I experienced two incidents over the past week which have made me really think about this question.
Gather round, my friends, and let me tell you a little story about an exhausted pregnant woman with an overtired toddler who just wanted to get the hell out of the supermarket.
You’ve been there, right? You’d rather be doing a billion other unpleasant things than stand there any longer while your kid screams at you for more sushi (which you’ve had the audacity to open before paying), you’re carrying a basket which was only meant to contain a couple of lightweight items but now makes it look like you’re stockpiling for Y2K all over again, and your womb-mate is creating all kinds of crazy havoc up in your pelvic floor muscles.
Get me out of here. Please.
I frantically scan the checkout aisles for the one that, in my estimation, will end this torture the quickest. Ah! There it is, almost too bright for me to look at directly due to what I perceive as a glow of hope surrounding it. A moderately empty, moving checkout line. I hauled the stroller with its yelling, hungry occupant and my gigantic belly over to that blessed lane as quickly as possible.
OH, the relief of putting that basket down on the conveyor belt. Mama sighs contentedly. In seconds, my moment of euphoria is interrupted by someone sharply saying “Excuse me, I was in the queue”.
Now, look. I get that Singapore is a creature of its own in terms of the ways one can legitimately queue up for, or reserve, things. A tissue packet equates to a body at a table at a noisy hawker centre. A plastic bag containing miscellaneous items placed anywhere means that spot is spoken for. I don’t care where it is. You don’t mess with that. After living here for three and a half years, I’d like to think that I’ve become attuned to the sensitivities of the various “choping” systems and I endeavour not to step on anyone’s toes. Genuinely.
So I look at this lady inquisitively, wondering which reservation system I had so rudely missed. She points to her basket, approximately two metres away near the drinks fridge (i.e. not in the queue in any way whatsoever), and says “Yes, I’m in the queue. I was after this man”.
I just looked at her. My daughter screamed at me for more sushi. I guess I was waiting for this woman to realise that (a) what she was suggesting was a little ridiculous; and (b) a little compassion would be nice as I was clearly not keeping this entire situation together. Nope. Homegirl maintained firm eye contact and wasn’t going to budge. In fact, she starts shuffling in closer with her basket in the hopes of what I can only assume was her tactic to scare me into moving away.
So I decided, you know what, this is not a battle I’m going to fight. I’ll go find another queue. But not without a little sass. “Okay, sure, let me just move my extremely pregnant belly, and my screaming child, and my loaded basket over to another queue for your convenience”, I said self-righteously. I know, I kind of asked for it. But then, as I start to walk away, clearly irritated, she says to me, “So just because you have kids, you get rights?”
You know the phrase, “my jaw dropped”? Well. My jaw. Dropped. I physically felt it happen. Maybe it was the hormones racing through my aching, tired body, maybe it was the incessant demands for more maki, but I couldn’t believe she said that. I was beyond horrified.
All I could muster was a highly emotive “Excuse me?!” followed by what may or may not have escalated into a bit of a yelling match. I won’t go into details. We were both yelling. At one point, she said to me “If you don’t like my system, you can get out of here!” (yikes – your system?! Honey, believe me, there is nothing I’d like more than to get out of here!) People were staring. It wasn’t pretty. Tuna, when you read this eventually, I promise you that I kept my language clean and civil, but I’ll be honest and say that I definitely raised my voice.
I was angry. Not because she had insisted on maintaining her “reserved” spot in the queue, but because I felt completely attacked, out of nowhere.
At that point, all I could do was walk away to take a breather. But of course, hormones, tiredness, yadda yadda yadda, all of that, culminated in me standing in the bread aisle, sobbing like a four-year-old. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I do that – when I get really angry, I have to cry afterwards. It infuriates me that it’s how I’m wired, but it seems to be the way that I am. The whole scenario was upsetting, embarrassing, exasperating and made me feel totally alone and unsupported. Now I really wanted to get out of that place.
