Going down memory lane
Two participants of the #SilverArts’ programme shared their past stories and learnings from their participation.
Two participants of #SilverArts’ segment of “Telling Your Stories, Sharing Your Memories” shared their experiences and their stories. They spoke to Ageless Online about it:
Sia Yee Sim, 71, a grandmother of three
What were you working as before you retired?
I was a nurse at Mount Elizabeth Hospital for over 10 years. Initially, I was working but I stopped halfway to bring up my children. My children were very young, my husband travelled and we were not comfortable having a helper. Eleven years later, I joined the hospital again. Nursing is quite easy; just go for the refresher course for three months, then you can go back fully as a nurse. We have to do the refresher because medicine, machines, treatments and nursing are different after 10 years. I am now retired for five years.
Can you share how you got involved in the #SilverArts programme?
I am a volunteer at the Anglican Senior Centre (ASC). I help out with events and I visit the seniors in the Havelock area. Before that, I was on and off also doing voluntary work. I visited nursing homes and helped out with the Pioneer Generation as an Pioneer Generation Ambassador immediately after I retired.
The reason why I was interested in the programme was because a lot of seniors are very passive. Once they retire, they don’t know what to do with themselves. And even if they can come downstairs or to the void deck, they only sit down there to gossip. Nothing much, but at least it’s good for them.
Being a Pioneer Generation Ambassador before, I understand that many have a lot of misunderstandings of the Government, especially the men. Whereas the ladies, they just believe what other people say, so the information is not necessarily correct. So as ambassadors, we actually spent a lot of explaining about the various policies and other things that they could get so they understand better. I do speak a lot of Mandarin, but I find that I’m not very fluent. Going around the community is okay, but if I really want to know something more or to speak proper Chinese, I do have problems. So I thought that when the #SilverArts programme came up, I would just go. I said, “Okay, speak Mandarin? I’ll just go and have a look at what it is”.
So you got to brush up on your Mandarin?
People around me now are all English-speakers so much so that sometimes I get stuck even on the words to use. When I was in primary school, I was actually from a Chinese school. When I reached secondary school, everything was in English. So for Chinese, we had only one book that we studied from. Somehow I must admit that my Chinese is not as good as those who went totally to Chinese schools.
As I grew up, I also found that I didn’t know a lot about the Chinese culture. I found the #SilverArts’ programme very helpful as I got to go to the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. It opened up another chapter of my life.
In my group, most shared about their lives of when they were young – their husbands passed on and being young women, they had to work three or four jobs to provide for their children – and they survived. Because of them, their children are doing so well and get to go to university. I never experienced this in my own life so it was very much an eye-opener.
Some of the ladies are not very educated, and a lot of them are very self-conscious and shy to share about their life. But after we started to share, then they started to talk about it, then that’s how we got to know them and their life. I find that it is very good for these seniors to share about their life. Some of them even teared, sharing about how difficult it was and now that they thought about it, they didn’t know how they survived. I think this is life. I think they think that they had to do it, otherwise they had no food to put on the table for their children. They never complained how tired they were or how hard they worked. They only talked about their children and that they had to work.
Can you share what was your story/memory?
I did share a bit of my own life when the teacher gave us prompts like “When you were young, what happened?”, but in the presentation, I decided to share a story that our teacher Swee Yean shared, but in my own way.
It is actually two stories of the two goats. The two goats came from different places and they wanted to cross the bridge. But the bridge was very narrow, they had to go one by one. In the first story, the two goats couldn’t agree on who was to go first as they both wanted to go first. So when they fought on the bridge, unable to decide, they eventually fell into the water. And then after that they complained, “Oh, that goat is so rude”.
In the second story, there is another pair of goats crossing the bridge. For these two, they realised that they had to go very slowly to cross the bridge. So they said never mind, we will cross together. One goat said, “I’ll go to this side more”, and the other goat said, “I will go to the other side”. So somehow, although the bridge was very narrow, they managed to cross over. One of the goats said that the other was very polite, while the second goat said that the first goat was very understanding. So they crossed it without any problems, just a little bit of squeezing.
