It was a quick trip to the grocers. A whole ten minutes, five of them spent with ‘Uncle’ at the checkout. He told me, as he weighed the tomatoes, that he’d been talking about stress with his last customer: “I don’t get stressed. Not any more”. “Oh? What’s your secret?” I asked.
‘I read the Tao. And now I don’t get stressed.’ he started, ‘But it was hard for me – words I didn’t know.’ I added this up in my head as he scanned some eggs. He didn’t look Chinese. I stabbed in the dark: ’Are the characters complex?’
“No, I read it in English.”
He was from Cambodia, and arrived in New Zealand in 1979. My brain whirred as it read between the lines of what an emigration in the middle of the Khmer Rouge regime meant. As cucumbers and eggplants went into my bag, he explained that he knew what it was to Live. He’d dodged not one but two executions – literally a gun to his head – and escaped to Thailand …only to be robbed. Somehow he made it out alive.
The Tao, he told me, says that the best choices are made for you. For him this had held true: his wife was a good woman. I asked where they met. “In the Labour Camp.” He replied. 52 couples were married in one ceremony after being arbitrarily matched up. He had struck it lucky. Soon after, this new couple escaped together. “She never complains” he smiled.
Apples, oranges, spinach were rung up on the till. I asked his name – I knew I would want to know it for the future. ‘People, call me Uncle’ he said. Of course, I thought, instantly transported back to my Singapore days where ‘Uncle’ is also a term of respect like ‘Sir’. So befitting of him as a true Gentleman.
He handed me a brimming bag of good fortune. Carrots, avocados rested on top of the humbling perspective that Uncle had convivially shared with me. I rang my husband. We’d been chatting literally 12 minutes before about this or that forgettable frustration which seemed like a big deal at the time. My breath caught in my throat as I retold his story. Sometimes we need a nudge and a yardstick to remember what a really bad day looks like. I went home, suddenly with a greater sense of introspection and ordered a copy of the Tao Te Ching.
As I navigate the various online supermarket sites during Covid-19 (so grateful for their service) I can’t help but miss the very human interactions a trip to the shops affords. The power of human interaction cannot be underestimated. While no doubt online consumption will increase through this experience of Lockdown (more people trying these services for the first time) the undeniably human craving for a sometimes surprisingly good yarn with a ‘good sort’ is irreplaceable. I wonder if we will – at least for a while – smile a little more, chat a little longer, listen more actively, and relish the daily connection we’ve take for granted for so long.
ps. The Tao Te Ching is an EXTREMELY challenging book to read even in your first language – Uncle underestimated himself, the power of his conviviality and …his Good CX.