Honours grad? I’ll rather be… hawker’s wife

While her peers are starting their careers in air-conditioned offices, 22-year-old Eliza Lee is mincing garlic and taking orders.

For the past two years, she has been helping out at a food court stall that sells a quintessentially Singaporean dish – chicken rice.

But Miss Lee is not doing it for the extra cash. The younger daughter of parents who own a bag-manufacturing business does not need it.

They have another daughter, 25, who runs a food business.

Instead, the “L” word is why Miss Lee is on her feet for 10 to 15 hours every day, seven days a week.

Her 32-year-old fiance, Mr Michael Poh, owns the stall.

She is so determined to share her man’s burden at work that she deferred the final leg of her university course to help out at his stall.

Miss Lee, who studied at a top secondary school and a polytechnic and has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism from the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS), has to study for about six more months before honours can be credited to her degree.

The prospect of being a hawker’s wife has never bothered her, she says.

“In fact, our 10-year age gap was more of a concern,” she says with a laugh.

That mindset is rare among women her age.

A wedge between blue-collar workers and office executives still exists. When it comes to picking life partners, most university graduates would not consider blue-collar other halves.

Mr Poh declines to reveal exactly how much he earns each month, but it is enough to maintain a comfortable lifestyle for his parents and fiancee.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam called on Singaporeans to rediscover the pride in blue-collar jobs and regard them as core to the workforce.

“We cannot just be a society of real estate agents, insurance agents, bankers and office workers,” he said.

Mr Shanmugaratnam was speaking at a ministerial forum organised by the National University of Singapore’s Students Political Association, where he identified the need to keep social mobility going as one of Singapore’s key challenges.

He also urged Singaporeans to change their attitude towards blue-collar jobs.

“You need to be a society where customers treat blue-collar workers with respect and that requires some attitudinal changes.

“A society where a mother is quite happy when the daughter says, ‘I’m going out with a waiter,'” he added.

Mr Poh, who holds a diploma in sociology, says he has experienced his fair share of snobbery from previous girlfriends.

He says in fluent English: “After my ex and I visited a friend, a marketing manager, at his newly renovated office, she told me, ‘How I wish you could be like him, working in an office, too.'”

His experience is not unique.

Mr Caleb Tan, who works as a cook, says that in general, friends and customers do not look down on him, but when it comes to women, compatibility in terms of socio-economic and educational status still matters.

“You can’t blame them (women). Unless you meet someone you really like, in general, Singaporean office execs will not go for men of a lower status,” says the 49-year-old, who is single.

The phenomenon is not new.

Various studies have shown that while men value youth and physical attractiveness in their mates, women look for good financial prospects, a high social status, and ambition and industriousness.

Mr Poh, who decided to sell chicken rice for a living after national service, acknowledges that women like his fiance are rare.

“I try to give her a day off, but she makes excuses to decline. I know that it’s because she wants to share my burden. She doesn’t want me to be tired,” he says, adding that before helping out at his stall, Miss Lee had “not touched a drop of detergent”.

She admits that working at a chicken rice stall was never a childhood ambition.

Speaking in crisp English, she muses jokingly: “Growing up, life was carefree, and I never had to worry about money. My parents did that.

“All I did after returning from school was stay in my air-conditioned bedroom and sleep.”

These days, she does not get to bed till 1am, after the stall has been cleaned up and closed.

Miss Lee, who used to be chauffeured home after school, has also traded her own bedroom to share a three-room HDB flat with Mr Poh and his parents.

Her fiance admits it’s a bit of a squeeze, but she is quick to tease him.

“No, It’s fine. We (she and his parents) get along fine. You’re just jealous I get to drink bird’s nest (soup) and you don’t,” she teases.

So what is it about the bald-headed man that attracts her?

“We just click. We have endless conversations.

“I have been seeing him 24/7 for the past two years, and we still have things to talk about. Some customers, when they notice our chatter, tell us to talk less so we can hurry up with the orders,” she says.

“We have a common goal, and that is to build a comfortable family together,” she adds.

Mr Poh does not think twice about expressing his love.

He is set on making her his wife.

“I’m very thankful and I treasure her very much. To find another one like her, who would go through thick and thin with me, is mission impossible.”

This article was first published in The New Paper.
Link : Honours grad? I’ll rather be… hawker’s wife 

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