Updated: Jun 11, 2020
It was July 2017, my newly wedded wife and I just moved into our new home. Building a home was such a surreal experience. From finally learning how to keep a household in order, building our routines, to deciding on small things like our silverware and the design of our tissue boxes. These were decisions that neither one of us encountered growing up. Of course, we decided to take our discussions about them with one another seriously.
Well, this leaves us with the item in question: the can opener I never asked for. Almost every household has one, seemed like a no brainer that we get one. We checked the markets and shopping centre, a decent one would cost around $8, a high-end one was $25. By now, we were really fatigued from making all those previous decisions. I was not convinced we needed one. After all, every product today is made to "pop open" right? We thought we'd put off buying the can opener for the time being.
From Chinese cooks, to western and random fusion style char siew
As a family, we wanted to try to cook regularly. We love trying new dishes, varying cuisines from home-cooked Chinese meals, to fusion char siew or pasta. We quickly realised that for some common ingredients we used, we needed a can opener. In order to quickly solve the problem, I swung by my neighbours, knocked on their door and sheepishly asked if I could borrow their can opener. Despite the awkward and potentially suspicious conversation, my neighbour went into her kitchen and came out with a blue, well-used looking can opener. I would quickly head home, finish making dinner with extras, and carried a piping hot meal with their can opener to return them. We did this around 4-6 times a month.
In those moments, we shared our stories with one another; they were a family that had four generations all living together in one roof. They loved going to Malaysia for holidays and purchasing lots of horticulture for the corridor garden they absolutely adore. Beyond food, I would also help their kids with English homework. We talked about our stories and and about our beliefs. I even brought their kid along to Wild Wild Wet (a water theme park) with other children I was volunteering with! This went on for a few months. Slowly, we saw no need to buy a can opener at all.
It was a traumatic day to bring out 11 boys...
Of course, with every new home, it is customary to invite your parents and in-laws over for dinner. They will check in on how you are running your household, and offer help or suggestions on how to do things better. We didn’t think too much about it initially. Of course, when we were preparing our meals, it was then, they realised that we did not have the one key equipment any sensible kitchen would have. This was one of those dramatic “uh oh” pauses, as our parents looked at us blankly for what felt like an eternity. It was followed by a very strong reaction: how can you operate a household like that? It is very “throw face leh” or embarrassing to keep bothering your neighbour over such a trivial item. We stood there feeling like kids who just received an earful from our parents for making a stupid mistake in our homework. Within a week, our parents came by and gave us a brand-new can opener.
As I stood there holding on to my new can opener, I felt a strange sense of loss. Like someone had taken away my reason to connect with my neighbour. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the gesture on the part of our parents. But I wondered for a moment if it was really necessary for every family to start with everything they need. Our home start was certainly messy, we needed a lot of help. But our first year of managing our home was punctuated with the support of neighbours who would offer help the moment they saw us struggle. As we grew familiar with our neighbours, we were able to offer help whenever they needed as well. Such practices produced trust and interdependency. Basic economics would suggest that it is worthwhile for 4 families to co-share one can opener. Since we only use it 4-8 times a month. We eventually save more and use less, better for the environment, better for the kind of relationships we’ll build with one another. How long have we been indoctrinated with the idea of managing ourselves well? Don’t focus on getting things right. Focus on what is going to be meaningful for the collective good of everyone else.
Not my neighbours, but I thought the picture does illustrate something.
I’m thankful for the work we’ve put in as a community. It practically took us almost 2 years to build the kind of relationships we have with our neighbours. We share various cuisines with one another, Chinese Jian Bing, to Punjabi curries, and even fusion foods from millennial folks like us. These moments brought far more interesting and valuable memories that we will never trade for anything else. Self-sufficiency may be the responsible thing for all of us, but when left unchecked, self-sufficiency can rob us from our meaningful relationships that only interdependency can offer.
I hope I never forget that we need one another, related by blood or not. It is the very foundation of my identity as a human being, a global citizen, a Singaporean. To love and cherish one another, to learn to disagree honourably, and yet offer gratitude and graciousness when necessary.
“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” – A saying of King Solomon, 935 BC
P.S. This reflection was observed on hindsight in the last 2ish years of living in my new home. It took us time and openness to collectively work on the kind of community we wanted. We certainly could not have done it without the same time and openness our neighbours offered to us. Some obviously took more time than others, but at the end, we managed to find the right amount of grace it took with one another. I hope that every community finds that same amount of beauty in community and the grace to pursue them in your own right.