A Tribute to our Canteen Vendors

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

By Lim Xin Jie (21J09)

It’s 6 am. In the unlit bedrooms of most RVians, alarm clocks are being exasperatedly slammed. Just 5 more minutes… we think as we cling onto the last bit of dreamy languor.

But in the dim canteen of River Valley High School, there’s no procrastinating. Having been awake since 4 am, our canteen vendors have busied themselves with a flurry of activities: there are the discordant chopping of vegetables, the hysteric bubbling of boiling broths and the hushed communicating voices amid it all.

While the tenacity displayed by the canteen vendors as they endure hours of sweat and heat is certainly admirable, we do not actually know much about the prosaic minutiae of their daily work.

So on a particular morning, before crowds of RVians began straggling in, I set out to chat with these vendors, hoping to get to as many interviews as possible before the bell for morning assembly starts ringing.

Here’s what I learnt.

You’re busy and tired? So are they.

For canteen vendors, half of their work remains behind the scenes, while we are deep asleep.

Indeed, much of this is hard physical labour, including the cleaning of the stall, the dislodging of carts of ingredients and the mundane logistics that the work entails. Like us, canteen vendors also struggle between getting work done and staying sane.

They are prone to joint pain.

Auntie Eaileen of Noodles Recipe told me that prior to becoming a canteen vendor, she had been manning an economy rice stall outside of school for 20 years. In the Food and Beverage industry, joint pain is an endemic problem as physical exertion is constantly demanded. The pain can range from being irritating to debilitating, limiting movement. This is not to mention that many of these vendors are elderly and have other ailments and diseases to deal with.

Tech is as abstruse to them as calculus is to us

For Mdm Wong of That 面摊, the handling of the payment terminal (a manually operated device through which money could be received digitally) is the bane of her daily administrations. “I really don’t know how to use this!'' she deplores as she points at it. The problem arises when she inputs the wrong numbers: not only would monetary losses be incurred, the queue would also be held up since it takes time for the device to refresh. This can become especially exasperating during lunch hours when queues are long.

Later into the conversation, we learn how language is a barrier: “I can’t read English and I can’t read Chinese. I’ve never been to school,” Mdm Wong explains. Besides Mdm Wong, many of the older generation do not converse in the conventional language we do or have the privilege of education that many of us take for granted.

There are redeeming factors, though.

Considering all these, one would then expect canteen vendors to be disinclined to come for work and perhaps even drone on about their problems. However, when asked about returning back to school for work after each holiday break, many express joy.

”I won’t say that [the job] is super relaxing but I still like it. I like to cook and sell food, so the job is not tough because I feel happy doing it,” Auntie Kano Kwan from Chinese Delights says.

There is also Auntie Eaillen, who abhors shiftlessness and finds her work invigorating. “I feel really happy to be back,” she says. “I don’t feel tired, because with a job and people to interact with, my life becomes enriching,”

Speaking of human interactions, many other canteen vendors remark that one of their greatest takeaways was the bonds forged with RVians.

“There was a boy who returned from NS to get teh bing from me. He had been drinking my teh bing for 6 years!” Auntie Susan of Sweet Hut recalls.

On the other hand, there are also students who have returned as teachers and continue patronising their stalls. “I used to call them ‘little boy’; now they have returned as teachers!” Auntie Kano Kwan says with a giggle. She has been working in RV for more than 30 years and finds it heartening to witness RVians’ transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Gestures of appreciation have substance too. For Auntie Eaillen, they are words of solicitude, such as “take better care of yourself” that lingers in her memory and for others, it is simply a heartfelt “thank you”.

A brief reflection, to sum up

During ECG, the job as a canteen vendor will most probably not be on your mind. However, canteen vendors show us something that many ECG speakers do not: that a job can be simultaneously painful, banal and fulfilling. In them, I saw the extraordinary ability to find lasting pleasures in the most mundane things and the tenacity to contend with the prosaic day to day problems. In that sense, they deserve as much admiration as everyone else.

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