From the age of five to seven and a half, we lived in Singapore. My father was in the British Navy and had been assigned to Singapore for two and a half years. These few years were my childhood – almost carefree years!
I found the cultural adjustment very easy – children are very adaptable. I soon started school at the Navy school which was twelve miles away. At five years old, in a strange country, I was put on the naval school bus which took us to school a long way from home. As long as my mum put me on the bus to go to school and the teachers put us on the bus to go home, I was happy.
Singapore is subject to the monsoon seasons. When the rains start it is like the floodgates open up. To cater for the deluge in water, six foot deep monsoon drains are built. The ones near our house were made of concrete. They lined the paths alongside the roads. Even though these cement ditches were six feet deep, they would fill up quickly and the roads would flood within hours.
Despite the flooding, the school buses would run and we would have to catch them. The most difficult thing about walking the flooded roads to the bus stop was trying to keep your flip flops on! Unaware of the potential dangers of falling over and drowning; or slipping into the now invisible monsoon drains and drowning; it was an adventure going to and fro from the bus stop. For my mother, it was a nightmare. As she carried my little sister in her arms and grasped hold of my hand, her anxiety of me falling into the monsoon drain with the fast flowing water was near panic level. One time, as the regular bus pulled up, it didn’t get the stopping position correct. One young woman got off the bus and stepped right into the monsoon drain. Several men on the bus managed to jump out without going down the monsoon drain and were able to rescue the soaking wet young woman who spent many minutes coughing up dirty water. Besides the worry of us children drowning, my mother also was wary of millipedes. One time, walking down to the bus, she got bitten by a millipede. I remember that it was very painful for her.
When the monsoon season was not upon us, we would see the now empty monsoon drains along side the path that we would walk to and fro from the bus stop. My mother’s new anxiety was that I would fall down into the concrete ditch and break my arm or leg. Constantly she would tell me to walk away from the monsoon drains. I have a vague recollection of sliding into one once and of my mum being really angry at me. Luckily, I didn’t break anything unlike the boy who lived across the road. I came home from school one day and found out that the boy across the road had broken his leg by falling into the monsoon drain. He was off school for many weeks.
One day, my mum took us shopping. We didn’t go to the market this time although we frequently did. I loved going to the market with its unique smells of Chinese cooking which made my mouth water, the unusual sounds of animals squealing and people speaking frantically in Chinese, and seeing all the local native crafts. This time, we must have gone to a department store. I vaguely remember the coolness of the store, the spaciousness and order. Inside the department store, my sister and I spotted these ornamental kangaroos with heads that bobbed up and down. We were totally fascinated with them and spent a long time watching them. We were absolutely delighted when mum said that we could get them for being such good girls that day.
We came home in the car. I was so excited to play with my kangaroo when we got home – at least have it on our table or window sill and touch its head so that it would go up and down. As we turned into the road that lead to our road of Jalan Belibus where our house was, my mum made a gasp.
“I forgot to get a present for the boy across the road!” She exclaimed. She paused momentarily and then said “Penelope, would you give your kangaroo to the boy for a gift?”
I gulped. My stomach lurched. I didn’t really want to give my kangaroo away. I hadn’t even had time to play with it yet.
‘Penelope?’ Mum probed.
Even at five or six years old, I already knew that it was the right thing to do. The young boy across the road must be awfully bored and uncomfortable from his broken leg, I reasoned. My kangaroo would make him happy and help him to pass the time. The nice feelings I had inside when I thought of giving up my new kangaroo with the bobbly head were slightly stronger than my desire and excitement to play with the kangaroo. When we arrived at our house and got out of the car, I handed the bag with the wrapped kangaroo over to my mum. After she had left us with our Ahma, she popped over to the boy’s house to give him the present. When my mum returned, she told me how thrilled the boy was with the kangaroo. This not only appeased the pain that I was feeling with it’s loss but made me feel very good about the sacrifice that I had made.
Making sacrifices became a lot easier after this first one. Today, the sacrifices involve time and resources, sometimes pride and inconvenience. However, as is the nature of making a sacrifice, there is always that strong pull between doing what the self wants to do and doing the right thing. As Neal A. Maxwell said: “Real, personal sacrifice never was placing an animal on the altar. Instead, it is a willingness to put the animal in us upon the altar and letting it be consumed!”