Mission Moments is going to be a series I add to occasionally that will highlight entertaining or enlightening moments I have experienced on the mission field.
My husband and I like to save money. As long as it doesn’t mean cutting down on our espresso habit, we will save a dollar wherever we can. Second-hand clothes, market shopping, markdown sales – you name it, we’ll try it.
So, frugal as we are, when we first moved to Singapore we suffered from complete shock. Everything was so expensive. This meant, on a missions budget, that our standard of living had to go right down or our frequent Starbucks coffees had to go. In favour of the latter, I guess we overreacted a little to this hike in price, because for some reason we decided that we would stay in a shared house for our first year to reduce costs.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
We looked and finally found one that seemed to fit. Well, when I say “fit” it means that we found a place where we were allowed to cook and we weren’t victims of the racism that is so prevalent here. Whenever we would call up to apply for a place, the very first question they would ask is, “Where you from?” and upon finding out we were caucasian (or “ang moh” as I soon found out we were called by them) they would reply, “Only Chinese,” or “Only Indians,” and hang up.
It was a little small, we thought. Ok, very small. The room fit a bed, a TV, and absolutely nothing else. I’m not exaggerating at all. But we also thought that we wouldn’t be spending much time in it and it would only be for a year. And it was conveniently located above a shopping mall (who wouldn’t want that?) with condo facilities and only 15 minutes walk from Four Seas Bible College.
How bad could that be, really?
The first day we moved in, we were in high spirits. It was our first little piece of Singaporean independence. I was going to be able to cook and it was going to be amazing. I unpacked our suitcases and went to put the suitcases away in the broom cupboard.
It was locked. That’s weird, I thought. I wiggled the lock a little and it gave way. Inside I was shocked to see that there was a bed. A bed. A bed that looked like it would be the perfect fit for a hobbit-sized being. It was as if Tolkien’s rendition of Harry Potter were being played out in our very house. I half expected Hedwig to fly through the air-vent and Gandalf to say we were going on an adventure.
There was someone living in our broom cupboard.
If I thought that was surprising it was nothing to the surprise I got when I saw who actually stayed in the broom cupboard. A man, over 6 and a half feet tall, stayed in that tiny room and paid a cool S$650 a month (plus utilities) to do so. He was always a mystery to us, as he wasn’t really open to much conversation. How exactly he fit in that cupboard and what kind of a person he must have been to be willing to do so and pay so much for it were things we frequently questioned. We probably learnt his real name, but we have long since forgotten it because of the few interactions we had with him and the fact that the name Patrick affectionately called him Svarlbad, suited him and stuck in our memories.
When we first got there the house (which, by the way, was about the size of most American living rooms) was occupied by us, the mysterious Svarlbad, a man from Norway called Anders who was quite friendly and chatty, a pair of guys from the Philippines who were sufficiently friendly and neat (until we refused to pay more than them for rent, but that’s another story), and a Chinese man named Pong.
We didn’t get to talk much with Pong. He was a mainland Chinese (their term for someone from China), so he knew very little English. This may have been the reason he mostly avoided us. When we tried to say hello we would get a hello back, then bow his head and shuffle quickly away to his room. I think he was afraid we might say something else if he stayed a moment longer.
I haven’t mentioned yet that we shared a bathroom with the occupants of the whole house. We thought this wouldn’t present much of a problem, but we were soon to find out this was going to be a constant source of stress.
Bright yellow puddles. Every day. Multiple times a day. Around the base of the toilet stand. Where they were coming from, we weren’t sure. The house was full of grown men after all. Why they couldn’t keep their business in the bowl (or at least clean up after themselves) was beyond us.
It became the Great Big Puddle o’ Pee Puzzle. My husband quietly convened with Anders and each of the Philippino men in turn. They watched and waited. They didn’t have to wait long. After a flush and a hurried shuffle, it was revealed to the company that it was indeed the elusive Pong that was leaving his daily mark in the bathroom.
This couldn’t go on. Immediately one of the Philippino men called Pong out of his room to the bathroom where my husband was waiting. As Asians are fairly non-confrontational, it was up to my husband to try and persuade Pong to cease his pee-puddling ways.
“You see this?” My husband pointed to the bathroom floor, where the bright yellow puddled still shined.
“Oh,” Pong shuffled nervously.
“You need to clean when you finish,” my husband said slowly.
“Oh,” Pong hesitated, he looked like he was trying to find the words, “Toilet… it leak.”
“It doesn’t leak yellow!” My husband said, “Look! Then… clean!” My husband with accompanying sign language.
“Oh,” said Pong.
And that was that. I guess the toilet stopped leaking because after that because, while we saw a great many other things, thankfully the one thing we never saw again was a puddle of piddle. It was not, however, the last of our exciting interactions with Pong.
About a month later, Pong’s mother moved in with him.We quickly came to find out that Pong’s mother would come to stay for a whole month every second month and I came to dread the months she came to stay. It’s not that she wasn’t a nice person (though I would hardly know, as she barely spoke any English), but that she would leave her strange herbs out to dry on newspaper over every square inch of the floor, table, and outside deck; and would brew strange-smelling Chinese herbal concoctions practically everyday in a little pot on the stove.
It was around the second time that Pong’s mother visited and around Hungry Ghost Month that our second strange encounter with Pong was brought about.
My husband and I were sitting in our room when we smelt something burning. We opened the door and found ourselves in a house full of thick smoke. Alarmed, we rushed out to see the source of the smoke, only to find Pong and his mother standing at the entrance of their room with a small white plastic bowl with a fire burning inside of it.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were burning their joss paper to their ancestors inside the house.
“Burn outside!” I yelled at Pong in my shock.
“Oh… no,” Pong struggled, “Fire… in here.” He obviously thought I thought the fire was outside.
“No… no, no!” I shook my head, “Burn…” I pointed to the bowl and forcefully pointed to the door, “outside!”
“Oh!” said Pong, recognition flashing across his face, “Is okay!”
I could barely conceal my frustration at this point, “NO, it’s NOT okay! Burn outside! NO fire inside!”
“Oh,” smiled Pong, “Is okay.”
I was infuriated, but I realised this conversation was getting nowhere and I had become aware of the fact that I was scaring Pong’s mother. She was frantically rushing about moving her herbs around and tossing out the contents (which were now letting out a fury of thick, grey smoke) of the white bowl. I think I intimidated her – an angry ang moh woman trying to get her son to take his joss-burning outside the house – and she was doing all she could to arrange things so she could close their door as soon as possible.
As she hurried to close the door I glanced upon saw two live turtles in a bucket on the floor. I guessed they were going to be dinner sometime.
Not sure whether to crazy laugh or ugly cry, I shuffled back to my room and plonked myself on the bed. Then my husband and I both laughed crazily and I proceeded to ugly cry.
I never saw those turtles again. I guess that’s what the strange smell was emitting from the pot that week.
“Is okay,” was the thought with which we continued to console ourselves.
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