Ween pushed the shovel hard into the soil but he only managed to dig up half a shovel of the grass-tangled earth.
His energy was running low, and his skin looked burnt in the hot Penang sun. The broad-brimmed farmer’s hat could only partially cover his face as the sun peeked through the gaps of the loosely woven straws.
His thin long-sleeved shirt provided very little protection and had a hint of brown as the colour of his skin was apparent through the material.
The young 24-year-old Myanmarese worked in harsh conditions, perhaps sometimes as harsh as that in a labour camp, for over a year.
“Why don’t you work in a restaurant?” I asked him. “It doesn’t pay as well,” said the quiet and soft-spoken Ween, who was fluent in Bahasa Malaysia.
I looked at his forearms when he rolled up his sleeves during a short break. They were tanned from the many hours spent in the sun. Then I looked at his hands. His fingers were slender, which marked his youth.
“This is such a hot day. You can take it?” I asked further.
He smiled and shook his head weakly.
When his body grew weary, and the hot sun became too much to bear, he took a longer break and a few puffs from half a cigarette, his only respite. Then, he trudged stoically back into the heat, each time slower than the last.
Ween, like many other foreign workers, sent money home to his family every month. He was single and viewed working in Malaysia as an opportunity to make money before his youth faded away.
His co-worker, Thant, has been working here for more than 10 years. He had a slightly easier job of laying tiles and doing plumbing. The jackhammer, and the loading and unloading of broken concrete were for newcomers like Ween. Once he has learnt the ropes, he hopes to be relieved of such punishing work; otherwise, he might not last long.
Looking at Thant, Ween was motivated to carry on.
“You’re a good son,” I told him. The reserved Ween smiled, as usual.
If Ween were to continue to toil here for a few more years, would the thousands of ringgit he sent back home, build the paradise he dreamed of? Or, would he go home to find a thicker mattress, a television set and a motorcycle greeting him – a temporary satisfaction – only to discover life continuing at the pace he knew before he had left for Malaysia? That life is still monotonously grey with no colourful future in sight?
But Ween doesn’t think of that. Neither do many of his fellow countrymen. They only imagine dreams which our forefathers had dreamt of. Dreams of their own paradise, of a more comfortable life.
The Myanmarese are a hardy, hardworking lot who choose intensive jobs to help them to elevate their financial status quickly. Myine, a fair-skinned boy with soft brown curls that framed his pretty face, was another example. He climbed to the roof of my house with the agility and swiftness of the cat that left traces of birds in my compound.
He then hosed the roof patiently, sometimes on the same spot for 15 minutes, until his workmate shouted from inside the house, “That’s the spot!”
Mr Tan, his tauke told me, “He never fails to find the leak. He’s that good. When he first came here he didn’t even know how to open a car door! And his fair skin was almost white. He doesn’t tan easily, so whatever brown you see is evidence of how much he has endured.”
As I watched Ween working outside my house from the comforts of my air-conditioned room, the disquiet in my heart urged me to step out and take over the shovel from him. But I know I couldn’t. And with my anti-UV umbrella in one hand, I probably won't be able to dig up much soil with my remaining hand.
By five in the evening, and as the tired sun retreated, a shadow of the nearby tree was cast where Ween stood. Intoxicated by the heat and weariness, Ween moved about in a daze. But in his heart, he was a step closer to his paradise.
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