Thursday, August 21, 2014

Our Canteen Heroes

Does this scene look familiar to you? Yes, you see it every day but do you appreciate it?

When it’s time for lunch, the canteen is always abuzz with students and lecturers. The queues extend to the tables, and sometimes, beyond. Everyone is so tightly packed together, talking away that no one notices someone quietly working behind them. Indeed, our cleaners are silent as they clear our plates and trays from the table. And, more often than not, they are ignored. 

During lunch hour, the humongous trash bags in the canteen are also overflowing with trash. Occasionally, they spill over and our cleaners have to clear up the mess as well. At the end of lunch hour, what’s left are a few figures in a sea of grimy plates, stained surfaces and chairs left in disarray. Once more, our cleaners begin the process of cleaning again. For me, these canteen heroes are not given enough credit for the work they do.

I interviewed Molly Leong, a 71 year old cleaner at the South Canteen. She’s extremely cheerful with the kindest of smiles, even during her busiest hours. When I followed her on her duty, it was difficult for her to speak English, but these struggles are nothing like the ones she usually has to conquer. However, her expression remained cheerful and always kind. Yes, one smile can make a lot of difference. 

When I sat down with her, I really wanted to learn more about her life and her job. She actually has four other members in her family - two younger brothers, one older brother and a sister-in-law. 

What I really wanted to know is: Why did she choose this job at her age?

She told me that in 2006, she came from Taiwan to Singapore to look after her ill father. Thus, she had to find work in Singapore. Though the pay isn’t enough, people are kind enough to give her odd jobs like altering clothes just for extra income. 

So what’s her shift like? Is she often overwhelmed?  For her, she claims it’s not that tiring since she only works 4 to 5 hours. 

“After all, elderly like me shouldn’t labour away for too long,” she said.

I asked her how does she feel about this job, and Molly smiled at me and said: “I do enjoy my job, mainly because the campus has respectful and courteous people. Some even return their utensils and plates. 

“However some people act completely ignorant. I feel sad when they dirty the tables, and talk and curse loudly. Well, I can’t expect them to all be the same but it would be nice if they learn some manners. I hope they will cooperate with the staff and return their trays when they’re done, making things easier for everyone,” she continued.

When the peak hours begin, so does the strain on all the cleaners and janitors. The cleaners will be up and about, readying themselves for the upcoming battle. Very soon, plates are stacked up high at the drop-off area. And if Molly isn’t there, she will usually be helping her colleagues clean the tables, carting a trolley to collect rubbish and utensils.  

Molly usually works from 3:30 to 7pm. It is not a very sanitary job and how many of us would be willing to clean up after others for meagre pay? Yet, when they make their rounds, we lack the empathy and understanding to even say a simple “thank you”.

At the end of her long day, Molly will be eating, while it’s finally quiet in the canteen. She’s allowed some breathing space to talk with her friends, in an almost spotless area she has cleaned up. 

I admire her determination and courage. She is truly an unsung hero. 

By Jade Teo, Year 2, Diploma in Mass Media Management

For 18 years, Jade has been tirelessly working on ways to cure “boredom”. She tried watching chefs like Nigella Lawson on TV, creating a solar-powered boat with little success, taking a literature trip to UK with friends, riding in the front seat of an ambulance and a fire truck, but nothing worked as well as her first adventure - writing. Without it and her books, she wouldn’t have been cured.

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