Often at the office, Karuna is all smiles and loves chatting with the caseworkers. Sometimes the conversation revolves around his case and worries, sometimes it’s about the mundane. He has an easy-going air to him, maintaining his affability despite the pressure that he faces.
“你是来之哪一个国家？(which country are you from?)”Karuna enquires, to every Chinese migrant worker or HealthServe staff as he goes about during the day. This, along with “你有几个孩子？(how many kids do you have?)” and “我来之印度 (I am from India)”are some of his favourite phrases, as he diligently learns the Chinese language. Why? One might ask. It is for the simple reason of bringing joy to people. When he speaks in Mandarin to the people around him, it never fails to bring a smile to their faces. And that is what keeps him going.
Joel, a fellow intern of mine, once shared a story of when he accompanied Karuna to an appointment at the Ministry of Manpower. Waiting outside the consultation rooms, quiet introspection had replaced Karuna’s usual cheerful outlook. Perhaps past bad experiences here had aroused feelings of anxiety and desolation. But as he encountered another Chinese migrant worker at the waiting room, he struck up a conversation with him. A few simple exchanges in Mandarin later, the Chinese migrant worker left. But Karuna’s mood had lifted considerably. A simple connection can be powerful. Just a little human touch.
An Unlikely Friendship
A PRC migrant worker with a passion for learning English. An Indian construction worker looking to add the Chinese language to his repertoire. It only seemed to be a matter of time before their paths would cross. It did.
At the Geylang food program, Paul and I were settling the registrations. He receives a video call. It is Karuna. He rejects the call, wary of the mobile data charges that will be incurred.
“Later”, he tells me. “Back when there’s WiFi”
He tells me about their rather unique and unusual friendship. They met during one of the free Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sessions run by volunteer practitioners at our Geylang Centre. Karuna, eager to practice his Mandarin, exchanged some simple lines of conversation with Paul. They would later continue bumping into each other occasionally, either at the church they both attend, or at the weekly TCM sessions. Each encounter would be one with beaming smiles and excited ‘hellos’ from both parties, a picture of a pure and simple friendship. They would then eagerly practice what they have learnt in English and Mandarin, respectively, on each other, and their pride at each other’s progress is always palpable.
“I love your wife,” Paul cheekily says to Karuna over the phone. This inside joke shared by the two buddies stems from a failed attempt to teach each other how to say “I love you, my wife” to their own spouses over the phone.
And thus, Paul and Karuna’s story is one that redefines friendship for me – how two migrant workers; an Indian national and a PRC, are able to become such good friends in spite of their differences. Friendship doesn’t have to be about long conversations over coffee, or exchanging deep meaningful insights with each other. Simple shared experiences (being a fish out of water in a strange land) and common goals (providing for family, piety, life in limbo) are enough to bring us together. People don’t have to be similar to be friends. Bonds forged from our incongruities are often the strongest, and best.
Story and photos by XiZhe Sim