Spending the festive season ~6000km away from home 

By Feng Yanjia, HealthServe intern & student of NUS Master of Social Sciences in Communication

As an overseas student from China, Yanjia, too, has spent several festive seasons away from her loved ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, she was glad to be able to celebrate Chinese New Year over a reunion meal with many Chinese migrant brothers whom she befriended at HealthServe. 

The Chinese Lantern Festival, also known as Yuan Xiao (元宵), falls on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year (CNY), marking the end of the CNY festivities. For many Chinese, it is a time when families come together to enjoy sweet glutinous rice balls (yuan xiao) and light lanterns. However, there are many migrant workers who are away from home and unable to reunite with their loved ones. Although sharing the same moon, the taste of Yuan Xiao in Singapore has long been different from that of their hometown. 

In my time at HealthServe, I got the chance to know two Chinese migrant brothers, Fu and Zhang, better. Due to circumstances beyond their control, both were unable to return to China to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families this year. Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, Fu and Zhang share the same longing to be reunited with their loved ones during this special time. 

A wedding missed and an empty chocolate box 

Hailing from Hebei, Fu has been working in Singapore as a construction worker for seven years to support his family back in China. After his own restaurant in China closed down due to debts, he came across an opportunity to make a living abroad and grabbed it, in his bid to provide a better life for his family as the sole breadwinner.

Since learning the good news of his daughter’s wedding plan last year, Fu shared with me that he had in fact been counting down the days until he could return home for his daughter’s wedding in October 2022. Unfortunately, Fu’s plans were thwarted by a workplace injury he sustained in January of the same year.

While working at a construction site, he fell into a deep pit and suffered severe injuries to his lower back and left leg. This not only left him unable to work but also caused him immense emotional distress.

“At that time, I really felt so terrible. I didn’t dare to tell my parents, my wife and children that I was injured. Alone in the hospital and having no one to talk to, it was so painful for me.”

Thankfully, with the help of a volunteer, Fu was referred to HealthServe for counseling and social support, including cash assistance, phone and transport top-ups, etc.  

“HealthServe gave me everything I needed then. I got some money every month for living expenses, as well as phone and metro card top-ups… I felt more than grateful.

It is really tough to be alone abroad without families.” 

A year has since passed. Unfortunately, Fu has yet to be able to return home as he need to await the results of his disability assessment and compensation review. Despite the setback, Fu remained optimistic and was especially grateful for the support of the staff at HealthServe – some of whom are now his friends. 

When asked what he missed the most about home, Fu smiled as he spoke about his little granddaughter. On his last trip home several years ago, he shared that he had brought back a box of chocolates from Singapore, which his granddaughter loved. Even after the chocolates inside were consumed, his granddaughter still kept the box and would think of her grandfather (“who only appeared in the video chat”) each time she saw it.

So earlier this year, Fu asked his friend to bring back 10 boxes of chocolates, hoping to make his granddaughter happy. His little girl got to eat sweet chocolates but still could not meet her grandfather this year. Fu is looking forward to the next time when he can bring the gift to his family with his own hands. He hopes to return home by the end of February this year.

Zhang’s longing for home

“If I could go home, one thing I would love to do is to sit down with my family and have a meal – a simple meal, not necessarily a big one. As long as the family is eating together, I would feel more than happy and satisfied.”  

Zhang is another Chinese brother who has not been able to reunite with his family since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Initially, Zhang had come to HealthServe’s clinic to receive acute medical care and dental services. But as the pandemic worsened, the prolonged dormitory quarantine took a toll on his mental health as well. Because he changed to a new company, the invalidation of his previous work permit further complicated matters, leaving Zhang unable to obtain any financial income.  

It was then that Zhang turned to HealthServe again for advice. Over time, we were thankful to be able to form a strong bond with Zhang as our caseworker worked with him closely on addressing his multi-faceted challenges. Today, he is doing much better, and would often share with us what he has been up to! 

Reflecting on his past decade of working in Singapore, Zhang shared with me that this was the first time he had not been able to return home in such a long time. One can only imagine how deeply he misses his family.  

“My mother suffers from leg pain. During the daytime, she’s fine, but at night, her legs start to hurt when she lies down to sleep. So she has to get up and walk around several times. Especially in times like this, I wish I could be with her, take care of her, do my best as a child, talk to her, and spend more time with her”.   

Zhang remains hopeful that he would be able to return to see his mother after the Chinese New Year, when things are more stable back home and flights, more affordable. 

The festive seasons are often challenging periods for our migrant friends who are unable to be home with their families. 

To spread a little festive cheer to our Chinese brothers such as Fu and Zhang, HealthServe has made it a tradition to celebrate the Lunar New Year with migrant friends from China – since 2011! This year, we had close to 20 brothers join us for a reunion lunch. Despite the distance from their loved ones, we are heartened that Fu, Zhang, and the other brothers found comfort and warmth in our fellowship. 

The stories of Fu and Zhang highlight the struggles that many migrant workers face while working abroad. In addition to personal sacrifices and challenging working conditions, they sometimes also face unexpected circumstances that prevent them from seeking solace in being with their loved ones. My personal hope is that they will be reunited with their families soon and finally, get to celebrate the Lunar New Year together next year. 

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