on acts of kindness

I’ve been in a melancholic mood lately. Mostly boredom I figure, but also this particular thought that I have been shown such kindness in my life, and yet I have done very poorly in repaying it, both to my benefactors but also my neighbours.

Then it hit me – many of these acts of kindness are slipping from my memory. And there will be a day when I’m old and grey when I will have forgotten most of them. Or just grumpy, jaded and apathetic enough to not care.

So here it is, as Herodotus opens his work – a record of great deeds so that they would not lose their due of glory:

1. Quite possibly the first act of kindness that struck me as really memorable was from high school. I’d finished school and just paid a visit to my local Games Workshop, and was now waiting for the bus. Then it started raining, and teenage moron that I was, I hadn’t packed an umbrella. Now standing right next to me in the queue was a Filipino lady, who was smart enough to pack an umbrella. I’ll never forget the odd feeling of being cold, wet and miserable, and then, very perceptibly, getting gradually less so. I looked up – the umbrella was covering me, but only just, not even quite enough to shield my forearms. But there was the Filipino lady, keeping her polite distance and staring straight ahead, but with an outstretched arm, the umbrella divided between herself and this complete stranger, this dumb kid. I’ve always pictured her wearing a vaguely embarrassed look on her face, her arm inching out toward me. Again, dumb kid that I was, I couldn’t find it in me to thank her or even say anything even as I got on the bus. But Filipino lady, wherever you are, I hope you’re well, and this list of acts of kindness starts with you.

2. Still during high school, this time during my UCAS preparation (the thing that gets you into UK universities). You’d have to go to the local British consulate to do this, so on the day I went with my mother to hand in the form to the nice man behind the desk and get it done. One slight problem: I’d failed to bring along any of the required paperwork. So the trip to the consulate, the long wait with the ticket machine – all shot because I hadn’t bothered to look up what forms I’d had to bring along. So that was a huge embarrassment and a huge failure on my part. My mother was not happy – I received a pretty sharp yelling for that. As we sat down at the local mall on the way home, I remember breaking down into tears. I slumped on the table for a good long while. And when I opened my eyes and looked up, there was, out of nowhere, a little orange juice box right in front of me. My mother didn’t say anything, just sat there, and the juice was really not that great. But I’ll never forget that juice box.

3. Fast forward to university in London. I remember feeling quite alone there for my first year. I’d fallen in with some bad friends at one point, I was confused and I missed home. But meeting one particular lady at church changed this. She saw something in me somehow, and kept encouraging me in what I did. One time she invited our Bible study group to her house. She made goulash from her home country, the best beef and tomato stew I’d ever tasted. I started feeling at home from then on, and she started calling me her son as well, and I called her mum. For a confused, lonely college kid, that was really something.

4. That church really was a fountain of kindness. There were a lot of older, married guys who were very willing to take me under their wing. One guy I remember in particular. He was a busy man, an architect, but he was from my hometown too. We got along pretty well, and he knew that I was pretty troubled at the time – deadlines, exams, girls, you name it. So he invited me to his place quite often, and laid out a mattress for me in his living room, and I became a pretty permanent fixture there for a while. He even let me stay for a couple of days during my exam period, because he knew I needed the space and the quiet, and his house was often pretty quiet (he was out for most of the day). We’d have whatever miracles he could cook up and watch dumb comedies every night. I did pretty well on those exams too.

5. After I graduated, I stayed in London for a good few years. The first few months after graduation were not that busy. I was looking for work, I was bored quite a lot, but I did have time to give impromptu English lessons to some of the international community at that church. I befriended quite a lot of South Korean students at this point, and I taught a few of them. What I remember was feeling very privileged to be an honourary Korean – their homes were always open, they told great stories, and they always managed to wrangle some extra something every time we went to a Korean restaurant. Many of the Korean ladies had a fantastic way of showing their love: cooking. My first job was at a bookstore – and please note that while visiting a bookstore is almost always fantastic, working at one is quite a bit less so. So one day I was at the cashier, torn between being bored and panicking that I didn’t know how to operate the machine. All the faces blurred past each other, “Hi, how are you, thanks for shopping here, next,” and so on. When suddenly one face looked really familiar. It was one of the Korean ladies from church, in the queue. Only she didn’t have a book. She had a felt bag. She flashed me a look somewhere between affection and nonchalance, pushed the bag into my hand, and without another word, walked out the door. It contained the best damn tomato stew I’d had in a long while, something I rubbed in my colleagues’ faces as they munched miserably on their sandwiches. The sandwich I’d brought along went uneaten.

6. A couple of weeks later at the same bookstore my name came up on the intercom, “Please report to information desk.” Goddammit – this was guaranteed trouble. Only when I got there, it wasn’t my irate boss or some psychotic customer, it was another one of the Korean ladies, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. She had heard that I was having a sore throat, and brought along some kind of ginger medicine in a jam jar. I never did try it (sorry) but then I’ve never forgotten that surreal, heart-melting moment.

