By Zacchaeus Chok (18S03O)
Photos courtesy of Raffles Community Advocates
“What is the weirdest thing you ever ate?” A few awkward glances ensue.
“Or how about, what is your favourite food?” interjects another student facilitator as he frantically rummages through the bag of ice-breaker statements, prepared by the organising committee for the very purpose of preventing an uneasy silence.
Despite being in its third year running, Homeground 2018 was an ambitious project. Community Advocates’ Student Interest Group Doveswarm wanted to show appreciation to an oft-forgotten group of term contract workers who work laboriously behind the scenes, and defrost the barriers of interaction between the school staff and students. The term contract workers under the Estate Department were also given time off from their usual Saturday duties to participate in leisure activities such as sports and traditional games.
A project months in the planning, Community Advocates collaborated with AVU, Chamber, Chorale, Raffles Voices, Cricket, Basketball and Volleyball to produce a memorable carnival that was tailored to differences in age, physical ability and interests. The result: a string of diverse activities that kept the term contract workers active and engaged, at least for the most part. Truly, at the heart of each activity was the interaction between term contract workers and students.
The interaction also happens to be the most demanding element for the students and the planning team. On a daily basis, the nature of our respective roles seems to give rise to a transactional relationship between “us” and “them”. On the surface, it seems that the term contract workers provide their labour services to maintain the school while we, as students, benefit from their work by using the school facilities. In fact, when we view term contract workers through this lens, we reduce them as individuals, and it is difficult to sustain or even form a more meaningful bond. With that, student volunteers at Homeground tried their best to sustain conversations amidst language and age barriers, in an attempt to form a sincere connection with the term contract workers
Another important role of the student volunteers was to ensure that their attached workers were engaged during each station. One of the popular stations was the traditional games exhibit – a display of 5 old-school games, namely Capteh, Five Stones, Pick-up Sticks, Aeroplane Chess and Snakes & Ladders. The intent was to provoke a sense of nostalgia and to set a light-hearted, non-competitive tone for bonding with colleagues. Games group facilitator Huang Rui Yang (18S03D) believed that “the traditional games station created a free and easy environment for the workers to relax and have fun”. Rui Yang’s group of workers, in particular, really enjoyed playing Snakes & Ladders, as they amicably poked fun at each other’s “misfortune” in the game. One of the cleaning aunties demonstrated effortless skill in the Five Stones challenge, while the facilitators could barely catch two consecutive stones. Meanwhile, some of the physically able workers challenged each other to a few rounds of Capteh, a game which requires great dexterity and balance to overcome the spontaneity involved in passing the feathered shuttlecock.
While playing traditional games, some student volunteers tried to liven up the mood by starting conversations with the workers. “I tried by asking some work-related questions and about their past experience in playing traditional games,” shared a student volunteer.
In the planning of the other activities, Doveswarm members took caution not to rehash activities from the previous Homeground events. After months of considering various alternative activities, Doveswarm settled on a trivia quiz and Bingo. The cleaners’ manager, who wants to be referred to as Uncle Sam, commented that these activities were well-planned because they required more thinking. Yet, this was precisely the difficulty that Doveswarm faced, having to produce trivia questions that were mildly challenging without significant language or generation gaps. As it turns out, while some workers were able to dive right into the action of guessing the riddles, others were happy to remain as spectators. Significantly, some of the trivia questions required knowledge about local brands, which many non-native workers simply could not relate to.
This was just one of the many struggles that Doveswarm members had in preparation for Homeground and it perfectly underscores how students do not understand the school’s term contract workers. In fact, in an attempt to overcome this impediment, Doveswarm members tried to strike conversations with term contract workers in the lead up to Homeground to gain a better understanding of their interests.
After 2 hours of activities, the workers were treated to lo-hei (a festive Chinese New Year salad) and a scrumptious buffet. The workers tossed the shredded ingredients in the air enthusiastically, while saying various “auspicious wishes” out loud, signifying a good start to the New Year. At each lunch table, selfies and group photos were taken and conversations ensued. By then, student volunteers were more open to asking and the workers were also more open to sharing stories.
At the end of the day, the workers did have an enjoyable Saturday morning (being given a day off probably made it even better), the student volunteers got to see the workers in a more human light and the planning committee was simply glad that the event ran smoothly.
Doveswarm Leader Caren Chua (18S07B) aptly said that, “Even though we come from widely different backgrounds, we also share many common interests such as playing sports or engaging in simple games. It’s a comforting thing to know that we can always find a unifying factor despite our vast differences.” Indeed, taking comfort in knowing that term contract workers also enjoy simple activities can be a useful starting point in forming better relations with them. For greater empathy, we could try to understand them better by having a general awareness of their backgrounds and engage in deeper conversations.
In conjunction with Homeground 2018, a separate group of students had organised Heart to Heart, a fundraising activity with the end goal of purchasing hampers for the term contract workers. The hampers were a material token of appreciation, a grand gesture from the students to the workers. The Estate workers certainly felt pleased with receiving the goodies, but at the end of the day, if we simply acknowledge and show appreciation to them in smaller ways, we could make the workers feel more included in the wider Rafflesian family.