Conversations With My School Canteen Cleaners

Written by: Clarissa Choo

“Thank you uncle,” glancing up from my notes, I smiled at the cleaning uncle who was wiping the table beside mine. Studying in the canteen after school was something of a strange habit that I had, disliking the unnerving silence of the school library and fearing the wrath of the librarians.

“Oh you’re welcome girl! So guai you, are you year 1 or year 2?”

“Year 1, uncle.”

“Ohhhh your batch has more girls than boys.”

“Hahaha yeah I think so! How do you know Uncle!”

“Aiya see yall in the canteen can kind of tell la”

“Wah uncle! So observant! But yeah, A levels not this year for me”

“Oh good good, that’s good. Not so stress ya?”

“Hahaha yeah, stress will come next year….”

“Good girl, study hard ok? You will do well one.”

“Thank you Uncle, I will work hard!”

“Good good. My granddaughter is coming into this school next year! She 1 year younger than you.”


Hang on, what? My mind did a little mental somersault backflip before I could properly process what this uncle was saying. His granddaughter would be studying in this school next year?

The next few thoughts came rapidly. How was she going to feel seeing grandpa doing really hard and tiring work in school? Was he going to enjoy seeing her around or would it embarrass him? How had it not occurred to me that this was a possibility? Uncle had a family! And all of a sudden all possibilities of reality felt a little too close for comfort.

It’s so easy to think of people as just their role. That’s a cleaner, there goes that office manager, and the construction worker is sitting over there. And when people are no more than roles, it’s easy on our conscience to think of them, as well as treat them as nothing more than that. Construction workers build, come from various foreign countries, and…that’s about it. Cleaners are generally old, sometimes grumpy, the work is tough, but it’s their job right?

The minute you remember they are people, however, this easy, clear means of classifying totally apart. Uncle Lim used to do Chinese calligraphy in his free time as a young boy, and the callused hands that now run over one too many canteen tables, can still remember the hold of a calligraphy brush, a mild smile softening the creases on his forehead ever so gently. Aunty Wan on the other hand, never had an education. For her, the only emotion a calligraphy brush could evoke is envy and regret. Her hands better recognize the kneading and folding of the kitchen, with years of tasty meals to show for it. She gets up at the crack of dawn every eve of Chinese New Year, cooking up a storm for reunion dinner. Her grandchildren are in university now, a far-off dream for many of her generation, and her eyes shine with pride when she speaks of them.


Conversation opens you up to the possibility of understanding that another person is just as real as you are, as human, with feelings, thoughts and aspirations. It makes you realize that everyone truly has their own story. The world is an easy place to navigate when your emotions and experiences are the only things that matter. You have free reign to get impatient and angry and whoever you want, speak however you like, because expressing your opinion how you want to is the only consideration. When other people’s emotions and needs enter the picture however, we learn to tread a little more carefully. Talking to my school canteen cleaners reminded me of this. So let’s learn to see behind the helmet, uniform, suit or cleaning rag, and remember that every individual comes with their fears, hopes and joys. And we will be a far more gracious, kind society for it.


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