On Being Singaporean

Lim Kopi, Jiak Roti – That’s What Life Is Like When You’re Old

old people at coffee shops

It’s 9am on a Friday. I’m usually on the bus on the way to office at this hour (even though work’s supposed to start at 9am). Today, however, I am on my way to my neighbourhood coffee shops to make some friends with the uncles and aunties there.

As an introvert, I’d avoid most situations that require me to speak to strangers (ironic, considering my job as a writer), but today, it is my goal to better understand the lives of the older folks who seem to always be at the coffee shop in the morning, for hours at a time.

What do they actually talk about? How much time do they spend there? And for the sceptic in me; do they really have nothing else to do besides drinking kopi here every day?

I walked around the first coffee shop trying to find a strategic spot to park myself so I could voyeur and eavesdrop on conversations. Like any nondescript neighbourhood coffee shop on a weekday morning, the place is sparsely populated with mostly middle-aged to pioneer generation folks.

old people at coffee shops
A usual sight at a neighbourhood coffee shop

One table is occupied by what I presume to be a family of a 2nd generation Singaporean with her toddler and her elderly mother. As I dawdled down the corridor suspiciously eyeing the occupants of all the tables, this group of about 6 aunties caught my eye. One of them, who is on a wheelchair, is accompanied by a maid.

They must have been there for quite awhile. Their almost empty cups of coffee (or tea) were already pushed towards the middle of the table, and some of the cups has coffee stains that had already started to dry up on the sides of the cup.

The tables around them are all taken, and it will be very strange for me to be idling by the side of their table when there are other empty tables around. I threw the initial plan of voyeuring out and decided to approach them instead.

“Hello! I’m a reporter,” I greeted them chirpily with the limited amount of communicable Mandarin I can manage. “Can I join you all?”

After explaining that I was there to understand more about their lives as the older generation, the aunties around the table laughed and welcomed me.

Aiya! Our life is like that lor, what about it?” They teased, in Mandarin. As I pulled a chair up, one of them jokingly asked if I was going to treat them to a meal. I played along.

As I chatted with them, I learnt that they had all met each other at this very coffee shop. It was all those years of having their breakfast there daily that have seen them gather over time to form this ‘breakfast group’. All retired, this has become a daily routine: They meet for breakfast at 8+am every day and stay on to chat about their lives, talking about anything from the vegetables they are going to get, to catching up on the lives of their children and grandchildren. It is exactly what one would expect of a typical Singaporean auntie.

The group will then disperse by about 10am, with each of them making their rounds at the market to stock up on groceries before heading home.

One of them in the group is Mdm Kang, who’s in her sixties and is one of the most eager to share in the group. Later, she tells me that all three of her children had already married and shifted out, and ever since her husband passed away many years ago, she has been living alone in her HDB flat nearby. Despite the circumstances, she seems to me like a free-spirit.

“一个人在家会闷, 就到处乱跑 lor.”
(I’ll be bored alone at home, so I’ll venture around.)

Sometimes, she’d travel all the way to Boon Lay to visit her son. At other times, if she is able to, she’d help to look after her grandchildren.

For all of them in the group, life is pretty much similar to how Mdm Kang spend her days—they go about each day “just like that”, eating and chatting with friends, working on the never-ending list of household chores, and spending time with their family. Sometimes, they will visit the resident’s corner or community centres for light activities.

As one of the aunties puts it, once you have reached that age, you are pretty much “jiak liao bee”, a Hokkien phrase which indirectly means that they are just sitting around waiting to be fed. Since they are no longer working and are all financially stable (enough), boredom is inevitable. Ultimately, it is all about the mindset that they have.

One, Mdm Tan, whom I spoke at another coffee shop later on, shared: “If you have been working for all these years and you suddenly stop, you will go ‘crazy’ very quickly. You have to find something to do to keep [your mind stimulated].”

