It’s 5pm at a carpark upgrading site, and a group of construction workers are busy paving the lots with cement.
Nearby, a three-year-old boy calls out to them at intervals and waves happily whenever one of them turns to look.
Accompanied by his parents and grandfather, Jake* waits eagerly for his “uncles” to break for tea. For the last seven months, this has been the toddler’s weekly routine.
As the minutes tick by, his excitement mounts.
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Each time the workers stop for a respite, Jake runs up to them, toting bags of food and signalling for them to follow him to their usual void deck sitting area. But it’s not yet time to stop working, so they gently shake their heads and smile, and carry on.
To distract Jake while we’re waiting, I asked him what he liked best about hanging out with his friends.
“I am happy to see them every day, and give them drinks and chicken to eat with their curry rice”, said the bashful boy.
Jake’s mother, Anne*, chimed in: “Why don’t you tell Auntie what you like about Foreman?”
“He can drive the road roller and the digger (excavator), and cut the grass. He also wears a white helmet. When I grow up, I want to be Foreman!” came Jake’s reply, before he wriggled out of his mother’s arms to go check if his uncles were done.
While most parents might balk at Jake’s proclamation, expecting greater ambition from their children, Anne was unfazed.
She related a previous incident where the site consultant, upon hearing the same thing from her son, had told him that he should be an engineer instead, so that he wouldn’t have to work under the hot sun all day.
But to Anne, if Jake really decides to be a foreman when he grows up, so be it.
She added: “Jake looks up to the foreman because he sees that he’s in charge and doing a lot of things. Furthermore, he’s only a child; he should be allowed to explore his interests, which are likely to be a passing phase anyway – just like how he was previously into Sesame Street, then Monster Jam, and now F1.”
In fact, so supportive are Anne and her husband that aside from the usual books and toys related to construction, they’ve also bought Jake a white toy helmet and safety jacket so he could emulate his favourite foreman – complete with a towel wrapped around his face.
Still keeping a watchful eye on her son, she went on to explain how his unusual friendship with these migrant workers began.
“Our estate started undergoing car park upgrading works last December, and Jake would always stop to watch. Over time, we became such familiar faces that the site consultant would inform us beforehand whenever a road roller or an asphalt paving machine would be around, so that we could bring Jake down to watch or take a video for him,” she said.
As Jake’s fascination with construction vehicles grew, so, too, did his interactions with the workers. Friendly, tentative greetings soon blossomed into more meaningful, heartfelt gestures.
Such as the special sling bag moment shared between Jake and his Smiley Uncle.
Anne elaborated: “Jake refers to one of the workers from Myanmar as Smiley Uncle. He used to carry a sling bag while working, and after seeing that, Jake wanted one as well. So, we got one for him, and the next time he went downstairs to see his friends, he insisted on carrying it. The moment he and Smiley Uncle saw one another, they started gesturing to their bags and smiling. It was really cute to watch.”
From then, whenever the workers saw their little friend coming, they’d stop work for a bit to go over and say hello. And as the friendship developed, it’s clear that they look forward greatly to Jake’s daily visits, and miss him when he doesn’t show.
Anne recalled a long weekend when Jake didn’t pop by to see his friends. “When they next saw him, they were so happy. They hurried down from their lorry and made their way over to him, saying ‘How are you, baby (what the workers call him)? We never see you so long’, and one of them even carried him.”
As time went by, the workers opened up and shared their stories with Anne. Most of them have children and nephews back home, and Jake reminded them of the families they’d left behind.
“During one of our visits, a worker even FaceTimed his wife to show her Jake. And when Smiley Uncle returned to Myanmar, he, too, FaceTimed us. That’s when I realised the impact my son must have had on their lives, no matter how brief or limited their interactions,” she mused.
At this point, the workers put aside their tools, and came towards us with tired, but bright, smiles.
“Makan, makan! Jalan, jalan! My dad buy drinks!” cried Jake enthusiastically.
His excitement was palpable. After all, he had waited 25 minutes – an excruciatingly long time for a toddler – for his friends to be done.
As the workers tucked into their well-deserved tea break of roasted chicken, Jake watched contentedly, occasionally sending smiles and animated babbling their way.
“We decided to help supplement their meals when we learnt that the workers don’t earn much per day, and the meals supplied to them were very basic – usually curry rice, one meat or fish, and one vegetable. We felt it was hardly sufficient, especially since they’re doing manual labour. So, we started buying them chicken and snacks like cakes; we’d also buy drinks and refrigerate them so that they’d be cold by tea time,” Anne told me.
She brushed off my comment on her compassion and thoughtfulness and instead, pointed to Jake and said it was all due to him – if it weren’t for his open and friendly nature, they wouldn’t have forged a friendship with the workers to begin with.
“Jake was just two-and-a-half years old when we first got to know them. At that age, there’s no way I could have taught him about kindness, or about how we should make friends with people from different walks of life,” she said.
One lesson Jake has taught Anne is to take the time to listen to people’s stories, and to see them as individuals. For instance, she added, even though he doesn’t know the workers by name, Jake recognises each of his friends by what they do – he knows which worker is Planting Grass Uncle or Red Helmet Uncle, etc.
But perhaps the most wonderful thing they’ve both learnt about friendship is that it goes both ways.
“When Jake turned three, we decided to celebrate with the workers. We got a small cake from Bengawan Solo and some Milo for them. To our surprise, Foreman came bearing balloons, and all the workers chipped in to buy him two toys. Knowing how precious little they earn, I felt so bad, even though I was extremely touched by their gesture,” said Anne.
The family headed home after this, whereupon the workers told me, unanimously, how glad they were to see Jake every day. Just having him come by to say hello, and seeing his happy, cheerful smile would lift their spirits and brighten up a long, hard day – which begins at 8am and sometimes doesn’t end until 9pm.
As I left them to finish their meal, it hit me that for these migrant workers who’ve left their homes and families, Anne and Jake’s simple show of kindness, warmth and willingness to make a connection are essentially what friends are for.
*Anne has declined to use both her and her son’s real names.