Today was supposed to be a day most like any other Sunday. I was on a bus on my way to have dinner with friends, sitting alone in a seat designed for one adult and one child. As the bus stopped to picked up more passengers, the usual stream of people walked past me as they made their way to the back of the bus in of more space but on Indian man decided to attempt to squeeze onto the one and a half chairs that I was occupying. Attempting to be considerate, I tried to squeeze in as far as possible, given that the chair was not made to seat two grown men. As I was squeezing in, the Indian man said something that I interpreted to be some form of gesture to say that it's okay but I took off my earphones to make sure anyway.
Then after a moment of silence, out of the blue the Indian man spoke to me in slightly broken English, "What's your name?". Caught off guard, I only managed to voice out a "huh?" in response to his question. "Your name?" the Indian man repeated, apparently conscious that his lack of grasp of English might be hindering the conversation. "Desmond," I responded, as I normally introduce myself to people whom I don't want to take the trouble with to explain my oddly spelled name.
And just like that, my conversation with a complete stranger began. The Indian man I speak of is a construction worker from India named Abu (I suspect that this is not his real name, rather a name given to him by his foreman in order to simplify his presumably complex Indian name). He's been working in Singapore for the last three years and is currently working on a construction project opposite NUS (the university I study at).
If anything, this conversation was enlightening. I've had my experiences talking to polytechnic students and secondary school dropouts while I was working as a waiter but this conversation was on a whole different level. It was most interesting to have an insight into how a foreign worker's life is. He didn't exactly recite his life story to me but it was obvious there were large discrepancies between his ideas and my ideas of normality. Like how immediately after asking if I was still studying, he proceeded to ask me if I was married, as if it was the expected norm to be married while still in school.
Some of his other questions gave me a more sobering insight to what his world is like. He asked me if I was working, if my job paid me at least $1000 per month, if I still send money back to my parents every month. He asked which "construction site" I'll be working at in the future, if I'll be working as a "technician". Without actually telling me anything explicitly, the phrasing of his questions alone gave me a brief insight what constitutes 'normal standards' for a foreign worker.
Another sobering thought is how Abu saw education as a pipedream. "How much is your education?" Abu asked. "About ten thousand." I replied. Immediately Abu dismissed the thought of studying. "Too expensive," he said. Yet, there I thought to myself, there are hundreds, if not thousands of students in NUS who are content with cruising through university just so they get some random degree and get out of university as quickly as possible, without batting a thought about the cost of their university eduation.
All in all, it was a really eye-opening conversation, even if it did only last for about 5 minutes, passing 4 bus stops.