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I was at a bakery cafe in Novena Square on Wednesday evening because I’d promised DBS that I’d deliver dinner to her and a mutual friend. Poor things, sick and working hard for month-end closing with no support from other colleagues. And no dinner. There are only so many meals of McDonald’s and pizzas that one can withstand without gagging.

So there I was, looking at the snaking queue and trying to decide if I could cut in just to ask whether they allow takeaway for main meals without earning death glares from hungry men and women. Mind you, I fully intended to start queuing from the end of the line if they answered me in the affirmative.

That’s when I spotted her. A fresh-faced bespectacled young woman in the bakery’s uniform busying herself at the bread and muffin shelves. Heaving an inner sigh of relief that I wouldn’t need to earn the ire of busy servers and hungry customers at the counter, I stepped happily towards the young woman and asked,

‘Hi, I was wondering if y’all allow takeaway for main meals?’

She managed something that looked halfway between a nod and a shake of her head, mumbled something unintelligible, then waved a hand towards the counter where the queue was. An air of uncertainty cloaked her.

I blinked owlishly at her, feeling foolish about my incomprehension. Then, revving up the wattage of my smile, I persisted and re-phrased my question.

The exact same reaction. I stared at her in consternation.

Have you ever had an electrical or mechanical appliance that wasn’t working so well anymore, and when it had one of its increasingly frequent sporadic moments, you ended up tapping it, banging on it, and sometimes even shaking it?

I sure felt like doing that. No, not to the young woman. To me! Thoughts raced through my mind; I wondered if it was because I’ve not ventured out from my home for too long…I prayed frantically that she was unintelligible and that I wasn’t suffering from hearing loss…

A huff of disbelief escaped me. Then, narrowing my eyes in suspicion, I tried in Mandarin,

‘你听得懂英语吗?’
‘Do you understand English?’
‘听得懂啊。’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘我是想问,你们这里的主餐可以带走的吗?’
‘I was wondering if y’all allow takeaway for main meals here?’
‘可以。请你到柜台那里order。’
‘Yes, we do. Please proceed to the counter to order.’

Well, well, well…she looked like a Singaporean, but when she spoke, I knew from her accent that she was a Chinese.

My issue with her is not her nationality, nor do I want to condemn her for (seemingly) not comprehending me. I believed her when she said that she did; she would not have pointed to the counter if otherwise. Perhaps it was my fault for catching on too slowly…

I do wish her reaction had been clearer and less ambiguous though. Her facial expression and body language did not alert me that she did in fact, understand me. In this aspect, she rather reminded me of some of the young people I’ve had to mentor for various lengths of time in the past.

With my thoughts running along these lines, I left the bakery cafe to get something else from another casual dining restaurant specialising in soups. This time, the young Malay woman helming the cash register understood me perfectly. I was delighted with her smiles and affable service. Until she started speaking in full sentences. Then it was,

‘Doyouwantsourcreamonyoursoup?’

My smile froze as I tried to decode what I just heard into a language that I’m familiar with. I gave up after three seconds and begged her to repeat herself.

‘Doyouwantsourcreamonyoursoup?’

Some angel must have taken pity on me because I finally managed to make sense of her garbled speech, and not a moment too soon because the silence was about to stretch into something called interminable.

As I battled the crowd that surged into the mall for dinner, I couldn’t help but recall incidents with the young adults whom I’ve had to impart some of my knowledge to. The deficiency in decoding body language and reading the atmosphere, the lack of reaction when directions were not understood and the subsequent stubborn, foolish pride that prevented them from clarifying while simultaneously urging them to proceed without further thought of the consequences.

I love technology. I love the miracle of having light come on at the teeniest movement. I love manipulating data spreadsheets, knowing that whatever formulae I input will result in perfect computation and presentation every single time. I love the convenience of WiFi and think the idea of sharing huge data files over Cloud systems beautiful.

What I don’t love, is that the convenience often takes away the intimacy factor. Messaging someone is not the same as hearing the person’s voice over the phone. Hearing his voice doesn’t beat seeing his face. Looking at him from a cold, sterile screen is just not comparable to touching him and breathing in his scent.

The tools that we have created to help us become closer to one another have driven us apart, by stunting the growth and development of the tools within us. I’m not advocating that we throw our smartphones away, but as we bend our heads over them at the dinner table, can we spare a thought for the person sitting across us, and wonder for a moment,

‘Have I looked at her recently? Really see her? Have I taken the time to listen to her? Have I been here for her? Not physically present, but with my mind and heart open to really absorb the words that she’s saying and not saying?’

If we do that, perhaps we’d keep our gadgets away for the moment, and our children and our children’s children will grow up basking in the warmth of a real smile and understanding the difference between sincerity and irony, and not let their avatars and emoticons do all the work while maintaining an expressionless facade.

As I exited the building, I resisted the urge to hit the side of my head with the heel of my hand. For all that I said above, it’s hard not to wonder if the problem lies with me…that the non-reaction or ambiguous reaction is the norm, everyone speaks like the hounds of hell are after them, and I’m the only one left biting the dust.

Perhaps I stayed behind in the cave when the new, shiny tools were handed out. I took my share, tinkered with them, used and loved them, but my primitive urges remain. I still want to go ‘tap tap, bang bang, shake shake’ when things stop working.

And I still want to tap into the human mind not through words alone, but by opening the doors and walking among the masses. Be with them, talk with them, feel with them…and these, I can’t do if I only shut myself behind the flickering screen of a computer.