Sunday, March 28, 2010


Quite a number of things have happened the past week.

I went to Xiamen, China, with 3 other friends and it was for CAS purposes. The school called it Project Week.

It's interesting how my Project Week was a group who hardly knew each other from the beginning, and planned for the minimum days required to complete the hours so that we could maximize the time for revision for the upcoming exams. But when the week was over, we wished we had extended the trip. Not only were we going to miss the people at the home, but we also missed whatever we were going there! If it weren't for the exams in 2 weeks, I think we would've just booked new plane tickets.

Over at Xiamen, China, we went to a place called Hongri Yanglao Apartment. It's basically an old folks' home. I think we had all expected the place to be rather well-run, and the folks would be rather mobile. We intended to plan to lead some exercise classes for the elderly... But man were we wrong...

We were greeted with an old dust-covered place. Traces of smoke lingered in the air. Old folks were either sitting and watching tv, or sitting and staring into space. The windows had stains of rain water, and the walls had mould and shit (pardon the language) that came out of nowhere. They looked like bird poo, but it was indoors... and there were no birds to be seen. So it must've been from worms... Or insects of some sort. I was quite horrified by the condition of the place... And the silence was rather... shocking... I expected the place to be sort of bustling with life... And the air filled with the chatter or gossip of the old ladies. What I saw was nothing of that sort. The elderly looked bored, or simply put, they looked like they were literally wasting away. Their eyes showed signs of their lives and youth having been drained away over the years.

Realizing that whatever we had planned was not going to work out unless we actually started to get to know the people there, we decided to split up the group.
The boys, Ian and Richard, started cleaning up the walls since their mandarin skills were not as good as Christina's and mine. We then went to the basement to interact with some of the old folks there.

I made friends with an 88-year-old man whose hair had turned snow white. In the beginning, he didn't really want to talk to me. But another old lady told him to tell me about his life, and his family or children. His eyes were brown and glazed over. When he smiled, you could see his gums no longer held those pearly whites he had years ago. He told me about life back then when he was young. He had to carry those sand bags that weighed 40kg, up a hill. And he had to carry 10 bags up that hill. 400kg in total. He said they also had to work 8 hours a day in order to earn their pay which was not more than 100RMB. That was during Mao's rule... Halfway, he took out a cigarette and actually asked me whether he could smoke. I just told him to go ahead. Surprising that even though he's so old, he can still smoke and LIVE for so long. He told me he had 4 children. 3 sons and 1 daughter. I asked if they visited him often. Surprisingly enough, he told me they visit him regularly every week, taking turns each day. And that was how I got to know him. He also asked certain questions about Singapore, and asked me to compare Singapore to Xiamen. I told him my opinions on certain things and he agreed. He said that even though Singapore is a good place to live in, it is very expensive. For China, everything is cheap! I absolutely agreed with that :)

On the second day, I accompanied Christina with an old lady sitting on a portable toilet. The sight itself was slightly disturbing to me in my opinion. When we took a picture with her, I had to make sure none of her body parts were exposed in the photo since it would be made public for CAS purposes. Christina and I got to know that she has 3 children, and that she suffered from a stroke. She told us her feet hurt, and so I offered to massage them for her. After I was done with her right foot and leg, I reached for the left one but she stopped me and told me it was enough. She said her left leg hurt and she did not want to touch it. A rather sad state she was in actually. Well, at least I knew I massage well! I had also massaged her hands... especially paying more attention to the side that suffered the stroke.

