By Liam Finn
A friend of mine is working on a construction site in Malaysia.
He’s on a year abroad from his civil engineering degree, a course he loathes. His stated aim was “to live one or two rungs above the poverty line”.
That changed last week. In his words, he had his “life put into perspective”. Andrew – not his real name – is happy for this story to be published.
I was taking the second of two alternating 12-hour shifts. The work involved sitting under ninety tonnes of concrete blocks and checking dials once an hour for 48 hours. It is dull.
The shift started at 5 am. My alarm was set for 3:30. I had a difficult cycle to work in the dark.
I was feeling sorry for myself.
Abdul, my colleague, had already worked for over twelve hours, setting up the equipment. He would be completing the remainder of the test, and so be working for around fifty hours in total. He was tired but still gave me a warm welcome.
Abdul started chatting.
He told me about his family back in Pakistan. He came to Malaysia to work because he was able to earn more money. This struck me because the pay is so poor here compared to that expected in the UK.
Abdul had to leave his young family in Pakistan. He has three boys aged ten, five, and two. He told me how he works hard here to provide an education and “bright future” for his children. He had considered trying to bring his family to Malaysia but that that would mean them learning and studying in a different language. He feels that it is more important to learn in their first language.
I was inspired by Abdul’s attitude. I told him that the education he is providing for his children and the careers they will obtain will bring will keep him looked after in his old age. He was visibly brimming with pride at the thought.
I asked Abdul how often he goes back to Pakistan. He simply replied “twice”. I assumed that he meant “twice a year” but was embarrassed when he told me he had returned only twice during his five-year stay in Malaysia. This means that he has been absent for almost the entirety of his middle child’s life and his youngest must have been conceived during one of his visits back to Pakistan.
The relative insignificance of my earlier complaints was now striking.
Abdul had unwittingly put into perspective how much I was missing my family after two months and how much I was looking forward to going home for Christmas after just six months. A whole year would be too long.
Abdul made me realise how fortunate I was to be able to afford to go home. I wondered what things he could have bought with the money it would cost for my own flight.
He had made me appreciate that I had received a good standard of education – free of charge. Coincidentally, I received my student loan instalment later that day: a lump sum of money that most people my age in the UK would spend on clothes, a new phone or booking a summer holiday.
Abdul’s story had made me realise how worthless these things actually are.