Journal II The New Comer’s Story

WLB came to church nearly at the end of my first interview. The first interviewee introduced us. I asked for his consent to be interviewed and he agreed. The first interviewee asked WLB if he came directly from the worksite and if he had had his supper. WLB said that he was from the site and he had not had his supper. The first interviewee, also the leader of one of the church cell groups, offered WLB some cake he brought to church. I also remembered that I had a French bread in my bag. I blamed me for overlooking such important part of people’s everyday living and offered him the bread. Quite frequently, we “the researchers” are in the privileged position of being researchers. So, with the label, we can assume a research position that is detached from many aspects of everyday living. “Forgetting” to ask about the interviewee’s daily living experiences, sometimes as mundane as whether he has had a meal, tells the presence of such a privilege. With this guilt, I started the conversation. ME: How long have you been in SG? WLB: I have been here in Singapore for about 5 months. I came here in July. ME: How do you feel about Singapore so far? Are there any difficulties in adapting to life here? What does health mean to you? WLB: There are several things that are difficult to me. The biggest difficulty is that there are no seasonal differences in SG. I am from Jilin Province, China and Jilin has longest winter in China. It is not uncommon for the temperature to go below -20 Celsius. After I came to SG, the first two months’ humid and hot weather was my biggest enemy. I had rashes all over my body and it was extremely itchy. I still have those.(LB rolled up his sleeves and showed me the pink rashes over this forearms. In his early thirties, LB does not look like one who has been exposed to years of hard manual work. The pink rashes look very obtrusive on his white skin.) Usually, after I stay in air-conditioned rooms for one day or longer, the rashes will gradually go away. But when I go to work again, they will come back. And this happens to more than half of my co-workers. Usually, the fairer the skin is, the more serious the problem is. (Another migrant worker was nearby and was listening to our conversation. After hearing this, he said to WLB): Maybe this is something you do not know since you have just been in SG for a short time. It happens to many construction workers, but almost all the MRT station construction workers. These “tunnel diggers” came to work early in the morning and leave for their dorms deep into the night. So, they do not have enough exposure to the Sun that the body needs. You (referring to LB) should go to the surface level during your break times to have a sunbath. It will greatly help with the rash problem. ME: How has your rash been treated? Did you ask the boss for a sick leave? LB: No one will ask the boss for leave with such a small problem. It will be a waste of time and money to go to a doctor for treatment. For such small problems like having a cold, a headache, and a stomachache, we use the medicine that we brought from China. I have been using “rash powder” to treat my skin problem. It helps with the itch but it does not stop rash from coming back. When I go to work for one day, the rash will come back. So I just used “rash powder” to relieve me from the itchiness. (“Rash Powder” is a white powder that feels smooth to the skin. It has certain effect on rash caused by hot temperature. From my memory, people in the countryside use it more generally for skin irritation. When I was little, my father used to pepper it to my head and neck after he cut my hair. The smooth powder makes it easier for him to brush off the cuthair from my neck. This is a common use in the countryside since it is very cheap and serves this purpose very well.) LB (Continued): I have not realized that the rash could be from lack of sun exposure. I have been trying to use powder and staying in the air-conditioned rooms. I also notice that once I start to demolish the old cement wall and floor, the rash will be more severe. The cement dust will be breathed in and will cover my arms and part of my chest. The company does give me gloves for demolishing cement walls, but it does not give us other protective clothes. ME: It is not very common to have air-conditioners in apartments, is it? LB: Some has it and some does not. My apartment room has 10 workers including me. 5 double-decker beds in the room and an air-conditioner helps well. ME: That’s a lot of people in one room? LB: It’s quite common after I have got used to it. The rooms where I live have cockroaches. That’s one of the things that I have to get used to. ME: If you have so many things to get used to, do you regret that you have chosen to come to SG? LB: I have 2 kids. My daughter is in junior high and my son is in primary school. In Northeast China, the winter is long and cold. So my wife rented an apartment that is very close to the kids’ schools and just takes care of our kids as a full-time job. She also sells fruits when kids are at school. Our whole family only has two people’s land. So, we cannot make a living by staying in the countryside and depending on the land. I will not be able to support the family expenses even when the kids’ tuitions are waived by the government. I have to work outside and one agent came to the construction company where I worked in China and he told me of the good things of working in Singapore and I decided to come. I came with two other workers from that same company and each of us paid more than 30,000 yuan for the cost of recommendation, recruitment, and work permission and all the paper work. ME: How long can you work here with the paid 30,000 yuan? LB: Two years. I make 6 SGD per hour. After I work for one whole year, I will have a raise. (The other worker was listening to our conversation from the beginning. He added): Your (LB’s) wage is not bad for a new comer. I heard that some workers earn 3.5 SGD per hour. But it was 6 yrs ago. And usually the boss will only give you a photocopy of the work permit and the passport. The boss will keep the original IDs so that you do not run away to find another position. For the contracted period, we usually refer to the duration as “1+1” “2+1” or “3+1” meaning that the contract will last for either 1, or 2, or 3 years with the following year after the contracted years