Filipino McRhon Banderlipe may not have any relatives in Singapore, but he now feels like an extended member of a family here.
Last Chinese New Year, the 35-year-old expat was invited to join Singaporean Sia Yan Dih and her family for their reunion dinner, despite him being a complete stranger.
The programme officer at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy had become acquainted with the family thanks to the Singapore Kindness Movement’s Just An Extra Chair initiative.
Into its third run this year, the initiative matches people who do not have anywhere to go over the Chinese New Year with families who may have an extra space or two at their dinner table.
Over the last two years, 17 hosts and 22 guests have signed up for the Just An Extra Chair initiative. The idea was first conceived by the Singapore Kindness Movement in 2016, with an initial target of just five sign-ups. Most of the guests have been foreigners working or studying in Singapore.
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Mr Banderlipe recalls being nervous before meeting his hosts for the first time.
“As a guest of not just the family, but also in this country, I think it’s always important to be respectful of my hosts’ culture and traditions. Being a foreigner, too, I think there’s also a perception that Singaporeans may not be very open or warm towards us.
So of course I was mindful of my behaviour, to leave a positive impression, and to remain open-minded about my experience, too,” he told The Pride.
As it turned out, the Filipino had little to worry about. The Sia family were not only warm and gracious hosts on the day, but have also gone on to treat Mr Banderlipe like one of their own.
Since that Lunar New Year encounter, Mr Banderlipe has been invited back several times to other family gatherings, like birthday parties.
“I’m extremely grateful for the experience and to the family. Of course I miss my family back home, but I’m glad to have found this family here that has shown so much love towards me,” the Filipino said.
Mr Banderlipe was one of three guests, including a Malaysian and a Chinese national, that the Sia family hosted last year. According to Ms Sia, they remain in touch with all their past guests, and they hope to welcome more visitors to their home this year.
“Personally I think it’s great to promote a caring and sharing culture in Singapore,” said the 37-year-old social entrepreneur.
“We want to continue sharing this happy occasion and warmth to our friends from overseas,” she added.
Ms Sia, who has five sons, said her family signed up to be hosts as they felt the initiative could be a “meaningful” experience.
“We think this initiative is interesting and meaningful as we get to share our festive joy with someone who is away from their home and may miss their family,” she said.
“My kids were also very excited to receive the guests, and prepared games and icebreakers like table soccer.
“It was a great learning experience for the kids too because the guests shared about their culture, food, and life experiencing travelling and living in other countries,” added Ms Sia.
Last year, Ms Sia’s family prepared a sumptuous spread of homemade dishes, including roast duck and “poon choy” (“big bowl feast” – a traditional Chinese meal made from a variety of ingredients served in a large bowl).
For the upcoming reunion dinner, the family also intends to serve their guests traditional potong ice cream – a local favourite since the 1960s, coming in flavours like durian, red bean and mango.
“Maybe this year, I’ll also ask the guests to bring along some fruits, too,” said Ms Sia. “This way, I think they’ll feel like they’re also contributing to the reunion dinner like any other family member and have an even more inclusive experience.”
Both Ms Sia and Mr Banderlipe say they will definitely encourage more people to sign up for the initiative.
Mr Banderlipe said: “After living in Singapore for six years, I think this was one of the best experiences I had to learn and immerse myself in local culture and society.
“I think this experience also really demonstrates that despite our different upbringing, whether Filipino, Singaporeans or any other nationality, we all share similar values like the importance of family, kindness, and goodwill.”
Agreeing, Ms Sia also shared some advice to families who may feel apprehensive about letting a stranger into their homes.
“Just try once! In my experience, the guests were all well-mannered and appropriately dressed, and (for the Just An Extra Chair initiative) you also get to choose the preferred language spoken for the guests.
“You also don’t really need to cook expensive dishes, simple dishes are fine, because a reunion dinner is more about spending time together,” she said.
You can learn more about this year’s initiative by visiting this link.
Feature image source: Sia Yan Dih