What I learnt about doing good when a stranger opened his home to me
Heidi Tan // July 19, 2020, 9:49 pm
I first met Uncle Z on a cool November night after an exhausting trip involving no fewer than three plane rides followed by a five-hour drive.
He was waiting outside my apartment in his trademark suit, his silver hair combed neatly back. He beamed widely: “You’re here at last!”
Just four months later, Uncle Z and his wife, Aunty S, would take me into their own home indefinitely as the land and air borders of the country shut, preventing the international NGO workers I was supposed to live and work with from entering.
At first, I attributed it to the legendary Middle Eastern hospitality. “When you are in our house, you are the owner and we are the guests,” Uncle Z quoted an Arabic saying the first night I dragged my suitcase through their front door.
What can we learn about doing good from other cultures?
Some weeks later, with no end to the flight suspensions in sight, I started feeling concerned that I was overstaying my welcome. I broached the subject gingerly with Uncle Z.
“Are you unhappy?” Uncle Z was visibly taken aback. “If not, you can stay with us until you get married!”
Then, lowering his voice conspiratorially, he said: “Don’t tell Aunty S that you asked me about this – she will get very angry!”
I later discovered that Uncle Z and Aunty S had housed many other people before – from days to weeks to months on end. Some had just been passing through, others needed a safe place to stay for a while.
Some were family and friends, others they had hardly known or not known for long (like me).
But only through living with Uncle Z did I also discover that his goodwill went beyond cultural norms.
I joined Uncle Z’s daily calls with internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps on the outskirts of the city, just to chat and find out how they and their families are doing or help them practice their English.
I ran around with him trying to help an IDP girl get a new pair of glasses – hers had broken two months before and she didn’t know how to get them fixed.
I heard about why he doesn’t want to hire a particular IDP for a few hours of labor – because he knows this IDP will want to help him for free at the expense of another paid job.
I met the refugees who used to be his neighbors or just happened to cross paths with him before, whom he still looks out for (a job here and there) and keeps in touch with as friends.
All this may seem rather normal until you realise that Uncle Z comes from a minority ethnic group and faith, in an area where different groups do not generally trust one another and prefer to help their own communities.
It also isn’t the most fashionable to associate with IDPs, where the unspoken prevailing mindset is that people of their ethnic group are of a lower class. And if I were not living with Uncle Z, I probably wouldn’t know that he was doing any of this at all.
Uncle Z is by no means perfect, neither is he naive: 15 years as a prisoner-of-war had bred a gentleness and patience in him but also exposed him to a very dark side of human nature and sharpened his discernment of character.
How can we move beyond just reacting, to sustained action?
But he had also, perhaps unknowingly, cultivated a lifestyle of doing good. If everyone were like Uncle Z, perhaps we wouldn’t need so many NGOs here – or in most other places for that matter.
But we’ve witnessed it too many times before. A crisis hits and explodes in the news and on social media. It engenders shock, a public outcry at injustice and an outpouring of goodwill towards the victims – all much-needed and heartening.
But then the dust settles, and we move on and forget. Until the next crisis.
Yet, it cannot be that doing good is a one-off affair.
It is not a checkbox we tick and are done with. There is no peak period or downtime. Sometimes society seems to reinforce the opposite. We tend to celebrate those who pioneer new work or revolutionise how things are done.
Maintenance work, on the other hand, is often overlooked or seen as a second-class drudgery. Or perhaps it’s embedded in human nature — we tend to act only on what is most salient to us or when it affects us personally in some way.
Seldom do we realise how important maintenance is until we experience the effects of its absence: the train breakdowns, the panic and all-nighters before the final exams, the overgrown garden, the health problems, the marriage on the rocks.
The same goes for doing good. It’s the ones who give day in and day out, without fanfare, who make all the difference.
To do good well, the doing needs to be sustained.
Practically, it may not mean opening your house to everyone in need. But it could mean you start paying attention and being kind to the invisible people around you.
You may not have IDPs or refugees living in your midst, but you have the cleaning aunty at your school or workplace.
How about the construction worker you pass by on the street every day? There’s also the bus uncle, the cashier at the neighborhood supermarket, the security guard at your condominium, your domestic helper.
“I think if you can help someone, then you should. God says you should.”
It could mean you start genuinely listening to what they have to say, and taking time to really understand the people and issues.
When it comes to systemic issues and unjust structures, advocacy is necessary, but how can we truly be a voice for the voiceless if we have yet to hear their voices for ourselves? It could also mean acknowledging the privileges you have and honestly examining the biases you may hold that may actually perpetuate the problem — and then choosing to live in a way that may go against the grain.
I once asked Uncle Z why he did what he did. Was his quiet faithfulness a result of those unending years he had been imprisoned for no wrong of his own, I wanted to know. But Uncle Z just shrugged.
“Really, I don’t know.” It seemed like he hadn’t really considered this before. “I think if you can help someone, then you should. God says you should.”
But perhaps not knowing why is how you know something has become so habitual that it has become a lifestyle.
This article was first published on Solve n+1 and is republished with permission. If you would like to find out more about the projects and issues Solve n+1 deals with, reach out to them or stay in touch over Facebook and Instagram.
THINK + TALK
- Who are the “invisible” people you encounter every day? Who is one person you can get to know?
- What are your daily routines?
- What is one practical change can you make to redesign a routine for good?