I also got to know another old man who is 84 this year. This was during the 3rd day of work. For the past 2 days, I had seen him sitting there. Every time he saw us, he would smile and wave. And every time before we left the home for the day, he would wave once more. I just felt compelled to get to know him! And so on the 3rd day, I finally mustered up the courage to take the initiative to speak to him. Apparently, he suffers from Alzheimer's. When I was sitting next to him, he asked me,"have you eaten?" 6 times within 5 minutes. When I asked him what his age was, he shook his head and for a moment there I thought he was going to cry. His voice started breaking and he was heaving. He told me he was 44... And of course I didn't believe him because he looked like he was over 70 at least. It was the Head Lady who told me that he was 84 this year. Apparently, he is a man from Shanghai who married a Xiamen lady. I pity him. It was rather obvious that he was lonely. A nurse came over and told me that he needs so much help, he is practically like a big baby. The more the nurse described the man's actions to me, the more I felt sad for him. I wanted to just stay there and accompany him for the whole day! I just helped him finish his banana and clean him up a bit.

During the other times when I am not busy interacting or accompanying an elderly, I join Ian and Richard to clean up the home. I felt that not only do we have to make the people in the home feel more "loved", we should leave a "mark" on the home itself so that they can remember how we helped them. And so we bought a broom, a dustpan, some cloths, window cleaner, toilet cleaner, and scrubbers for the toilets. We polished the windows, the glass cabinet, and the glass panels on the stairs. We "scrubbed" the mould and shit off the walls, and swept the floors.

We realized that people in China, in general, take afternoon naps. They do not work very hard either. Apparently, the schools and even the elderly have naps after lunch before they continue with their daily activities again. And so we used that time to get even more things done around the home. And even when we worked, we had elderly people coming up to us to tell us to take a break and not work too much so that we do not get too tired. What I felt compelled to say was,"I'm sorry but we are still young." Then I considered that that was really rude... and as a Chinese person myself, I know that we should show respect to the elderly at all times. And so I did by just telling them politely that we are not tired.

On the last day, I had my last conversation with the old friend I met on the first day. He was lying on his bed. He wished my friends and me a safe journey/flight back to Singapore. He told me to share my experience with my friends when I get back. He told me we should discuss the issue of children sending their parents to homes and whether that is a good thing or not. He said that sure, he does not have to cook for himself, or wash his own clothes. But every parent wants to see their children. Some children send their parents to homes, and only send money over once a month. Every parent has painstakingly brought up their children, so it is our turn to take care of them when they grow old instead of throwing them into a home. I took down everything he was telling me because I knew he is so much older than I am, and he knows so many things. It's only right that I take in what I can from an older person. Like they say, the old are wise.

As much as I wanted to stay and listen to him tell me about the old days, his life, his opinions about living and how I should live my life, I had to leave because it was my group's last day there. Before I left, he told me that if I ever visited Xiamen again, I have to visit the home, but by that time he may not be around anymore. That statement really nearly brought me to tears. I wanted to cry but I couldn't cry! I held his hand and told him I will always remember him. And the smile he gave me then was so heartwarming I didn't know whether to smile or to cry. I can say one thing, I have become attached to the home, and especially to this man. I will definitely miss him.

And sure, this experience of Project Week, things did not really go according as planned. My group did not organize or lead activities for the residents of the home. But what we did certainly helped them. Just over the 4 days, they hardly had any visitors... Less than 5 visitors actually. By having us around the home, it was something new to them. Some would ask where we were from, and ask about the living conditions in Singapore. Apparently, a majority of them have heard of Singapore, and some of them have been there before! Seeing that most of the Chinese immigrants in the world are from Southern China, I was not at all surprised.

And I can say that my group adapted to the conditions very well. The day before we started working, we used some free time to drop by at the home to introduce ourselves and to remind them that we will be volunteering at the home for the next 4 days. And immediately, we knew most of the residents were not very mobile. It would be hard to even ask them to move their hands. They were wearing thick jackets to keep themselves warm. Some were bed-ridden. Some needed aa nurse to carry them to and fro. In the end, we agreed that we would just simply interact and speak with them, and clean up the place. We had managed to clean up the place. Most of the mould on the walls were cleaned off. The windows were as clear as we could make them, and the glass panes on the spiral staircase were shining as good as new.

If I ever go back, I'd definitely visit that home again. And I will look for that one old friend from this project week :)