From the event at Hong Lim Park today I see that you are still going on strong for transitioning.org. It’s heartening to see someone doing so much for unemployed or job-distressed Singaporeans. Compared to the last time I saw you, I discerned a stronger fire in your eyes today. That probably explains your recent foray into politics and indicates your commitment to the cause of helping disenfranchised Singaporeans.
It’s been 2 years since we last met. Affected by the financial crisis and becoming jobless in 2009, I chanced upon transitioning.org and approached you for help. I attended a few sharing sessions with other people who were jobless or struggling in some other ways. It was really good that a group of people who lost their jobs could come together and give each other some mutual support. I was also pleasantly surprised that the sharing sessions were not all about people lamenting over their predicament; you also got speakers to talk about different topics. I rememeber that you got speakers to talk mainly about alternative routes out of the situation such as starting one’s own business, etc. It might not sound like a big deal here but to me at that time – a once-salaried white-collar ex-employee whose only idea of earning a living was to work for someone – there was a realisation that I probably needed a shift in thinking – simply, that the world has not ended when one loses his job; that there are other means of survival.
This shift in thinking didn’t happen straightaway. As you know, I eventually thought of changing my career and become a cook. I got myself a kitchen job in a pub. It started with washing and cleaning, and very soon it proceeded to preparing ingredients. Within a very short time, I was cooking simple greasy pub grub but picked up a few small tricks about cooking along the way, which is my interest. I was lucky as the head cook admired my attitude and work ethics, and asked me to join him when he got an offer as the head chef for new restaurant. By then, I had worked in the pub for a mere 2 months.
Within 3 months in the new restaurant I was already skilled in 2 stations and often worked on both stations on manpower-constrained evenings. I was well-known amongst co-workers and my bosses for being hardworking and a fast-learner. Even the restaurant manager who felt that I was a waste of time at the time the restaurant started – since I joined them with absolutely no skills – came to respect me eventually how well and fast I learnt, and the standards I maintained in my work. The bosses even hinted that they wanted to send me to their overseas head restaurant for training.
Along the way, I even signed up for a professional culinary education.
However, a success story eventually didn’t ensue. I didn’t end up as a highly skilled cook or chef. I gave up and I withdrew from the course that I enrolled in. I resigned from the job as a cook. The reason was simple: my health was giving way. I was not getting enough rest. My lungs got weaker and my back suffered from unfamiliar, more severe aches. I looked ghastly at that time. I had to withdraw hastily from where I charged into 5 months ago.
I decided to give myself one more try at the white-collar sector again and I sent my resume out. Now, I’m working in the admin department of an educational institute.
The air is different here: chilled air-con breeze and not fumes, steam or flour-dusty warm air. No clanging of pots and pans and the frequent vulgarities but typing noises and controlled sneezing within one’s cubicle. I have gone into another work sector and a different form of existence, and come back, and live (with a now-occasional backache) to tell not one, but many tales.
1) I saw many forms of existence and life stories in my experience working in the kitchen: the foreigner who came to Singapore hoping for a better life and doing menial jobs to get by; the divorced father who sleeps only 3 hours a night as he works as a waiter in a pub after working the whole day as a cook; the guy who lost his technician job after losing his hearing in an accident, and now works in a kitchen; the lowly educated and diligent single mother who works as a dishwasher so as to support her ailing father and her baby; the restaurant manager who has to give up his job as a chef because of his back problem but works as hard as a waiter because of manpower shortage. These stories humbled me, and showed me that many people also face hardships but they just plough on. Life must go on; just start moving.
2) When your mindset and attitude changes, everything changes. Nothing is quite impossible. To change them: right time, right place and – most importantly – confidence in oneself. I was pushed to change: I had to do some work; there had to be some form of progress in my life. Hence, I learnt by leaps and bounds in the kitchen. My mindset at that time: driven and everything is possible.
3) Some instability in one’s life is, on hindsight, good. When you are in it, it’s tough. But grit your teeth, cultivate a lion’s heart, tell yourself to make the best of it, and face your fears and difficulties with a ferocious roar. After an uncertain period of time has passed, you’ll look back and come to respect yourself for how well you responded and pulled through, and how brave you were.
4) Tough times are the best times to learn. I was a softie and complacent when my life was stable. Now that it has become rather stable again, there’s a danger of unlearning my tough lessons. Hence, I remind myself in myriad ways not to be complacent, such as reading about the predicaments of others on transitioning.org and reminding myself that I could meet difficulties again in the future (perhaps in other forms).
5) While you are working your way out of difficulty, don’t let your self-esteem to plunge. This happens very easily to people who has lost their jobs since a lot of us hinge our self-worth on our professional stature and achievements. See for yourself how well and pro-active you are in getting yourself out of the situation, or how well you are in making the best of what you have (in my case, I took pride in learning fast, cooking well and maintaining a strict level of cleanliness in my job). It is still my personal pride till this day about what I did and what I’m capable of the moment my mindset changed.
6) One could live without many things: the weekly dining in restaurants, latest phone, frivolous appointments with equally frivolous friends which is all about spending money. I learnt to find joy in simple things such as a delicious piece of tau-sar bun from my neighbourhood bakery. Enjoyment is all in the mind.
7) When you stop calling friends and they don’t call you to know what’s happening in your life, they are probably not your friends. Worse – they know you are in difficulty but don’t bother to follow up to see if you are coping well – these are fair-weather friends. Time to update your phonelist.
8) Acts of kindness come out of the blue and usually when you least expect them. Be grateful when you receive them. Repay the kindness bank account of the cosmos: germinate kindness by doing acts of kindness to others.
9) There are more means of living than being a salaried employee. Losing my job shook me up and started me on a process of exploration of career options and means of livelihood that is still on-going. Be open-minded and at least entertain the previously unthinkable ideas.
10) Your family members are most likely the only ones to stand by you in difficult times. Hence, family first, always, now…
11) Take great care of your health. Stay fit and feel positive. I was progressing on the job front but regressing rapidly on the health front. Hence, I had to leave the job as a cook.
12) Lastly, blue collar workers lead a hard life (some jobs more than others). The next time you see a washed-out blue-collar worker (yes, they often look washed-out) in public transport, do give your seat up to him/her. They are the ones who cook your food, wash your stuff, manufacture your gadgets and build your infrastructure.
Having done a vasty different kind of job and now working in an office again, things could become the same again - as if the period of joblessness and working in a hot kitchen never happened. But I can never and will not allow myself to see things the same way again: I can no longer feel secure in the kind of life and mentality I had years ago: being comfortable as a salaried employee and not worrying much about what happens next.
I have become skeptical and I don’t take the stability in my life for granted. In fact, precisely because I see that the current stability is fleeting, I am making plans for an alternative career and finding out about other forms of income generation. This is still going on and it looks like it will be a long-drawn – but necessary - process. My experiences have taught me lessons so valuable that these experiences, on hindsight, were necessary to awaken me from my complacency.
Difficult times are times of learning. In fact, almost everyone has to go through some very tough but essential lessons in his life. Hence, we should try to see them not as a fall from grace but phases that make us better and stronger if we survive them.
I’m glad to share my experiences and thoughts. I hope whoever is facing a difficult time and reading this will feel positive and make the best of his predicament.
See you soon.
Joshua (not his real name)