I live in one of the smallest places in the world, a little island called Singapore: the melting pot of cultures, sounds, beliefs and flavours. For me, it’s life in this fast-paced city in what I call a real urban jungle — “real” because of the ultra-modern infrastructure amidst lush, thick greenery almost everywhere.
Recently, I went through a medical journey and with that comes the discomfort, the limitation of movement and, of course, a bit of pain. Although I expected that, what I didn’t foresee was the kindness from strangers around me.
Let’s start with the uncles behind the wheel driving my cab.
“Don’t rush! Move slowly!”, said the first cabbie I’ve seen in days since I got sliced and stitched up. ”Sit down first, okay?”, he cautioned, ” Then, put your feet up next”, came the marching orders of the elder driver who was to shuttle me for the first time home. He drove very carefully from the hospital all the way to our residence in the East. I thanked him for making my post-op ride comfy and he told me, as I struggled to find the most bearable position to get out of the cab, once again repeating himself, “Ahh. Take your time, lah!”
After being on house-arrest for three solid weeks, I headed out for some time on the road once again. The same distance en route for a check-up. The cabbie was already waiting in the driveway but I moved as slow as a turtle, each step deliberate as I tried to get used to the sensation each step produced, but wary about putting unnecessary pressure on my stitches. While my husband made his way down the steps, I walked down the handicap ramp. What I didn’t expect was for the driver to go in full-reverse to meet me at the landing.
Most drivers here are typically in a rush, so I apologized because I couldn’t get in the cab as quickly as I wanted. But he scolded me, saying “Ahhh, it’s okay. Go slow. Just go slow,” as he monitored the way I was positioning myself in my seat. “Okay, good”, when he saw that I’ve closed my door. As we exited the estate, I noticed him changing pace significantly with each street hump and the turns along the way.
On the days that I’ve gone out on my own, I noticed that cab drivers would adjust their car closer to me when they see me walking slightly slower than everyone else, but no longer on the handicap ramp. Initially, opening doors was a struggle, and most of them asked if I needed help. I turned them down politely because I tell them that I needed to practice and get used to moving fully once again.
One of them looked back at me and declared, “You had operation, lah.”
“You can tell, uncle?”, said I.
He replied, almost indignantly, “Yes! We know. So, no problem. We’ll drive slow.”
When I went to the same restaurant the second time after a week, the server asked me, “Are you feeling better today, ma’am?”. It caught me off-guard because I realised that the staff was actually aware of my condition. Before I could thank him for asking, he quickly asked, “Do you need a pillow? We can put a cushion for your back?”
I thanked him profusely as he came back with two seat cushions that he improvised as a backrest. The same server was generous enough, as I paid my bill, to ask me if he can call the cab on my behalf so I didn’t need to wait and stand too long on the sidewalk.
Such small acts of kindness that make a big difference — from people, in places you don’t expect but at a time I needed it most.
But I know for a fact that it’s not because I was handicapped at that time. It’s happened even when we had just moved here. I was in the grocery holding two packs of cheese of a different brand. I guess I looked thoughtful because an elderly lady shopper made conversation with me.
She pointed at one, saying “This one, better. This other one?”, her face scrunched up. ” Taste is not so good.”
“Really?”, I said.
She asked, “What are you cooking?”
“I’m making pizza tonight.”, said a more enlightened me.
“Ahhh. Then you get this” (she proceeds to pluck out another pack from the chiller).
“You see”, she pointed out, “this one only X number of grams, but for X price. You see? This one, has more. Can put more on your pizza”.
I proceeded to the check-out lane with the recommended cheese in my basket.
And why not? Not only did I get the cheese I needed, I had a fun chat with a stranger, too!
Same grocery different day, I was tiptoeing to reach a bottle of detergent in a top shelf. A woman, perhaps my age, looked at me and offered, “Do you need help? I can reach it for you if you want”.
I laughed , slightly embarrassed, but more relieved as I said, “Please, yes! Thank you!”. And another time, I was reaching up, trying to hook a bottle of peppercorns with the tips of my fingers when a grandfatherly man interrupted the feat.
“Here…”, he reached up for the bottle and handed it to me, “Is this what you wanted? I’ll get it for you.”
Years ago, I documented a trail of random kindness in another frenzied part of the world: Tokyo.
What’s more interesting is I was on the receiving end of help from harried commuters in some of the busiest subway stations in the world.
I tell people that they probably encounter helping hands but maybe they’re just too busy to notice. To many of my friends, most have grown a bit too cynical to accept my stories as fact. To them, it could merely be fiction as a result of my naiveté.
But it’s not.
And yet others see it differently: they say it’s a blessing.
A mundane act that transforms the ordinary into something truly extraordinary.
It is a pure and simple gesture of generosity.
Nothing less, nothing more.
From one soul to another, expecting nothing in return.
We’ve just returned from Singapore and found everyone very friendly. It’s also changed so much. I was there ten years ago and I hardly recognised it.