21 Dec 2017


Little Gestures of Giving Back

Noble or grandiose, small gestures or discreet intentions, no matter, whatever your reasons for contributing, giving back to your society or country in whatever ways possible is a personal choice; an intimate desire of showing one’s gratefulness.

Angie Ho Guyoton

The moment the netting was cut and removed, the unleashed clusters of needle-leaves burst forth and revealed the cone-shaped form of our newly acquired Christmas tree. The flurry of swishing by the ring of branches emitted a strong but pleasant scent, perfuming our living room with its pine aroma.


“Magnificent!” My son ZK exclaimed, moving back a few steps from the tree to admire its full glory, and he added, “Even without ornaments it is beautiful as it is, bare and such deep green.”


I couldn’t agree more. Standing as tall as I am, with a slight tilt due to its crooked trunk, the tree exuded a certain charm.


“We should leave it as it is. I don’t think it needs decorations.”


“No way, the fun part is decorating it,” ZK said to me, “we don’t have to hang a lot of stuff; no garlands and gaudy ribbons, just a few balls will do.”


“As you wish. You could also hang some of the origami Christmas balls that you made.”


“They are for sale at the school’s Christmas market, not for our personal use. You could buy them from me, that would go into the contribution.” ZK said.


We were days from ZK’s school’s fundraising weekend, ‘la Fête Amitié-Solidarité’. This Friendship and Solidarity celebration is a moment of sharing and giving for the entire school community. There would be a Christmas market where each class would man a stand and fabricate something to sell. The goal is to raise funds that will be used by families in difficulty, helping them with tuitions fees, field trips, travel projects, and so on.


Tickets for two dinner-concerts, where the students would showcase their talents, would be on sale as well. All proceeds would be donated to the mutual aid fund that provides support to families in financial needs.


Origami Christmas ball made by ZK for his school’s Christmas market


“I could buy the Christmas balls from you but I don’t wish for you to run out of stock and end up not having much to sell at the stand. Seeing that you didn’t make that many…”


Without answering me, ZK walked over to his writing desk and started rummaging in his bag that was propped against one of the desk’s legs. After clumsily removing a file and some textbooks, he finally fished out a stack of what looked like a thin booklet and strode back to the sofa where I was sitting.


“You could contribute by buying some of these then,” he said, handing the booklet to me and began to remove the cap from the tip of a ballpoint pen that he had on him, “how many should I fill up,” he continued.


I flicked through the charity raffle booklet – each ticket cost one euro fifty and there were ten tickets in all – and read the fine print: a lucky draw would be held at the end of the celebration and the holders of the winning tickets would stand to win prizes, twenty prizes in all, with the top prize of an iPad.


“I used to sell similar numbered tickets like these when I was in Secondary School.  I would haggle my neighbours, relatives and friends to buy the tickets. The real challenge though were flag days where the students would pair up in two, with tin cans and stickers in hand, and gather at public places to solicit donation from strangers.”


I still remember those days. It was a way of giving back to society, helping those in need. Now that I live abroad, I realize that I am contributing in a different way. People do judge you from where you come from. Your origins define you. I have become the accidental ambassador of Singapore of sorts, trying to up keep the good reputation of my country and also correcting misconceptions about it.


I was once at a Chinese mini mart, looking at some knick-knacks when a French woman who was browsing the household ornaments next to me asked, “what is the meaning of these four Chinese characters?” She held up a poster for me to read.


I could only figure out three characters and told her so. She looked at me with amazement and blurted, “but you are Chinese?”


“I am Singaporean and I can’t read Chinese well. I could converse in Mandarin though.”


“But you are Asian and you don’t know Chinese?”


“I am Asian but I am not Chinese. All Chinese are Asians, but not all Asians are Chinese. I am from Singapore.”


“Ah, Singapore, at the southern tip of China.”


“No, no, I think you are confusing Singapore with Hong Kong,” I said, struggling to maintain my patience, “Singapore was part of Malaysia. Geographically, we have nothing to do with China.”


“Hum,” the woman let out, while looking at me skeptically. What followed was my lesson to her on Singapore’s geography and origins. After the long exhausting speech, I actually felt glad that I was able to share some knowledge of my country to the French woman, to contribute to my country in a different way.


Back to the fundraiser.


“And I don’t need an iPad; I already have one,” I told ZK


“You could aim for the second prize then, the two hundred euro gift voucher.”


“Contribution comes in many ways, it does not have to be in monetary terms, and when we decide to give back, it should be unconditional, not expecting to be rewarded for our actions.”


“I know, that is why I volunteered to man the stand to sell as many Christmas origami balls as possible.”


I ruffled ZK’s hair and said, “So how many tickets do you want me to buy?” ZK answered me with a big grin.


“I grew up longing for the day when I could tear down the veil of darkness and absurdity concealing the true face of the universe and discover at last a smile of kindness and wisdom; I grew up in the certitude that one day I should help my fellow men to wrest the world from our enemies and give back the earth to those who ennoble it with their courage and warm it with their love.”

Excerpt from Romain Gary’s memoir, Promise At Dawn.


Noble or grandiose, small gestures or discreet intentions, no matter, whatever your reasons for contributing, giving back to your society or country in whatever ways possible is a personal choice; an intimate desire of showing one’s gratefulness.


Our tilted Christmas tree


ZK and I sat admiring at our Christmas tree. It may be deformed; imperfect, but it served its purpose of spreading cheer in this festive season and warming hearts on a cold winter day.


Read the stories of Singaporeans living overseas.