7. There came a point where one close friend and mentor from church was about to leave. He was going to the US for further training. He was an interesting man – on one hand passionate, musical, loud and spontaneous, and one of the few Asians I know who can wear a beard, and on the other hand, a serious student of neuroscience who worked with monkeys. He had always found ways to encourage me and help me grow, always patient with my faults and idiosyncrasies. So we had one last man date before he left. We strolled along the South Bank of the Thames for a bit, just chatting about nothing. Then we stopped at a local mart for – and I’ll always remember this – beer, crisps and strawberries. Then we went back to South Bank, hopped a barrier (“Dude are we gonna get in trouble for this?” Grin. “Eh don’t worry.”), and sat on a small patch of sand. We spent the next few hours gulping beer, munching on crisps and strawberries, and trying to entice passing geese with the leftovers, giggling like little girls whenever they came close. Best man date ever.

8. Another time some of the guys at church got together for some football. A friend of mine came to give me a lift that morning. He wasn’t a Christian yet at that point but he liked to come, and he felt part of the family. I won’t forget his outrage (and my confusion) when I got in the car and he asked why I hadn’t brought him anything, “Not even a sandwich?” he cried, when he was taking the trouble to pick me up. That was a weird moment. The ensuing football game went as you’d expect, but at one point I did flop ass-first into a freezing puddle, and spent the rest of the match physically fighting off the chills. That night the friend who’d picked me up had me and another guy over at his place. We chatted, had takeaway, and watched that godawful Hitman movie. And since it was way too late to go home by the time the movie finished, we crashed his place. The three of us guys shared a bed, and yes it was a bit mantastic, but we were family. I won’t forget how my friend had felt outraged at the lack of sandwich in the morning, and yet opened his entire home to me that night.

9. Still at that church – now there was an old Scottish couple who hosted the international students at their home every year. It was a great time, they had a big, green backyard with all kinds of flowers, and the wife made her own jam and ice cream. And every year I got to see this one teacup they had, with a big porcelain spider at the bottom of the cup. It was never quite gross enough to fool anyone, but it was fun. One year was memorable though, I had just delivered the speech from Braveheart for a church event (in a terrible Scottish accent) a couple of weeks back, and the old husband thought it would be great if I could do it again this time. He was always pretty spry for an old man (he was pushing 70 and still went around on a motorbike), but I won’t forget this mischievous glint in his eye as he hurried me along upstairs. He opened his closet, and there took out his full Scottish regalia, his personal kilt, with all the history behind the tartan, the socks, the pouch, the dagger, the bonnet. It was a great honour for me to wear a piece of his history, and that of his countrymen. So I donned the regalia, went downstairs, and was introduced as his long-lost, suspiciously-Asian-looking cousin, and hammed it up with my terrible Scottish accent. The kilt was prickly and the socks kept coming loose. But I was wearing this man’s ancestry.

10. I got on particularly well with one guy at church. He was an older guy, he was known for being smart, funny, and for talking really fast. He majored in microbiology but was one of the few who could hold his own while discussing Persian or Byzantine history. He also lived pretty far from the city centre. So one time he’d had me over for dinner, we’d seen a movie and it was time to go home. Only it was pretty late at night – if you’ve lived in London you’ll know what I mean – the kind of time that makes you cringe. But my friend didn’t hesitate, he just said “It’s ok, I’ll come with you.” So he walked me to the station, dead of winter, almost midnight, the kind of people roaming around the street that you wouldn’t care to run into. But he still came with me to the train station, and even waited a good half hour for the train with me – we passed the time debating biblical literary devices. And when the train came he made his way back, all alone, dead of winter, just about midnight. He still does that kind of thing for his friends, as far as I know.

11. Toward the end of my stay in London things got harder. I was adjusting to my role as one of the pillars in the community, and struggling with girl issues at the time. One particular year was hard, I had fallen hard for this one girl and it was not working out. My flatmates (also from my hometown) knew this even without asking me (though to be fair I wouldn’t shut up about it). One of the things that did still amuse me at the time was Company of Heroes, a strategy game set in WW2. One of my flatmates (who I’d thought was far too cerebral for Company of Heroes) suddenly started taking an interest in the game. And I mean really interested – he was seeing angles and thinking of tactics that I hadn’t even thought possible. Then he bought the game, and we’d play a few nights every week for a couple of months. He’s still into the game as far as I know, but it was only later on that he told me he started getting into it so we could do something together. My other flatmate found time to help me out too: pretty much every, single night, without fail, for months, no matter how tired he (or, sometimes annoyingly, I) was, he’d walk me through what was going on, ask me how I was doing, and pray together. Those were good flatmates.

12. A postscript to London this time: I’ve visited London twice since returning to my country, and each time someone from the church family would put me up, no questions asked. The first time a couple put me up for a week and a half, even though they were newlyweds and probably valued a bit of peace and quiet. But they feasted me with delicacies, and, when I had my heart broken on the trip (yes, you’ll have noticed a pattern by now), marshalled some of the church family and took me out for Cantonese yum cha. And I won’t forget how each of these older brothers and sisters gave me their advice and encouragement in turn. Now the second time I visited, my old Company of Heroes-loving flatmate put me up, this time for a solid two weeks, again no questions asked. We gamed and talked like the old days and I even got him into a new game, which at the time he swore he wouldn’t get into. He still plays as far as I know, as does now his girlfriend.

These were merely the most spectacular acts of kindness I was shown in these last few years. There were many more than that, from a whole host of loved ones, some of them blood family, some of them church family. Some acts of kindness were less spectacular and more incremental and long-lasting, and those I’ll have to pass over for now. But there were so many acts of kindness.

If, dear reader, you recognise yourself in these acts of kindness, thank you. Your kindness has stayed and grown, though I hope to make it truly infectious someday.

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