Stories from the field

Day 2015-08-31

Maybe its for the best right now…Blog 4-Raviv Litman

Towering above one of Singapore’s many shiny shopping centres is a megachurch. I was invited to go to this church with a very kind older neighbor, Rachael (all the names here are changed). We attended the New Creation Church, a megachurch in Singapore, which can host around 200,000 attendees over four services every Sunday. It was an incredible experience, to see so many people physically entranced in their religious experiences in a kind of space that I associate with concert halls. As overtures of Jazz and pop brought youthful gospel and Anglo-Saxon references seamlessly mixed with Singaporean tropes in the sermon, and my friend would laugh at them all. But when the sermon turned to the preservation of god’s love in family, it became serious. For Rachael, family is brought together by getting a deal together. She had been talking in the ride over about her son’s apartment and it was a point of pride that he had moved from a 3 room to a 5 room place and ‘boy what a deal he got!’ she said. Since Singapore offers subsidies for ‘3 generation under one roof’ she would like to move closer to her children and rent their apartment someday, as another neighbor does. Sunday is the day her two children visit, and she is not alone. Singapore is a small enough place that as long as you have not gone overseas, it is not hard to visit home over the weekend, and this fact is not lost on most parents….

That evening I was treated to a meal at Rachael’s house, two floors down from my flat. When I got there her son, Ke, was already there,excited to share with me his experience overseas, his research in college, and his experience as a teacher. Ke gave a great interview, explaining the process by which nationalism is instilled in schools at an early age through mass participation in national day and the changes that have occurred in communication technology since he went overseas (in the pre-Skype days). Our discussion continued as his sister and brother-in-law entered the house and joined us for dinner. It was clear from the start that the parents treated his younger sister, Mia, a bit differently. While Ke and I were given gifts and plied with extra helpings of meat, Mia and her husband ate quietly. Through the dinner I learned that Ke did not get into the local university, so his parents paid for his overseas studies. They had only enough money to send him, and not his sister. She had only gotten a chance to realize her desire to go overseas later, when she finally felt comfortable asking her father for help, but by that point she was already working. When Ke was overseas they would communicate by ICQ, the first generation of Internet messengers, and it was his sister who was in charge of relaying the messages.

Their father has Parkinson’s, and Rachael takes care of him full time. Over the meal the children showed their concern for their father in different ways; Ke asked if he was taking his medicine. Mia made sarcastic jokes about him crying and reminiscing while we tried to change the subject when he cried. She said he had been tough, working all his life, and all the emotions had gotten bottled up. Now they were spilling over….

Rewind to last week. I was sitting down with the semi-pro cyclist/kayaker/Community activist Zixing for lunch. He is a man who goes against the grain. The way he puts it, he is ‘a bit of a rebel’. Before he moved to Australia to do construction for half a year, he had a bad holiday, a very bad holiday. Zixing’s father and his uncle were at odds, so much so that they fought over Chinese New Year; something Zixing says drove his grandmother into a poor state of dementia. Zixing’s older sister had been caring for the grandmother for 2 years, and he thought this was a constraint on her social life, as she was hardly qualified to live alone with a high-maintenance elder. Zixing found her to become increasingly lonely and despondent. He had complained to his father of this, but his father felt it was the best course of action; after all, someone needed to take care of her. His father fighting with his uncle had been the last straw, and he said to his father, maybe we should just not talk for a while. They did not speak for a year. Today Zixing lives back at home, and does community activism in his neighborhood for the support of migrant workers in the area. When I asked if he will care for his parents he said sure, but don’t tell them. For him filial piety is a trump card, and he doesn’t want his parents to take his future contributions for granted, but after all, ‘someone has got to do it’…

…. Rewind another week. My friend Wudao and I are browsing coffee shops in China town. I’m still new to Singapore and anxious to learn more about people here. I ask if I can visit his house that weekend, since like all other Singaporeans I’ve met, the family gets together for the weekend. In response he tells me a tragic story of his maternal side. Skipping many tragic details, 5/6 of his uncles and aunts cannot care for his grandmother, and that led to animosity on all sides. He said sometimes he and the final uncle would talk about how it might be easier just to put them in a home…but that is something, he said, we wouldn’t talk about with the others…

Taking care a family is not an easy task. What is expected is unevenly distributed by age, gender, and income. As one imam said in a speech at the Islamic learning centre, taking care of elders is the quickest path to paradise, because it is the hardest work that somebody has got to do.

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