Every Sunday, when I go to my favorite chicken rice place in the world (Lorong 6, Toa Payoh, Singapore) to write and reflect on my experiences as an international educator, I get really good service.
It wasn’t always like that.
The first few times I was ignored while people cut in front of me, ignored me, even took the table that I faithfully reserved with a water bottle and a packet of tissues. (A real faux pas for my fellow hawker eaters). But things gradually changed the more I came and got to know the people and their routines. We got in sync. Now, I get my coffee, shrimp dumpling soup, and chicken rice with simply eye contact. I had become, in a sense, acculturated to my environment.
This past week, I was trying to make my way back from a short getaway to an island on a packed ferry off the coast of Malaysia. A ferry showed up on time. Then it left. Then a bigger one showed up, presumably due to the large number of people trying to board. Then it left. Then we waited for almost an hour to board. As the tide continued to recede, we were boarded in order by section (A-D) even though we were all stuffed into the same cabin. It was a waste of time.
Then we got stuck on a sandbar.
I turned to a woman next to me, her overstuffed purse on her lap. “I’m from the Philippines,” she smiled. “We’re used to this sort of thing.” I watched the current ripping past us as we struggled, inch by inch to get off the sand.
Trying to keep my focus off the peril that awaited us, I watched a Rambo movie playing on an old screen at the front whose sound was blasting over the speakers. I looked around sheepishly as he mowed down scores of Asian soldiers in a remote jungle, his tanned muscles rippling with the recoiling machine gun. The boat started listing. We weren’t going anywhere. Why did we leave so late? Why did they allow so much baggage? Why are they playing violent American movies of Asian people getting blown up? (We eventually became unstuck when the captain moved everyone toward the bow).
The road to my island escape was lined with hectares of palm plantations as far as the eye could see, the scourge of my part of the world as an easy buck that fuels everything from Ritz crackers to Nutella and clouds the skies of my part of the world for months with pollution as the fields burn.
Along the road past my beach bungalow was a sea turtle sanctuary, the carcass of a gigantic rusting freighter that was being cut up for scrap, (making a section of the beach dangerous and unusable), mounds of plastic and trash, and an enormous hotel that was being constructed by migrant laborers living in muddy shacks covered with palm fronds.
This is our world.
A juxtaposition of threatened species and people trying to survive, of big conglomerates and small gestures toward sustainability. Of ignorance and beauty. Hope and hopelessness.
I stood with my hands on my hips, sweating profusely as I listened to an earnest volunteer at the turtle sanctuary tell me the greatest thing that she had learned was not about the ecology of the turtles but the importance of learning the cultures around her and the assimilation of values necessary to protect the species.
“We have a man who used to take all the eggs on the beach and bring them to the village. Instead of trying to stop him, we buy the eggs. Then we raise the turtles. That was a big victory for us.”
I wrote about this as I enjoyed my chicken rice routine, satisfied at my connection to the chicken rice culture but looking for the messages in these other experiences, and wondering what, if anything I could do about this in my role as an educator.
Would my students know what to do about the sea turtles competing with the people next door trying to survive?
What would they think about the village destroying the beach as they tried to attract tourists?
Do they know anything about the effects of palm oil?
Do they think Rambo movies are cool?
Sustainability is hard, complex work embedded with cultural phenomenon that goes back centuries. It’s the work that governments do badly and that people on a small scale do exceptionally well. Yes, thinking global and acting local.
In a microcosm, my chicken rice experience mirrored the type of education we need to give our children. To observe, to acculturate, to gain acceptance. To create change. It’s hard but essential work, not the type of thing that is easy to grade or find in a textbook.
I finished my coffee and my writing for the morning, got up and gave the ladies at the busy counter my usual smile. “See you next week,” I waved. “See you next week,” they said in unison. “See you next week.”