Saturday, July 30, 2005

When we were young…

Having 2 working parents meant my brother and I had to spend our Saturdays and school holidays at Popo’s house until we were old enough to be left alone at home. Popo stayed in a kampung house and next to it was an ol-fashioned independent single-storey structure that served as a kopitiam managed by an old couple, known to us as Ah Pek and Aunty.

I remember I was in Standard 1 when they came to live with the Ah Pek and Aunty kopitiam next door. We were shy at first, but being children, we became fast friends. There were 3 of them, Yuen Yuen who was 1 year younger than me, Ting Ting (1 year younger than her sister) and baby Fong Fong. Of course, I didn't have much interest in baby Fong Fong, but Yuen Yuen and Ting Ting were the ideal playmates. They told me about their story, of their mother having to work somewhere else, their dad being dead and all. Hence widow mom had to leave them with Ah Pek and Aunty Kopitiam to be taken care of.

And oh how we played! Even though we were only allowed to play out of doors, due to my aunt complaining that we jump around too much (it’s a kampung house made of wood, remember? with lots of staircase), my cousins who didn’t like the idea of strange kids going in and out of their rooms freely (if anyone has ever stayed in a kampung house before, he/she would know about how the room doors are only closed at night), and Aunty Kopitiam complaining that the noise we made were disturbing the customers, we had plenty of glorious fun.

Sometimes when the weather got too hot, we would venture into the kampung house’s basement. A kampung house rests on long stilts, thus creating a hallow space beneath the house that is most convenient as a store room. Some people even keep their chickens and ducks there! Anyway, Popo's basement were used to keep bicycles and other knick-knacks and there, we would play house, tell stories, teach each other to make origami, and a whole lot of other stuff that little gals play.

One day about a year later, I think should be around the end of the school term (it was really a loooong time ago!), I came to find Yuen Yuen (who just finished Standard 1) looking all gloomy and sad. When asked the reason, she said Aunty Kopitiam just told her her mom had decided that sending 2 kids to school is too pricey (with Ting Ting starting school next year). Thus the decision was made that Yuen Yuen should stop school. She was devastated coz she said she loved school!

That was the first time in my life that I’ve heard of anyone dropping out from school due to poverty. I couldn’t imagine what Yuen Yuen would do if she don’t go to school. Aren’t kids SUPPOSED to go to school?

Anyway, a little while after that, Ting Ting told me excitedly that their mom are coming to fetch them and they would go away for good to stay with their mom. I was a little disappointed at the news as that would mean me losing my playmates!

When the day for their mom to come fetch them arrived, I went over to the kopitiam to check things out. It seems that their mom has found herself a husband (he looked twice her age – something I observed even at the age of around 10), with a few (3 I think) teenaged children of his own. A widower too, maybe. Anyway, my playmates were too excited with the prospects of going to live with their mom again as well as having a dad and elder siblings at the same time to bother much with me. After a while, I left. There weren’t any of those romantic partings that we read in books, where best friends would swear to be faithful to each other despite the distance between them or to write letters to each other. We parted just like that, without even a word of goodbye.

A few years later, Popo went to visit the Ah Pek and Aunty kopitiam (who by the way had ceased operations and moved away) and brought me along. I found baby Fong Fong still under their care, though not exactly a baby anymore – 3-4 y/o. However, there was no clue or any news of Yuen Yuen and Ting Ting, even though I listened hard to Popo’s and Aunty kopitiam’s conversation, hoping to catch a mention of their names. And being brought up by Popo in the traditional method of children being seen and not heard, it never occurred to me to actually ask.

I remember the years after our parting… Whenever I was involved in something that included other schools (such as choir competitions, school Expo, friendly matches etc), I would obsessively look around at all the girls, half hoping to spot either Yuen Yuen or Ting Ting in the crowd of strange faces. And I would wonder: “What if I meet them again? Would they still remember me?”

Now, looking back, I realized what pitiful children they were. They were always being bullied by Ah Pek and Aunty kopitiam into doing chores and getting scolded and caned, they seldom get to see their mom and even if she does visit, it was only for a few hours, and not having a dad (about this piece of info, vaguely remember mom [my own] telling me that that was just a story their mother told them, that actually their dad didn’t die - can't believe mom telling such things to a 10+ child!). And having to face the possibility of being plucked out from school at such a tender age, due to poverty! Gosh! But at that time, it didn’t occur to me to pity them. In my eyes, we were equal.

Oftentimes, I would think about them, Yuen Yuen, Ting Ting and baby Fong Fong, and wonder what had happened to them. Yuen Yuen and Ting Ting would be in their 20s by now. What are they doing now? Did they get to finish their schooling, let alone get higher educations? What do they look like now? What kind of lives are they leading with their step-dad and older half-siblings? Where are they now?