Haldar shows us a picture of his mother

To kick-start today’s conversation with a group of workers waiting their turn with TWC2’s social worker, I show them this meme about phone call durations:

Boy to boy: 00:00:59

Boy to mum: 00:00:50

Boy to girl: 01:23:59

Girl to girl: 05:29:59

Husband to wife: 00:00:03

Mum to married daughter: 10:50:59

“It’s very true for me! And you, same?” I hope to provide some entertainment from the monotony of the line. The guys nod.

“Mother always waiting, free time, makan time, coffee time… I call,” says one.

“When feel sad, I must call mum, feel happiness inside,” adds another.

Maybe there should be another line in the meme: Foreign Worker to Mum: Way more than you expect.

I begin polling the guys about their filial habits, and before long some clear trends emerge. Younger workers tend to call their mums every day. Take Mamun, who’s not yet married. “My mother alone. Eight months before, father die. Sometime big rain…I call mum say ‘Don’t worry! Thinking of God.’”

Another young worker, Gurmeet, raises the bar higher, “I every day calling many times. If no call I very scared. My mum heart problem. I call, check she take medicine. I listen to voice and I try feel happy.”

Mamun drops a line that really sends the message home: “My mother is my world. I no have anybody, only my mother.”

For older workers, a few times a week is more than enough. “If everyday call, mother crying. She always ask come back home.”  These guys have kids at home, so I bring up their wives – also mums! “Wife everyday must call! Everyday, many times!” Right on cue, a phone rings and everyone chuckles as one man greets his wife.

We talk about mums’ dreams, a concept that takes a while to communicate. Google translating, I quickly add ‘hope, aspiration’ to clarify. Haldar, a friendly guy who’s keen to talk, carefully reads the words from my screen. “My mum dream making house and…” We pause while he translates ‘fish pond” and I notice the bandages around his right thumb. “If I no injure, three months finish already” referring to the expiry date of his Work Permit and the chance to go home. “Now…seven months [to] finish?” It depends on how his hand heals. His smile turns sad as he shows me a picture of his mother and the house-in-progress, which is bigger than I expect. I say thank you and feel a bit embarrassed to have pried open his homesickness.

Two men share that their mothers have passed on, gesturing upwards. I don’t want them to feel left out, and ask how often they think of their mums. Shohidul mentions Hari Raya – the Singaporean term for Eid al-fitri – showing a picture of his mother who passed away four years back. Andur’s mum died in 2011, and thinking of her still makes him cry. “She all time take care of everything, small to big.”

“How are you like your mum? Face same, voice… idea?” I awkwardly grasp for a silver lining.

“Mum poor man always helping. Makan give, money also give. My idea same.” I know his mum would be proud of that.

The conversion lulls as we reach the limits of our shared language. I try out one last prompt: “What makes a good mum?”

“Mum always nice food give. Take care all people. Pray for everyone, thinking of everyone.”

“She advise like teacher: ‘Remember eat more!’ ‘Do carefully!’ ‘Give respect!’ ‘Don’t fight’” We share another laugh– all grown and , yet we will never escape Mother’s eternal chiding!

“Is mum’s job easy?”  I don’t want to dwell on the nagging stereotype for too long.

“No easy! I working eight hours, finished already. Mother off day no have, break time no have. six o’clock before sun up. ten o’clock night time sleep.” I’m impressed, both with the workers and their mums. SuperMum strikes again!

With Mother’s Day this weekend (14 May) we’ll all be thinking of the mums in our lives. Will you hug your kids this weekend? Maybe you’ll treat Mum to a special meal or give her a small present? I ask the waiting workers how they would celebrate if they could magically go home, and they mostly said the same. One explained he would touch his mothers’ feet to show respect. Another said he would cook for her or buy her a new dress. Of course, from Singapore they will only be able to offer prayers for health and long life for their mums and wives, hope “next time can see.” And without a doubt we know they will call.