame I did no social service in Singapore for almost a year after Qi Shan’s death. I did not want to feel such hurt or suffering again.

It was very selfish of me.

However about six months ago a friend of mine from work invited me to her birthday party. It was held at a place called “Willing Hearts” – which as it turned out was a soup kitchen that fed the elderly and underprivileged. Victoria – the birthday girl – had been there once before and it had obviously touched her. She is a very caring English girl who is high energy and has a very big heart. She is always doing this sort of stuff.

To celebrate her birthday helping others typifies the sort of person she is.

Nice one Victoria – the world is a much better place with people like you in it.

So the birthday bash was a group of us helping to peel vegetables and clean pots and to assist in putting meals into polystyrene containers. These were then delivered to the elderly and the needy at HDB flats all over Singapore.

I was shocked at how many meals were prepared.

My curiosity was piqued so I returned the next weekend and I again peeled and chopped vegetables and washed pots and pans and was asked if I wanted to help do a delivery. I replied that I did – and so off I went.

I was shocked again.

We went to a not-too-far-away HDB block in a van full of food and awaiting us was a mass of more than one hundred frail and elderly Singaporeans. They were in a very orderly line and were each of them clutching their Willing Hearts cards meaning that they had been assessed by the organisation as being in need. They had no other people to support them and no other means to be fed.

Singapore is not a social welfare state and the government does little to assist the elderly, the disabled or the homeless. They do not represent a very large proportion of the otherwise affluent population of the Island and like the Down’s Syndrome children such as Qi Shan – they are hidden away.

On that first delivery session I handed out more than a thousand meals at five different locations. More than three and a half thousand meals are prepared and distributed each day and this number is growing.

It is growing rapidly.

I discovered that the daily line up for food was the only meal these needy people would eat for the day but the whole line up arrangement was also the main social event as well. Both aunties and uncles alike grabbed my hand often - and we sat down to have long chats. I was told wonderful stories about when these people were young in the days that the Island was nothing more than a collection of kampongs – or villages – where children ran around barefooted and chickens and other livestock ran free. They told me that there were vast tracts of jungle back then with screaming monkeys and colourful birds – and as kids they would wander into the jungles to collect wild fruits and nuts.

It sounded like a great adventure.

Chatting to these frail aunties and uncles struck a chord with me so I kept going back to Willing Hearts and I go there still. It is a wonderful organisation manned by sublime and kind-hearted people – mostly Singaporean but there are some Ang Mo like me. I am not a naturally altruistic person and I get way more out of assisting in my small way than I put in.

Much more.

There is not much effort involved at all really.

I have always loved to cook and I was delighted to be able to work my way onto the woks and the grills and every week I learn how to make delicious food. An even greater plus though is chatting away to the other volunteers - and I still like to do the odd delivery run to talk to the aunties and uncles. I did such a run last week and stopped behind while the van drove off to talk to the most gorgeous little old auntie whose name was Xiaohui. She told me that her name meant ‘morning sunlight’ in English - which I thought was very beautiful.

I told her this and her little wrinkled face lit up.

Xiaohui is eighty-six years old and we talked for about an hour – the whole time holding hands. She clutched my hand in hers very tightly at times, particularly when talking about her family. She told me that her husband had passed away three years earlier and they had been married for sixty-seven years. She told me that they were more in love the day that he died than when they first met.

How nice is that?

This sweet little auntie now lives alone.

I didn’t broach the subject straight away but at some point in the conversation I asked after the rest of her family. In a voice that cracked a little in emotion she told me that she has two sons and five grand-children and she thought that she had six great grand children but she might have more now.

She told me that had seen none of them for the past two years.

I asked if they still lived on the island and she told me that she thought that they did.

She told me that she thought that they all led very busy lives and she understood why they couldn’t find time to visit her any more. I tried to mask my dismay but I couldn’t. I blinked furiously trying to stop the tears but a few rolled down my cheeks anyway and I could not wipe them away without letting go of the aunties’ hand.

There was no way I was letting go of her hand and it was me doing the squeezing this time.

I couldn’t tell Xiaohui of the anger I felt at her sons – men who I hadn’t even met. I fleetingly thought of trying to find out who and where they were to vent my disgust. The auntie must have picked up on this and she told me how the Willing Hearts people were like her family now. I think this is the case for many of these elderly people who are dependent on Willing Hearts not just for food but for company as well.

I am still stunned a little at the ever increasing meals that are prepared by the wonderful and kind and generous people in the Willing Hearts organisation. I am equally despondent and can find no adequate superlatives for those few aunties and uncles abandoned by their kin. The thought of them sitting alone for most of the day and all of the night - and being so dependent on the Willing Hearts organisation simply breaks my heart.

I hope and pray that this will not be me when I get so old and helpless and I am all alone.

I have no desire and am somewhat terrified at the prospect of being one of the left behind.



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