subject to the bosses’ satisfaction with your performance. LB: Mine is “1+1.” The other worker: That’s common for the new comer. We are all from that stage/phase. ME: So, what does your daily schedule look like? LB: From 8 am to 7 pm as the normal hours. A break for lunch from 12 to 1 pm. And two tea breaks from 10 to 10:20 am and from 3 to 3:20 pm. ME: Do you work on weekends and do you have extra pay for it? Do you get to negotiate your wage? LB: I usually work on Saturday all day and half of day on Sunday. This is why I came to our cell group directly from the worksite and this is also why our cell group can only be at Saturday evening. I also work on Sunday morning. The work site only stops at Sunday afternoon and that’s the time for me to come to the church for evening Sunday service. I do not have extra pay on workends. Some (workers in other companies) have but my company does not. My boss is a woman and she is from China. I have never seen her all this time since I came to Singapore. The other worker: No. Your boss is not from China. She is from Taiwan. XX (another worker’s name) is at the same company with you and he knows it better since he has been in that company for much longer. LB: I was told that she’s from Jiangsu Province. I have never met her though. ME: A female boss, I am surprised. The other worker: Taiwan boss can be a third, or at least a second level subcontractor. The developer will give the contract to a “whole” contractor, who is usually a SGian. The second sub-contractor can be Korean, Chinese, or Taiwanese, who will find many third level subcontractors. ME: So, for the work, do you feel tired after work? LB: Yes. So usually the first thing after work is to wash my clothes and then, I will go to bed. ME: By hand? LB: Yes. The apartment does not have washing machine and it will be a mess if it has one. All the people will use it. ME: Back to your skin problem, if you go to see a doctor, who will pay for it? LB: I think the boss will but I did not ask. We probably have insurance. Again, I am not sure since I have not used it. The boss said so but I have not had a photocopy of any insurance card. And I do not think I need to go to the doctor for a skin problem. I had a cold for two or three times. It is so wonderful that now after 2 days, the cold will just go away. I had been praying a lot since I came to Singapore. The other worker: The skin problem is very common. At least half of the workers working under ground had that problem. These are well known to workers who know or have worked on the SG government building and SG Court renovation projects. No one bothers to go to the doctor for this. We all have our own medicine brought from China and we can also buy Chinese medicine from China town. ME to LB: So have you been to China town? LB: NO. The only time off for me is Sunday afternoon and that’s the time for me to come to church. So, I have not been out for traveling or for fun. ME: Then did you ask the boss or the foreman for a change of the work? LB: NO. I did not. But we have different work all the time. ME: How come? LB: The boss can have 2 or 3 contracted projects going on at the same time. So, you can work at one site for two weeks on a certain task and then can be reassigned to another task on another site for 10 days. It is always changing. So it is with the demands of the projects. I always worry about this change. With different tasks, there are different requirements. You have to learn from the beginning all the procedures so that you can work quickly and safely. Also, when the tasks change, the foreman also changes. You can cultivate a good relationship with one foreman and then have to do that again with another one when your work/task changes. The current foreman I am working under is very rude and tough to us. Usually, Chinese foremen are tougher. ME: Why so? It seems hard to understand? Aren’t you from the same country? LB: This is just my guess: The foreman pushes workers harder to secure his own position or carve favor from the boss. It’s actually easy to understand: If one foreman completes the same task within shorter period of time, then, he is in a better position for promotion. ME: Since it is time for cell group study, we need to wrap up. Thank you so much for answering all these questions. LB: Any time. I will always come here on Saturday and we can always discuss this. ME: Thanks again. So, in the end, after your first 5 months of stay here, what are your thoughts on living and working in SG? Anything different in your everyday life? What does health mean to you in all these differences that you have experienced in Singapore? LB: If health means not to have diseases, then, it is easy because I can take medicine that I brought with me from China to treat myself for the small illness. If health means safety, then, it is a bit hard because I always need to work in different environment. Also, the working pattern is a bit too packed for me. It is common for me to feel hungry after 2 hours of work. So for the first 2 months, I always have the urge to eat during the tea break times. But gradually, I can go without eating. The company let us have free lodging but we need to pay for our food. The second difference is now I have a stronger faith in Jesus. I was baptized in China but I do not have a strong faith. I said to other “I believe” but I do not have faith to walk in Jesus. But these 5 months have worked wonders for me. I need the love from God, from brothers and sisters. You cannot usually find this love when you are alone and away from home. No one really cares about you. But here (referring to the church) is different. You know, as a yong man, you have these biological needs when you are away from your family. I used to have girls around me and they like me. But this time, it’s already 5 months and I am able to stick to my principle and keep my integrity. I could not have done this without my stronger faith to God. I also had a better habit of washing my clothes everyday. It’s hard for you not to do this. The dirty laundry will smell unbearably if you do not wash it the very day you wear it. After I finish this first year, I will have a better wage and the boss will cover the airfare at the end of the second year contract. After that, I will have a one-month leave for every year I work here. So, I feel there is hope in all this.

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