In the Chinese culture, good manners are very important. Manners include understanding of people and having humility such as 礼让and 礼貌. And also, manners is a respect for other people. Like, the Chinese would say “退一步海阔天空”. I also realised that because of my primary school education, I am considered very mild. I don’t fight with other people and I will let it be. I find that in Singapore, although a lot of the children have gone through some kind of Chinese education, the influence of the Western culture on them is very strong. So they must go ahead and sometimes cannot let go. That’s why there’s a lot of quarrel and friction. I was surprised when I went to the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, they discussed how you must treat other people. Things like perseverance. I find that a lot of the youngsters today are not taught this in their Chinese curriculum, and they don’t know how to be humble.
How did you cope having to share your story on stage and in Mandarin?
It’s really not that simple. I’m not a person who likes the limelight. When I heard that we had to talk in front of an audience at our graduation presentation, it was a struggle. I don’t like to speak in front of many people. It is not an issue if it was in my profession when I had to speak to people who didn’t know much about nursing.
In front of the ladies in the group, I felt uncomfortable. So I practised on my own for quite a while. Even now, I am still not comfortable. I don’t know how I did that, but I did it. I feel that this course changes seniors’ mindset. For instance, their refusal to talk in the beginning but they end up talking, or they tear when they share their stories. I find that this is all good for them.
For me, I also shared my memories with them even though I chose to tell the children’s story to bring up the point of manners, which is a very important part of Chinese culture. I was in England for 10 years, I think that was the time I really lost a lot of my Chinese. Because that is the time that we spoke in English, we wrote in English and everything we did was in English. I spoke very little Mandarin while I was there. So by the time I came back to Singapore, I actually spoke with a foreign slang, according to my friends. Also at work, English was what I communicated. Our clients were mainly English-speakers, and occasionally one would speak in dialect. I actually realised that I was bad in Chinese when I was doing my ambassador role.
Anything interesting that you experienced while participating in the programme?
During the session, I heard about how my friend worked so hard to earn and feed her children and bring them up. At that time, a lot of parents have to go out to work, and the children are left with the grandparents. She remembered how her grandmother taught her and scolded her. And the grandmother is a very old-fashioned. So we all laughed hearing her share about how her grandmother would say “Being a lady you must know how to cook, how to wash and how to serve your husband”.
For me, my mother never told me that. Compared to many in my group, even though we are almost the same age, we all had very different upbringing. I consider myself luckier than some of the ladies as their life was not easy. Not that my family was rich, but my family felt education was important. Whereas for some of the ladies, as long as they can walk, they are expected to work. These women married so early, 17 or 18, so it was a different generation and that affected their thinking.
What did you like about the #SilverArts programme? What did you gain from the experience?
Every one of them has their own story. And if we can help seniors to remember is good, because their experience will also teach us how to treasure what we have in the present. When they share about how their life is, we can learn something from them. I find that they were all “slow warmers”. But once they warmed up, they would tell you a lot about their stories. After their sharing, a lot of them would talk to each other. All of them also have different skills, one of them even drove a bus! A lot of them also go to art classes to keep themselves occupied.
In my session, there were also some who are single and living alone. I find that giving them a chance to talk is good for them. After all, seniors need to talk. Whatever they can talk, let them talk as that is the way to keep their minds active.
Ng Geok Yan, 72, no children – “I’m single; I’ve never been married which is a good thing as I can enjoy all my hobbies.”
Can you share what was your last job before you retired?
The last job I had was at was the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). I worked there for 25 years until I retired in 2012. It is a very nice and interesting place, and that was the job I stayed at for the longest time.
I joined STB in 1987. I was actually very happy at my previous job where I was a clerk. But in 1987, there was the oil crisis and I got retrenched. So I wrote in to apply for two jobs – one was with the Economic Development Board, and the other was with STB.
The job at STB was as a clerical officer in the secretariat department. Can you imagine, I had to have five management interviewers for the role? The salary, which was S$600 a month, which was really, really low from what I was used to. I thought I’d just take it as a stepping stone, just join as I needed a job. And from then on, I found that I loved the job because it allowed me to move around the different departments and learn new things.
The job involved human resources. In those days, we didn’t have a computer yet. So everybody had to use what was called a typing pool (or secretarial pool which is a group of secretaries working at a company available to assist any executive without a permanently assigned secretary). I think that the head of the department saw that I was quite meticulous, so she put me in charge of the STB laws and regulations booklet. All newcomers would be given one and they were supposed to follow them. Every once in a while, I needed to update the booklet and send it to the typing pool.
