(disclaimer: the following may sound insensitive to some. Please do give me your opinions if you find it insensitive or offensive, but know that I don't mean it that way; these are just my thoughts and questions being put out there in the open, of a Singaporean girl who comes from quite a comfortable background coming into contact with a country that has a lot of homeless people, something I don't see to this degree back home. There are many people in Singapore who are in need, in terms of finances and much more; but this, here, is in some ways a societal difference that I have yet to wrap my head around.)
cambridge day 2
I'm walking down Bridge Street, waiting to have dinner with Yixuan after she's done with her paper, when a woman stops me: "do you have any change, I'm homeless, I'm just looking to buy a cup of coffee, it was raining, I'm so cold" - at the reminder of the rain I get out my wallet and hand her two pounds. It was indeed raining the whole day. Not a Singapore thunderstorm, just light, rhythmic; but I had spent the afternoon rolling around in bed because of it, and she had to be out here. I would have rather just bought her coffee or soup, but there was no cafe or supermarket nearby.
There are so many homeless people around, and I've been feeling guilty at walking past them without giving them money, so I determined to give today. But it's just sort of odd to me, because many are also seemingly perfectly able-bodied, not old, capable of working. I wonder if a few of them prefer not to work, because they get unemployment benefits; I've heard this more cynical line of reasoning, with anecdotal evidence, from some people. And I personally don't see very many people in Singapore who ask for something for nothing; even a blind man busks; even a wheelchair-bound woman sells tissue packets. (This is also indicative of something terribly twisted and wrong in our own society, though, especially when you think about people who are forced to resort to prostitution or multiple jobs to support their family; I do think that unemployment benefits have a place, and better medical fee coverage / childcare support for those who need it.) They're doing what they can, as long as they're able to, for what you can give. Here...there are so many people just...sitting there, unashamed to ask others for change. I'm a student who earns $6-8 an hour from taking bubble tea orders and transcribing interviews late into the night. During the school term I sleep about 4 hours a night. My flight ticket here was the result of 3 months of part-timing at Koi. And even so I hate asking my parents for allowance when I need it - I'd rather skip meals, even though I know my parents will definitely give me if I ask - so I guess it is strange for me to enter a world where so many people who seem capable of working are sitting around and asking for money.
But then I live in a country with an unemployment rate of under 2% and the third-highest average working hours in the world. A country whose housing prices are sky-high so a large portion of us live with our parents until we're married and eligible for our own flat* (or even after we're married, too; or also forever if we remain single, like my aunt or a couple of my mum's friends). A country of sleepless, overworked, stressed-out individuals who are always chasing, always chasing. A country of people too obsessed with "saving face" to be comfortable with asking others for money. A country where the poor work far too hard, for far too little, just to earn enough to get by, because unlike the UK, we don't have unemployment benefits; if you're fired you don't have a system that will support you. Work is a matter of struggle or death. What do I know about this country and its culture that is different from mine?
Two minutes later I reach the end of the street and stop to look at the advertisement of an Italian restaurant. "Ey," I hear from behind me. I turn back. Two men are sitting on a bench. "You got change?"
I do, I have two more pounds; but I finally ask him the question that I've been too afraid to ask every person who has asked me for money: "why don't you work?"
He doesn't seem to understand me. "Something, you got change?"
"Do you have a job?"
"I'm homeless. See my sleeping bag."
"Why don't you have a job?" He finally understands, I think; he tells me he had an operation. He raises his pant leg to show me the skin graft on his shin, tells me it was from his elbow. The two pounds are his immediately; ah, it must suck, being out of a job and needing an operation like this. He wasn't conscious for four days, broke his ankle for the second time during a pizza delivery job he had previously. He tells me he was from Poland; came here sixteen years ago. "Why did you come here?" "You know Poland." My heart sinks. I come from a country that's all about economic growth, and I often forget how badly most of the EU is doing economically. When I was in Greece in freshman year, it was undergoing its sixth year of recession; youth unemployment rate was over 60%; you could have an MA and be working as a server at Subway; people were tired. For me, a well-educated Chinese from an upper-middle class background in Singapore, I can have a decent income as long as I put in the effort. The policies in my government and the workings of my society support me, don't marginalise me. The economy is doing well, and my parents have stable jobs. I am not discriminated against. There are so many others who try so much harder, but were born in circumstances that don't allow them to thrive.
Twice he invites me to sit on the bench, but I say it's alright; Yixuan's arriving at any minute, and while I'd love to hear more from him, my heart is also a little sad. The guy beside him shouts something presumably in Polish, and they converse loudly for a while; they're probably saying something bad about me, the weirdo Asian girl who's so hung up over a mere £2. Whatever. I'm a college kid; I'm broke, too. The other guy motions towards the Italian restaurant, suggests something in English about treating them to a meal there. "Aye, don't listen to my friend, he's a bit crazy." I smell hard liquor in his breath, and I hope he doesn't spend my money on alcohol. I wish there was a supermarket nearby so that I could get him one of those £3 meal deals. I had one of those yesterday, and the day before, and probably tomorrow... they're cheap, wholesome, and good. A full meal for £3, complete with a smoothie and yoghurt / fruit! I hope the £4 I've given away in the past five minutes will be put to good use. That's more than an hour's work at Koi. £4 is $8, and that's four lunches I can buy back home. (Ananas chicken rice, man. It's quite bad, but it's $2. Or tako balls, or economic bee hoon, or 菜贩 with two veggies and no meat, or lor mai kai. If you're like me, a brokeass college student, you'll know.)
"Buy some bread with the money," I suggest.
"Yes, I will buy something, chips maybe," he replies.
"But chips are not healthy. You can buy bread, or rice, something that will fill you up." I wish there was a Sainsbury's nearby. I'd just get him that meal deal. And, I mean, a baguette at Waitrose is £0.60. A bun at any supermarket's bakery section is less than £1. Come on. You can get a decent box of sushi for £3. Chips don't add any nutrition at all and they don't fill you up. They're a luxury, not something you get when you have nothing. The £3 meal deal is great and delicious, too, and you can find it all around. But he doesn't seem to understand me. "Yes, something. Thank you very much." Ah, forget it. I think when I'm in Rome later in the summer and I'll be buying groceries to cook and stuff, I'll bring around an extra sandwich, or maybe just carry around one of those supermarket meal deals if they have them, for times like these.
"Have a good day," he says in his casual loud tone.
"Thank you," I say softly, so that he doesn't hear. "It's my birthday." I let it quiver in the air, a little wisp of a word, before it vanishes with more of his casual words that roll past me. A ping on my phone: Yixuan has arrived. I fight back tears of frustration and settle my heart. Over dinner Yixuan tells me that she volunteers at a homeless shelter or something on Saturdays; I guess I'll go, too, if they'll let me, just to... just to know.
*I recognise that there's also a big problem in the HDB policy, regarding couples that are not considered to be married under Singapore law, single-parent families, etc., basically families that are not what Singapore considers to be the traditional nuclear family. I do feel that something needs to be done about this, but this is not my focus in this particular post sooo yupppp