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[Been There Done That – UniLife]

by Celeste Chia (UniLife Columnist)

Every Thursday, I volunteer at a school for the intellectually-disabled. There was a day when I went down to the canteen to join the kids for lunch, observing people’s interactions with each other, trying to know my class better by distinguishing individuals. It was easy to tell the extroverts from the introverts, the extroverts would sing to me and engage me in conversation as much as possible, the introverts often just stare at me or smile sweetly at me. The teachers also told me that the kids would do anything to get our attention, for example, one of the guys yesterday asked me to open a canned drink for him, and I was about to do so when the teacher noticed and sharply told him off. Immediately, he snatched the can from me and opened it swiftly in chagrin. And then, sitting on an isolated bench was this couple infatuated with each other, a puppy love they were not ashamed to show off.

I thought about how I would never have known about this different world of the intellectually-disabled if I hadn’t volunteered in the school. How a significant part of Singaporean society would never know this world, because it is so shut away from the rest of us. It’s sad, our limited knowledge, because we are too caught up with ourselves and our middle-upper class worries to ever think about the other side of the spectrum. One month ago, we brought the kids out to McDonald’s, and one employee was spectacularly good with the kids. It turned out that she herself had an intellectually-disabled kid and knew the pains of raising one— with her meagre salary at McDonald’s, her taxi-driver husband had to work night shifts just so they could take turns to take care of their son. Such stories and struggles are real, but as university students and middle-class people complaining about inflation and the rat race, would we ever understand or bother to contemplate their scenario? We are pretty much stuck in a world of our own.

It struck me that there are so many different worlds out there, some unknown to us, and in our whole life we would only experience a very tiny fraction of all the worlds there is to experience. To us, university is a world, clubbing is a world, OCIP in one country is a world, OCIP in another country is a world. There is a world of poverty, then there is a world of the low income households, a world of the middle class, a world of the middle-upper. There is a world of civil wars, worlds of all the cults there are in the world, a world for each religion and a world for each of its denominations. We can read stories about these worlds, but we can never experience them. The nightlife industry is a world, so is the banking industry, the publications industry. These worlds can overlap, but they are inherently different from each other.

And within a world, there are even sub-divisions. In the world of university in Singapore alone, there are 3 different worlds for each public university, each a world of its own with its culture. I went to SMU once to visit my friends, and it’s so different from NUS. The atmosphere, the architecture, the location. This is one world I’ll never experience, because one trip isn’t enough to draw conclusions about it. One trip to Zouk isn’t enough to declare you’ve experienced the clubbing world, no. You need to make a couple of trips to Zouk, because each trip you’d observe something completely different. It’s like how I travel to the school for the intellectually-disabled on a weekly basis, yet I learn something new every week. And the world of Zouk is a different world from Avalon and from Pangea.

There are so many experiences and places and worlds out there which I’ll never have the luxury of time or the boldness or imperative to experience. It reinforces the danger of becoming an insignificant midget in the universe with a limited worldview.

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