I panted. I saw the trail of exhaust the bus left behind.

Gosh, I had missed the bus again.

Now I had to run to work, instead of sitting in the nice, air-conditioned bus that took us from the bus stop to the country club.

No excuses. I had to run, or I would miss the 6.30pm shift.

The way in was a long, 15-minute run. It was a long, winding road, surrounded by trees. The air was clammy, sticky and humid. I arrived for my shift drenched in sweat.

It was time to start work — as a waiter. As an 18-year-old waiting to get his A-Level results, this was the only job I could find.

While waiting for the customers to arrive, the manager assigned me to dry the utensils and bowls. Wiping down the utensils, ensuring that they were shiny enough to see my teeth, I thought about all the customers that would come through our doors tonight. Of course, this was before Covid, but still, it was no ordinary restaurant.

It was a restaurant in a country club. Bills here reached tens of thousands. Once, I saw a single table’s bill reaching more than $36,000. That was what I earned in three years. This was what they spent in three hours.

Female Chef in restaurant kitchen
Image source: Shutterstock / Kzenon

In this restaurant, I had a simple role. My role was to push carts of dishes into the rooms. I didn’t have to do any serving.

I wasn’t experienced enough. I definitely had no idea how to cut a fish nicely so that it would look delicately poised on each diner’s plate, rather than massacred into strange strands and slices.

As I pushed my little cart around, I could smell the disparity.

It smelled in the shirt I wore. Here I was, in my white polo shirt, smelling like a vague mix of sweat and spices — ginger and garlic — from the kitchen.

There they were, smelling of exotic colognes and perfumes.

I could see the disparity.

Little red food stains decorated my white shirt, from the occasional sauce that I didn’t handle properly.

There they were, women in tight-fitting dresses, men in loose-fitting shirts — they didn’t need to wear suits.

Because it was obvious from their shirts that there was an unstated class and luxury to what they wore. They dressed for comfort, and not for show. They were comfortable in the wealth they had. They didn’t need to show it off.

I could hear the disparity.

They would laugh. I would hear snatches of the latest million they earned from the stock market. Or the latest bungalow they were considering.

But to me? There was silence. They never spoke to me.

Ferrying all that food around, I was very hungry now. I saw a box of cake behind the kitchen counter, where we put the leftovers.

In this world of wealth, there was abundance. Sometimes, entire lobsters would go untouched!

In between serving the dishes that came, I snuck a big chunk of cake into my mouth. Then I went out again.

Leftover chocolate cake
Image source: Shutterstock / cocozero

As I ferried the next set of dirty dishes to the dishwashers, my manager came in.

She shouted, “谁吃了我的马来糕?谁!?(Who ate my cake? Who!?)”

I kept quiet.

That cake must have been hers.

I hid behind the dishwasher, hoping that it would blow over and that she wouldn’t discover that it was me.

Kindness starts with being kind to yourself

Sad Waiter
Image source: Shutterstock / Nopphon_1987

Later that night, something broke within me. I had enough of this.

Why was I polishing silver? Why was I stuffing leftovers into my mouth? Why was I doing this to myself?

Amidst all the stress I placed myself under – running to work, working from 11 to 11 each day, and eating poorly; I forgot what it meant to be kind to myself.

And in that lack of kindness to myself, I stopped being kind to others. I snapped at my friends. I stole my manager’s cake to feed myself. I stopped thinking about others.

Being kind starts with giving out of love, rather than lack. When we give out of lack, kindness becomes another chore. Another item to clear off the list. Another thing to do rather than an act that is built on giving unconditionally, without any expectation of return. You give, thinking: “What will I get out of this?”

More importantly, in my unkindness to myself, I had blinded myself to the kindness of others.

I forgot about the small actions of kindness that others showed me during that time. Like how my friend offered his place for me to stay after every long shift. Or how his helper offered to make me breakfast in the morning. Or how my mum constantly asked how I was doing.

For all the advice on being kind to others, are you kind to yourself?

Kindness starts with being seen

Old Chang Kee kiosk in Chinatown
Image source: Shutterstock / happycreator

The day I quit my job as a waiter, I had enough.

I had enough of being invisible, of needing to blend into the walls, of not being seen.

Eight years later, as a 26-year old adult, I was recently ordering something from Old Chang Kee. I was tempted to check my phone while waiting for the food assistant to return my cash.

But I stood and watched her. She moved with lethargy, slowly shuffling towards the curry puff area from the cashier counter. She picked up the tongs, opened the paper bag and bagged the curry puff.

She missed.

She shook her head and tried again. This time she got it.

She was tired, and it showed. It showed in her eyes. Her eyebags stared back at me.

I heard it in her speech. The ‘thank you’ she uttered was soft, listless, and tired.

It showed in how she stood, leaning against the counter, trying to find rest.

While I didn’t understand the pain she felt, anyone who has stood for four continuous hours knows how much the body desires a seat, even just for a minute; how the knees are tempted to buckle, and how the ball of the foot aches.

What would happen if you stopped to see, rather than hiding behind the screen of your phone while waiting for a service staff at the checkout?

Are you scared of what you will see?

Please, don’t be.

Kindness starts with small actions

Red Packet
Image source: Shutterstock / Reephotoeasy

When I was a waiter, I remember one of the most impactful moments came when I was helping a customer carrying something to his car.

When I placed it in his boot, he smiled at me and said: “Thank you.”

What I didn’t expect was that he subsequently passed me a red packet. There was $4 inside. It wasn’t a big sum, but for me, it was a big gesture.

Because for the first time, rather than being invisible, I had been seen, acknowledged, and thanked.

My point isn’t to tell you to give a tip to the next service staff you see. But it’s to say that your gesture, however small, matters.

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Kindness doesn’t cost much, but it does cost something.

It costs you your time, your money, your effort, and maybe even your pride.

It wasn’t too long ago when I started university as a 21-year-old. As a starry-eyed university student, I wanted to explore the world. My first destination? Peru.

I remember travelling in Peru when my host and I had a misunderstanding and were no longer on talking terms. She tried to patch up relations with me.

She wrote me a card, printed out a picture of us having a meal together, and came to find me to explain what happened.

I looked at her and said with a straight face: “No quiero entender cualquier (Spanish for I don’t want to understand anything).”

She left that day without saying anything.

The day I left for home, she wrote me a message: “Quiero usted saber, amamos muchos (I want you to know, we love you very much).”

John (third from right) with his host family in Peru
John (third from right) with his host family in Peru, who taught him that love transcends language, culture, and understanding. Image source: John Lim

She showed me kindness, and I crushed it with hostility.

But she still showed love. Maybe that’s what kindness is. Love, given graciously, to those who may not merit it; given unconditionally; given with hope that it would brighten someone’s day.

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