And apart from that they also put me in charge of staff leave, a difficult task, especially in those days when we didn’t have electronics. We had to use carbon copies. So when someone wanted to take leave for instance, they would have to call me and then they would send their staff leave forms down by using the dumbwaiter lift as there were so many departments in STB. Then I have to record the staff leave details such as the leave balance down. With this task, I had to deal with figures; I don’t like figures as I’m not good at mathematics. And sometimes I had to chase people as they didn’t submit their leave forms.
Later on, the best part is that there was a vacancy in marketing. In STB, they allowed you to move around. Because I like to travel which I told my managers and they said that I should try and apply. So I applied and got in. I got to do everything, from ordering to packaging so I learnt quite a lot of things. I enjoyed it very much, especially in marketing, because I got to travel and go overseas to do promotions. I went to Malaysia twice as well as to Thailand and Indonesia. And then we went to a lot of various attractions. But, I found that I had a handicap because I couldn’t write in Mandarin; I never took Chinese you see. I could speak, but I couldn’t write.
Why did you decide to participate in the #SilverArts programme?
I have been going to ASC regularly. I joined them in May or June last year. I came to know it by chance because I wanted to give away my Korean video tapes that I used to be crazy about. I brought them along to a different senior centre, but I didn’t realise that they had moved. So that’s how I knew about ASC, even though they said that they didn’t need my tapes and to give it to somebody else.
So I joined that day as a member, because I came to like their Chinese calligraphy class. Since ASC knew my interests and my strengths, they encouraged me to join the storytelling programme by #SilverArts. When I found out that it was in Chinese, I said no as I couldn’t write in Chinese and it was 12 sessions, which was quite long, so I was quite hesitant. But I’m glad I eventually changed my mind and joined.
Did you have to brush up on your Mandarin?
It was quite scary. During my work at STB, I would get thrown to do public speaking. But whenever there was a chance to get out of it, I would ask not to speak to the audience. So when the storytelling programme required us to speak in public, Swee Yean assured us that it would be ok and not to worry.
I started to get to know some of the participants and some were my neighbours. We got along and I felt more relaxed. They kept encouraging me, saying, “You can speak”. Also, whenever we had to write down our story, I wrote it down in English. Swee Yean said if I was not comfortable I could also share my story in English if I was not confident speaking on stage in Chinese, however some other ladies shared that they didn’t understand. I also thought it would be quite troublesome for Swee Yean to translate. I decided to practise a lot. Later on, I gained confidence because of what I saw from others, and I tried to turn to YouTube.
My story was about cooking, about my mother’s glutinous rice. A lot of ingredients I couldn’t say in Mandarin. I would instead say them in Hokkien but not in Mandarin so it was challenging. I would ask my classmates and neighbours to help me with the Mandarin translation. I even tried to tape and record myself. I never followed my script as I always deviated from it and just went with whatever that came to my mind.
Can you share more about your story/memory?
We used Swee Yean’s short stories that she told us to practise speaking in public. The main thing she trained us on was memory. My memory is usually very good. After that I decided about what to write. I chose the story of my mother’s glutinous rice. My mother has already gone. Whenever I see glutinous rice, it reminds me of her. So I decided to tell the story of how she cooked the rice. I also drew a picture of the steaming pot that nobody has ever seen before. Unfortunately, I don’t have the pot anymore. I threw it out as it became rusty and old. I tried to recollect the memory and even asked my sister.
Swee Yean said that I could show the picture when I was telling my story. That helped me as I didn’t know what to do with my hands while I was talking. This boosted my confidence. Initially Swee Yean said I could speak in English and I tried it in the first practice session. I got stuck and had to switch to memory mode. Also, most of the ingredients I couldn’t say in English.
Anything interesting that you experienced while participating in the programme?
One thing for me is I get very frightened when I face the audience. I get tongue-tied. You find that your throat is dry and you just can’t speak. Swee Yean taught us how to be ourselves, to relax. We felt more comfortable after over 10 sessions, and comfortable with each other. But the main thing is that Swee Yean was really very encouraging. She spent a lot of time on our individual practice sessions so I really learnt a lot, and gained confidence.
(** PHOTO CREDITS: Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre)