The Day I Saw Need at the Supermarket

Seeing that this Saturday is the World Day of Social Justice, and in light of the current debate on a certain plan to recruit 1.5 million foreign laborers into Malaysia, I thought sharing this post would be timely. The encounter below happened in Singapore and was recorded in late 2015.

Disclaimer: This post does not mean that I endorse the government’s plan. I suspect they’re doing it for ulterior motives and we should critique it wisely. But I hope that this would help put a face to the foreign workers already in our neighborhood.

It was Monday afternoon and I was buying groceries for the week.

Happily I carried my basket of greens and meat to the counter. As the cashier scanned and bagged the items, I looked at the SG50 cash vouchers inside my purse, wondering if I should use them. The bill came up to $43.75. My fingers grabbed $40 worth of vouchers and passed it to the cashier. I fished in my purse for cash to pay the balance and looked up. That’s when I saw it.

As the cashier laid the vouchers out to verify them, a pair of eyes were staring at them. They belonged to the customer behind me – a foreigner, probably a Bangladeshi. He was obviously a blue collar worker. His blue polo shirt was faded, his jeans worn, and his slippers and feet dusty. And he looked tired. In pure awe and hunger, he looked at my vouchers, his own hand clinging to crumpled $2 notes ready to pay for his one carton of eggs.

Then he glanced up and caught my eye. He didn’t look at me with malice or anger. He looked at me with that same wondering awe. And then with sadness. A matter-of-fact, reflective moment of sadness that needed no words to convey its message, “It’s not fair.”

Suddenly, the satisfaction of having used those vouchers was lost. It suddenly felt like an extravagance. Because it really wasn’t fair. Here I was, very able to afford the $40 worth of groceries with little worry. But it was I who was given the vouchers for free. And here was this son, brother, husband, working so hard only to send a bulk of his little income home – hopefully he was sufficiently paid and not exploited – and left to live on whatever was left. That 15 eggs he’s purchasing was probably his only source of protein for dinner. Maybe the eggs were his dinner. But no one thought to give him any vouchers.

Composure now scrambled, I busied about putting the receipts away and gathered my bags. It was that man’s turn. Suddenly I decided, “I’ll pay for him. I’ll give him a voucher.”

But alas, his eggs came up to less than $4. One needed to spend at least $5 to use the voucher. The man handed the cashier his crumpled notes.

I walked out the store and stood at the side, still arranging my things. But more so, I was thinking quickly what I should do next. That desire to do something still burned. I despaired that I missed the chance. But maybe I didn’t. The man came out of the store and walked away, not even giving me a second’s look.

I thought, I needed to do this. So I walked quickly to catch him. He saw me approaching. I smiled awkwardly and handed him a $5 voucher, mumbling, “Here, I give you this.”

His hand reached out before he fully registered what was going on. Then he smiled quietly in return, “Thank you.”

I gave another awkward smile and walked away.

My interaction with that laborer might have ended. The probability of seeing him again was unlikely. But it didn’t end there for me. A third of the way home, I metaphorically smacked myself in the forehead. I was so focused on wanting to pay his groceries, to spare him a $5 voucher, when I could have, should have given him more. A $10 voucher. Or $20. Or whatever vouchers I had left. But I gave him only $5. I may have done a random act of kindness, but I felt more like the rich man who gave a little portion of his wealth rather than the widow and her two mites.

That one interaction disturbed my life in a good way. That one look shook me more than any motivational speech could. For that was when I saw need in the face.

Life is not fair. That is the truth. Here we were, both foreigners, but our situations worlds apart.

I’m not writing this to rant on the state of bureaucracy, inequality, social justice and such, although there is a place and need for such discussions. I’m not writing this to point out my goodness, when truly there is little I did. I feel more guilt than satisfaction.

And it is to that guilt that I’m writing. I’m writing because I need to remind myself these points:

1) To whom much is given, much is expected.  If I’m to be honest, there is much I have received, but so little of which I’ve given away.

2) Always be aware of your surroundings, of the needs and opportunities to bless others.

3) Be ready in season and out of season. Eagerly expect to bless, whether in kind, deed or prayer. Then when the time comes, one wouldn’t get flustered and end up helping so minimally. Be ready to give your all.

4) Give, give and give. I’m not talking just money, but a self-sacrificial kind of love. We have received so much love, it is only right to pay it forward. By it, we declare the glory of God, and others may also receive that same love and “have fellowship… with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

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