Today, I waited behind a lady at the check-out counter and it changed my life.
We have a little ritual for lunch. About once a week or a fortnight, we trade our chap fan and nasi goreng walk to the hawker stalls and go for a special date to a mall just a short ride away. There is no particular set day or restaurant, it’s just a fun escape and treat after a long week at work or just because.
I always go to the fruit store after to stock up our office fridge, then the grocery store to pick up snacks for our staff, and a baguette for dad for a snack that night or breakfast the next morning.
Today I picked out persimmons and big green grapes. And at the grocery store, mini packets of Twisties and Double Decker that totally reminded me of my childhood. I almost got the mini Cheezels then decided against it because I’d be in so much trouble if our books are stained with bright orange fingerprints.
It’s going to be hard to explain that one.
But anyway, I was so excited because it still amazes me and makes me so happy to share a new with J. After three years, he’s very much assimilated to so much here and just the other day, I caught him speaking very Malaysian with lah and one and it made my heart laugh.
I wanted to tell him all the stories behind these snacks as he tried them for the first time…about the roti man and saving up your allowance, about eagerly anticipating the ting! ting! ting! and agonizing over which totally illegal and forbidden msg-laden snack your grandma or nanny would sneak you today.
Or how you have to wear the Cheezels on your fingers as rings because it is the only right way to eat them.
I had my little prized stash in the cart and was going over to the bakery to pick up dad’s baguette when I saw her.
She was rummaging through the bread bins and to be honest, my OCD was kinda annoyed. I thought how disrespectful, why would you rummage through and leave a mess? Just pick up the first one because I promise you they are all the damn same.
It’s one of my pet peeves. When people ignore the sample, open a new package to try it or see what it is, then ask for a new one if they decide to buy it because this one is already opened.
I sighed but ignored it nonetheless, you learn to keep your mouth shut in Malaysia.
The apathy gets to you, when people cut in front of you, when kids run amok and lord over their parents, or when people are so damn rude or treat waiters like they are not people. You learn to keep your mouth shut because this is culturally “acceptable” and it is not your place.
My mama tells me, you have to be the change and shine your light but you can’t judge others for how they choose to speak, or parent, or live their lives. You speak your truth but you have to make peace that people are different. You don’t have to follow them, you don’t have to fit in, but you can’t expect people to act a certain way either because it is not your story, not your journey but mostly, that you are not always right.
So I just got a little happy baguette for dad.
When I got to the long check-out line, I ended up behind the same lady from the bakery aisle. The line went painfully slow, so slow you don’t quite have anything to do but entertain yourself with thoughts in your head or if you are infinitely curious like me, check out what is in other people’s carts like a nosy see lai.
The lady’s cart was full of clearance items. There was fish way past the expiration date, oranges bruised and black, bulbs of onions that had already started growing shoots, a big bag of limes, some squashed and a sick color, some other produce but all with bright yellow clearance stickers.
And at the top of her cart, two prized loaves of moldy bread.
…she was rummaging the bins because she was trying to find the ones on clearance. The ones marked and reduced from $6.90 to $0.33. And all her stuff didn’t just have one sticker, there were two. Meaning it had been reduced twice, meaning it was way way beyond expired.
I watched as she carefully separated her groceries onto the black belt. Gently picking up her bread, putting it at first on top of the bruised eggplants then changing them to the end of the belt in case they got squashed.
I have never been so ashamed or wanted to cry so bad in my entire life.
I don’t know her story, I don’t know the family she was feeding, I don’t know who the groceries was for. But I do know that today, I had a face to the items I always see discarded in a pile at the end and always wondered who buys that? It is not sanitary and not okay and there is no way you don’t get food poisoning from eating very expired produce.
The American part of me wants to scream at the wrongness of selling food way past their safe-to-consume date. The Malaysian in me knows that this is just how it works, part and parcel Racheal, good and bad. Just be a good girl and be quiet. The human part of me just hurts.
She was dressed nice, not fancy, but she had clean clothes on and a stack of cash she pulled out when it came time to pay for her bill. Did she budget well? Was she just extremely frugal? Was it just the start of the month and she had just gotten her paycheck so she had cash but they were all designated to go somewhere? What was her story?
I wanted to pay for her groceries but I didn’t want to insult her because I am sure she has her pride too. She also didn’t look like she was in the mood to strike a conversation or to be disturbed so I just left her alone. The whole time, my brain trying to process, trying to figure out if it was better to offer or to be quiet. Trying to figure out what my mama would do.
And when I was done and went to meet J and my dad, I told them what I saw. I was shocked and needed to process.
But why dad? Why do they sell it? Why do they buy it? How do they not get sick?
And he said it’s sad but their tummies are probably used to it. Because that’s what they can afford. I have never known poverty like this. I have never scraped up change to feed my family, I have always had enough and sometimes even plenty.
Her total bill was just over $60. That was half of what we spent on our lunch today.
J and I, we live a pretty comfortable sheltered life. We save where we can but we also indulge. And I don’t know how to fix this, how to fix how this feels and to weigh it against what we can do.
We try to be conscious of not taking what we have for granted and we try to contribute but it just doesn’t feel right.
When we sponsor a child in a pamphlet, or donate language books to empower a group of kids learning to speak English, when we pay pal some money to an account somewhere that tugs at our heart because of some unspeakable tragedy. It just isn’t the same.
Today it wasn’t about buying that extra tin of crackers or jug of oil to be put into the bin outside our grocery stores that helps some family out there make ends meet. Today there was a face. Today, she was close enough to touch and today, it hit me all at once.
I was ashamed of my for-fun snacks next to her expired necessities.
I still don’t quite know how to process it all except that I needed to write this down because this will stay with me for a long long time.
No one should ever ever have to eat rotten food.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
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