* To read the Full Story of Grandpa Zhou, click here.
I attended a wedding dinner last night at the Shangri-La Hotel. It was a very grand wedding- men were dressed in suits, and the women were clad in sequin-studded gowns, pursing their scarlet lips, trying to breathe under their corsets. They had faces caked with make-up. It was a very grand occasion and the golden chandeliers gave an air of added sophistication to the entire event. It was a very grand event.
I couldn’t sleep last night.
This evening, after dinner with my Complete family, I asked my father if I could go and visit Grandpa Zhou. “He seems all right, you know, ” Dad said, ” I saw him the other day at the train station too- you dont have to buy him dinner every week. You can’t save the world, you know, Jia. There’re too many of them.”
My parents have a heart of gold. They really do- but I sensed it was out of concern that I was being taken advantage of that Dad voiced his concern.
I explained that I had learnt Grandpa Zhou had been born with a disability on his right arm and both feet, and that recently, his feet had swelled up very badly. I had called my friend, a doctor, the day before and she had told me swollen feet can mean a few things- heart problems, kidney problems, gout or malnutrition.
Malnutrition. That must be it, I thought.
Dad frowned. ” I see… I didn’t know that. Sure, go. And make sure you tell him to see your doctor-friend too.”
So I went.
” Zhou yeye, nin hao! (Hello Grandpa Zhou!)” I chirp. I squat down beside him. I love sitting next to him on those dirty steps.
He beams at me. I love to watch him when he opens the styrofoam box of food delivered to him. There is always a look of gratitude washed over his eyes. He holds the precious box, heavy with an extra portion of rice with both his hands, lists everything he sees in that box in great detail, and tells me a little about each dish. “This vegetable, ” he says, ” this is bai cai. Haha, bo cai is very nice too.”
“Oh dear,” I say in mock sorrow, “I didn’t get your favorite vegetable!”
He shakes his head. ” Ni mai de, wo dou xi huan… Yin wei… ni shi zhen xin mai gei wo de. Ni kan de qi wo. Ni mei you dang wo shi qi gai.” ( I like whatever you buy… because you bought it for me with a sincere heart… You didn’t look down on me, you dont treat me like a beggar.)
Again, I thought about the many times I had, in my heart, considered him a well man trying to cheat passers-by of their spare change.
People walk by us and look at us.
“Grandpa Zhou,” I ask very carefully, “Remember the last time you told me to tell you about your swollen feet? I asked my doctor-friend, and she says it could be due to a few reasons but we won’t know till a proper doctor has a look at it. Can I take you to a doctor?”
“That would need money right?”
“No, you’ll be seeing my doctor-friend. I’ve spoken to her. Free-of-charge.”
I tell him about HealthServe, a clinic along Geylang that serves the marginalised- construction workers, prostitutes and those who cannot afford basic healthcare.
He tucks into his dinner and we talk. I ask him about his daily meals and routine, and he asks me two questions that chill my heart.
” Hm…. Is it okay to eat cold food? Like say, if I bought food like this and left it aside? And oh yes, expired canned food is okay right? If I boil expired sausages in hot water for a rreeaally long time, it’s okay right?”
“No it’s not okay and it’s not all right, Grandpa Zhou. It’s always better to eat warm food, and canned food should not be expired. And no cup noodles. No cup noodles, okay?”
We talk some more, and he tells me about his past when he used to work at the cinema.
“Wai Jia!” I hear a voice calling me from behind. I turn around, to see a familiar face, a junior from the medical faculty. She looks at me from the top of the flight of steps while I remain squatted next to Grandpa Zhou. “I thought I recognised your hair from behind. What are you doing here? Doing CIP (Community Involvement Project)?”
There is an awkward moment. I laugh, then I smile the smile I always smile when I dont know what to say. “No, I live here. Good to see you.” I smile some more. She takes some time to understand.
Grandpa Zhou finishes his meal. This time, I didn’t buy him beancurd because I’m not sure if he has gout. People with gout should avoid beancurd and beans.
“Wah, fish and egg today, thank you so much. You know, I don’t understand one thing. One thing, I will never be able to understand…. The people here at this train station- they are so lovely. I’ve met so many kind souls… I don’t understand… Why do you people do this for me? I don’t understand…”
“Because God loves us so much I want to share the love that I’ve received with you. Is that okay?” I smile.
We agree to see the doctor. “They’re open only on Saturdays afternoons and Tuesday nights. Next Saturday afternoon or following Tuesday then. Closed on New Year’s day. We’ll go together.”
You can’t save the world and you can’t help everybody. Many people had told me that before and the words rang in my ear loud and clear. How they stung.
Yes, we can’t save the world, but in the first place, that is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to love, one person a time, from our families first, inside and out. If we all helped one person, on top of loving our families, perhaps everybody would receive the love they needed in different places. More people would be less broken. More people would be loved in the right places, in the right ways.
And then I realised why I could not sleep the previous night. The wedding made me think of many things. I remember asking the missionary doctor while I was in China, ” Do you ever feel oppressed by the lifestyle here in China? Restricted by the lack of material comfort? I mean, life here is so… simple.”
The missionary doctor had looked at me, beamed brightly and replied, “Back home in Singapore, don’t you feel oppressed too? ” He grinned, ” By the opulence?” I thought of the many garish-looking, sequin studded gowns I saw last night.
I also remembered another missionary I had met in China, a lady in her seventies serving people with leprosy since 1960. Because of her dedication to the poor, she had turned down two proposals. Two.
So that was what I was disturbed by. The wedding banquet made me think about many things, about whether I would grow to like fancy cars and big houses and extravagant eighty-thousand dollar weddings someday. If I would have mine at the Shangri-La myself. If I could bear to serve the poor and share with them photos of my eighty-thousand dollar wedding, and my designer wedding gown.
Or if I would have a proper, simple but beautiful one, and have a table inviting people like Grandpa Zhou to it.
Or if I would have one at all.
I couldn’t sleep last night. And now I know why. I was just, wondering.
Grandpa Zhou, have you had dinner?