Walking into a rental flat, it’s often quite common to have a conversation, sitting on the floor, rather than on a chair or a sofa.
For me, it reveals many things about the lives of these people.
For one, it reveals the impermanence of their lives. For many I have spoken to, many talk about how they hope to be able to move to a bigger place. About how the place isn’t big enough for their growing kids.
It also shows me the reality of their lives. Maybe there isn’t a sofa simply because there isn’t enough space. When you fit a mattress, a cooking area, and a toilet within the same room, it’s not easy to fit another sofa in there. They learn to make do with what they have.
Most importantly, it shows me how wrong I am. I used to think that these people are where they are because they didn’t work hard when they were younger. They were probably lazy and unmotivated. They aren’t good at parenting and parent their kids to greater failure. The vicious cycle of poverty repeats itself.
But time after time, I’m proven wrong. When I accidentally walked into a home whilst they were celebrating their sister’s birthday, the children immediately took a chair for me to sit on.
They then brought me a drink.
They held off the singing of the birthday song until I was comfortable. Who am I to deserve such treatment?
A child who starts sweeping his home since the age of 9. Another boy who scrimps every penny of his army pay to put himself through university. A mother who works from 2pm to 10pm at Old Chang Kee, and then 1am to 8am at McDonald’s, to support her children as a single parent.
Are they truly lazy and unmotivated? Or are we the ones who are lazy and unmotivated in the way we try and understand those unlike us?
These experiences reveal many things about myself.
It reveals much about my own stereotypes.
I was recently speaking to a parent who wanted tuition for her son who was still in kindergarten. Being from Vietnam, she said she did not know how to teach her child English or Chinese. Nor did her husband, who was uneducated.
I told her that her child was still in kindergarten and might not need as much focus on his academic performance.
Later, I thought to myself: would I not do the same if my child was in the same position?
The following week, I saw another family with 6 children. Their father had been incarcerated for drug offences. Their mother told me about how she had been grateful for subsidised tuition that allowed her children to do well.
‘I just hope they do better than me.’
Is it wrong for people to dream of better futures? If it isn’t, why do I make it seem as if things like tuition are luxuries they should not have access to?
Sitting on floors with people who confront my stereotypes show me that there is so much we have in common with these people – hopes of a better future, striving towards that future, and a perseverance to make that happen.
As Brene Brown so beautifully puts it in her book, ‘Braving the Wilderness’, let us sit with strong backs, soft fronts and wild hearts.