I sobbed my way to a checkout that finally opened up, gasping back attempted answers as to whether I wanted the raw chicken packed separately, and asking her to please pack the bread on the top so it wouldn’t get squashed *sob*sob*. The poor, confused lady at the checkout asked me if I was okay, to which I responded that I was fine as I honked into a scrap of tissue I had in my bag from goodness knows when, and we continued our usual supermarket niceties through to the end of the transaction. Finally, I got out of there, got in a cab and went home.
I was really shaken afterwards and it took me a while to fully calm down. After re-telling the story to my husband and a couple of close friends, I decided I would move on.
Two days later, on Saturday, A gifted me with a glorious late afternoon on my own to go art supply and stationery shopping while he spent some quality time with Tuna. Can I just say – God, I love stationery shops. Like, you don’t even understand how much. Something about all those notebooks, all that crisp paper, and the pens. Oh gosh, the pens. I spent a solid hour in there, even though I’d found what I went there for within five minutes of arriving. I walk over to the checkout queue, this time with only three items and no basket, but after all that browsing I was starting to feel the gravitational pull of my 31-week belly on my back. I also needed to pee. #preggoproblems, and all that.
I noticed that I had just been beaten to the queue by a lady with an entire trolley full, and I mean full, of school textbooks. I’m talking at least 40 items here. Nevertheless, still slightly wounded from my experience a couple of days before, I kept my mouth shut and looked away, trying to force myself not to watch the transaction happen because I knew that all I would do was think about how if I was behind the counter I could do it so much more efficiently than the checkout guy (if you don’t understand why I would say this, here’s a little background).
Suddenly I find this lady approaching me, looking knowingly at my belly, and saying “Would you like to go in front of me? You only have a couple of items and you’ll get tired waiting for all of this to go through.”
I think, no, I know and openly confess, that I nearly cried. Her tone was so kind, so compassionate, and so gentle that I wanted to hug her. I asked her if she was absolutely sure, and then thanked her profusely. Not only that, but when the guy at the checkout asked me if I had a Members Card (there is seriously a “Members Card” for everything in Singapore), I said I didn’t. She then leaned in and offered that he put her card through. So I naively said, “Oh yes, please give her my points” assuming that it was some kind of loyalty system. But she said “oh no, there are no points, but you get a discount”. And a discount I got. Just like that, out of nowhere, purely thanks to the kindness of another person’s heart.
I mean?! Seriously?! Talk about a decent human being. I think I thanked her approximately 882347 more times, told her how thoughtful and kind she was and how much I appreciated it, and I was delightedly on my way.
I spent the bus ride home thinking about the juxtaposition of these two experiences I’d had less than 48 hours apart from each other. The first woman’s question echoed in my mind: “So just because you have kids, you get rights?”
I concluded that my answer to that question was “no”. It’s not about being pregnant, or having kids, entitling you to more than anyone else on the street. It’s not that there’s a status that comes with it, or that just because you have kids (on the inside or outside!) you deserve more privileges.
But you know what it is about? Human compassion. Consideration. Kindness. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and asking yourself, if I were to do this: behave in this way, say these words, perform this action, what is the “cost” to me, versus the “benefit” to someone else? (All you business grads are loving this right now, aren’t you? I see you smiling, Mama.)
We all have bad days. Of course we do. And you know what? Maybe the Supermarket Lady had just received some really bad news, or had something important she really needed to get to, and my sass triggered more than she normally would have fired at someone in a boring old supermarket. But it made me think to myself: if I have the choice to do something as simple as what the Stationery Shop Lady did for me, and knowing the uplifting and joyful effect it had on me as the recipient of that act, then I want to strive to be like that. Every day. Even if I’ve had a rotten day. Even if I’m cranky and tired and not in the mood to be “nice”. We never really know the effect of what we consider to be a small act of kindness on the person at the other end.
So, dear, lovely, kind Stationery Shop Lady – if you ever chance upon my blog and read this, please know that your kindness will never be forgotten. Thank you for doing something which you probably thought was nothing, but which made a world of difference to me.
Here’s to human compassion.