Monday, April 19, 2010

Migrant workers' ability to endure hardship source of inspiration

WHENEVER negativity swamps me, I look at the migrant workers I meet daily and look for inspiration in their lives.

Last week, I found yet another. The Myanmar helper who worked at the noodle stall I regularly go to is now his own boss.

His former boss told me that he had taken over a chicken rice stall at the food court next door.

"You don't keep them long," said the noodle seller, with discernible disdain.

"Once they have learnt the tools of the trade, they will leave.

"They are not loyal. And don't expect them to be grateful, too.

"Let's see if he thinks it is easy to be his own boss."

I was amused by his reaction, although it was unexpected. I recall how the chap was treated when he arrived at the stall two years ago.

Hardly able to speak or understand the local lingo, he was frequently the brunt of his employer's foul-mouthed tirade when orders got mixed up or were missed.

But each time, the chap would take the profanities raining down on him with a grin. Perhaps because he did not understand the meaning of the words.

I used to see him taking his lunch late in the afternoon when the crowd had petered out. Each meal was identically monotonous -- a heap of white rice soaked in curry gravy and a small plate of vegetables.

Despite the simplicity of each meal, he would enthusiastically tuck into it with the appetite of a man who had not eaten for days, as if grateful to have something to eat.

And as soon as he had finished eating, instead of engaging in idle chat with his peers, he would be back at the noodle stall busying himself with what needed to be done and was expected of him.

Seeing him work, one sensed an air of diligence and usefulness about him. Perhaps it was this that his former employer missed.

We meet migrant workers like the Myanmar stall helper every day. We see them in restaurants, at petrol stations and supermarkets. They serve us, sweep the floors, or mind the children. They do the more mundane jobs we once did, which we are now fortunate enough to pay someone else to do.

Some of them are here to earn an honest living; some try to make a fast buck and take advantage of our generosity.

Whatever it is, they all come in search of a better life or to escape the nightmare in their own land.

Many return to their countries years later with little more than the shirts on their backs.

Others build their dreams here instead, making do with whatever opportunity they can find and work hard at it.

Each time they serve my family and me at the hawker centres and restaurants, I would say "thank you". And I make my children do the same, not just for courtesy but to remind us how much better off we are in many ways.

We have no doubt achieved a higher standard of living, to be waited upon and served, but I also wonder if we have not lost something precious along the way - like the ability to endure hardship, the persistence to plod on not knowing if we will succeed, and the resilience to start all over again if we fail. And of course, we should learn to count our blessings that we need not, like them, leave our homes and loved ones and travel to another country to make our dreams come true.

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