Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pei Du Mama

Having grown up in India and seen abject poverty at its worst, I am not easily swayed to pitying anyone in an affluent country like Singapore. After all, even the poorest people here have a house to live in and food on their plates three times a day. But something changed yesterday.

There is a Korean woman who lives opposite, a floor below ours. I can see the back work-area of her apartment whenever I go to mine to dry clothes or to feed Anakin. Having spent a lot of time at home in these last three months, I have had a chance to observe her and her family. The first time she caught my attention was when I heard a woman shouting in an unfamiliar language and in an almost guttural manner. I was quick to peek out of the kitchen window and noticed that a thin small-built woman was in the work-area shouting at a young boy. This repeated a few times over the next few days. Shouting of any kind disturbs me a lot, and I took an instant dislike to the woman. 

Suddenly this woman was everywhere- in the lift as I was taking Aloka out for a walk, in the lobby when I was waiting for a taxi, in the condo bus going to the train station, and in 711 buying provisions. Perhaps it was just the "yellow car" syndrome at play here- she had been doing the same things all along, but I had only recently become aware of her and so I found her everywhere. 

It took me a while to understand that she was a "pei du mama" or "study mother", a term for mothers who accompany their kids to Singapore so that they can study in Singapore schools. Their husbands stay back in their countries to earn. These mothers are typically from Korea or China. This woman's whole life revolved around taking care of the physical needs of her two children, sending them to school, receiving them when they returned, sitting with them to do homework, taking them to tuition classes, bringing them back and then making sure they studied some more. The shouting was part of the ritual of doing homework. The older daughter was obedient but the younger boy was hard to control- thus the shouting. To this, I had my usual snobbish reaction to mothers who can't control their kids- disdain!

Yesterday, as I was leaving for my dance class, I slowed down to fix my shoes. I saw the same woman sitting on the bench in the lobby. She looked lost in her thoughts, sad thoughts I am sure, because her whole body looked defeated. Her skin was pale, she wore no makeup, her clothes looked washed out, and she was alone, perhaps waiting for her kids to return from tuition. I suddenly realized that I had never seen her smiling or having fun with her kids. Not once. Even when the kids were being kids and horsing around in the clubhouse a few days back, she had looked haggard and harassed. 

What was her life like? What was it about? Did she do anything for herself? Was she anything to anyone, other than a mother to those kids?  Was all that maniacal shouting an expression of her sadness and fear? Was there a guarantee that all her hard work will pay back and her kids will grow up to be successful, whatever that may mean? And even if they did, would they ever be grateful to this woman who sacrificed her whole life for them? 

I was suddenly moved to pity for this woman, who shares so much with me- both of us have two kids, both live in a foreign land, and both are single parents in our own ways- and yet is a world apart. 


  1. Yes Puja I also noticed this woman. But how can she afford to live in such an expensive condo? She must be working somewhere to support herself and the children. Do go and meet her and talk to her. It helps. Love you for writing so explicitly.

    1. Her husband works in Korea. He sends her money to live here. She is not really single in that way. Just living without her husband.

      I think they have moved now. I haven't heard much shouting in the last month or so.