For Mdm Tan, singing is one activity that she has been actively engaged in at her neighbourhood RC. It was also through there that she met a couple of her long time friends today, one of whom joined us midway after her morning exercise at the park.

Another coffee shop, where I tried approaching a group of uncles but got ‘chased away’

I got to speak with one Mdm Ea, who is the youngest of the group of 6 aunties, after the rest left to buy groceries.

In her forties, she sees the other aunties in the group as her elder sisters. A freelance property agent, she tells me how she joined this group by chance when they noticed that she is also a regular there.

“This group of aunties are very happy-go-lucky. They are very warm and it’s a very community-spirit feeling. Like, one of them, the husband just went fishing recently and she brought the fish here and gave out to all of us.”

The group has become so tight-knitted that whenever one of them doesn’t turn up for their daily breakfast, the others will be concerned.

“They will really worry that something happened to you. So now when I go overseas, I will inform them.”

She shared that the rest of them are averagely in their sixties and have children that have all grown up and leading their own lives. Most of these aunties spend their days simplistically, spending their time with their family as much as possible.

However, for Mdm Ea especially, her life does not revolve around her only son, because she cannot afford to do that.

She explains:

“Of course, ideally our children will look after us, but they got their own lives to lead also. We cannot possibly rely on them to look after us completely.”

Her wish as a parent is to continue being a part of her child’s everyday life when she’s in her golden years. However, the pressures of work in an ultra-competitive society today has made her realise that this may not be the most practical arrangement.

“It’s very difficult for the younger generation these days because both have to work. Then they have their own family to support also.”

As such, Mdm Ea has, together with her husband, started to set aside their own retirement funds. In any case, she would rather plan for her own retirement than let it become a burden for her son.

Hearing this reminded me again on how our parents’ sacrifice last for their lifetime. It starts from the moment they give birth to us all the way till they leave. They always want the best for us and would often place our interests before theirs.

At another coffee shop, I spoke to one Mdm Tan. Also in her sixties, Mdm Tan also stressed the importance of having to plan for her own future without having to be dependent on her two children.

Her son had already married and shifted out, and her daughter will be following suit next year.

A trait of a typical Asian mother is how they find it difficult to ‘let go’ of their children. After all those years that they have invested into their babies and bringing them up, it can be hard when their babies are now grown adults leading their own, private life that does not necessarily include their mother in it.

From the times Mdm Tan repeated herself about how she has learnt not to intervene in her children’s life, I inferred that perhaps, there were conflicts that she had faced with her children in their life decisions, like her daughter’s choices in housing and wedding preparations.

Then, she said something that showed that no matter what, her love for her children will never falter: “What I can do is to see them grow up, get married, form their own family, and if they ever need anything, I’m just a phone call away.”

For both Mdm Tan and Mdm Ea, their ‘job’ as parents is to bring up their children the best they can and hope that they have cultivated a good person. And as grandparents or soon-to-be grandparents, they also know that the prime of years have long passed.

While our generation are going about our lives proving ourselves at work, romancing with our partners, and mingling with our friends, these aunties and uncles spend their days, for lack of a better description, ‘just like that’.

It is places like these, the coffee shops, resident corners, community centres, places that the younger generation like us pay no attention to, that continue to be to older folks what is to us our restaurant, bars, cafes, and chill out spaces. It is where they spend a substantial number of hours each day because otherwise, what else are they supposed to do when their home is empty?

As I continued chatting with Mdm Tan, I realised how the morning has taken me from wanting to learn about the life of the older folks at the coffee shops to being a confidante for them. When I finally bade goodbye to Mdm Tan, who was the last person I spoke to at the coffee shops that day, I was relieved. It reminded me why I always avoided chatting with aunties: they have a million things to talk about and sometimes, you just don’t know what to say but nod.

But then again, one day, I’ll be like them. We all will.

Also read: 65-Year-Old Mdm Rebecca’s Life: A Look At The Reality Of Singapore’s Privilege Gap.

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