He had to forgo regular showers to help his single mother save on water bills.
When Chung Jing Kai found out that his parents were getting a divorce, he was relieved.
He was only 14 when his parents separated.
His father, who often smoked and gambled, was a poor example of a father figure in Jing Kai’s eyes.
“My dad would often come home drunk at night, and end up arguing with my mum,” recalled the senior laboratory analyst, now 26.
However, his parents’ divorce was not the end of their struggles for his family of four.
On the verge of poverty, his mother struggled to make ends meet and provide for Jing Kai and his two elder siblings.
“My mum was the sole breadwinner of the family. She had to save her dough all the time and not spend on luxury wants.
“Being the youngest among my siblings, I spent the least amount of time with her, especially while she was working as a retail assistant. Because of that, I am not very close to my mum,” said Jing Kai, who studied biotechnology in ITE College East.
He received $10 per week for food expenses, but it was not enough for him.
“My sisters and I receive the same amount of money, but they eat less. They don’t spend as much as me,” said Jing Kai.
“Back in secondary school, everyone’s going through puberty. And for guys, we feel hungrier. We will definitely spend more money on food.”
It also meant that he could not afford the luxuries his schoolmates could, like school bags and fashionable items.
He even cut down on showering in order to save on water bills, which caused him to develop body odour-something his older sisters did not have to struggle with.
“I got teased, for not showering enough, by my classmates,” recounted Jing Kai.
“My sisters had to shower once a day too, but they didn’t get teased about getting body odour because…maybe it doesn’t come as strongly for them, as compared to guys,” he added hesitantly.
“At the back of my mind, I really wished my classmates could understand my family situation.”
To ease his family’s woes, Jing Kai took up a part-time job as a chef shortly after he completed his ‘O’ levels. For 10 months, he kept to a strict budget, setting aside about $200 of his pay for his mother and another $100 to pay his bills.
“My mum didn’t really react when I first gave her money, because to her, it is a must to contribute back to the family,” said Jing Kai. “But I just gave her money anyway, because I wanted to lessen her burden.”
Working part-time jobs at a young age to support their needs was something all three siblings went through.
“My eldest sister has been supporting the family income for about eight years. She did part-time studies all the way. It’s been tough on her,” he said.
His second sister worked after graduating from polytechnic, mostly to support herself before she entered university.
His childhood has made him more sensitive about money-related issues.
“One thing I regret is not working when I was in ITE,” he added. “I can’t remember why I didn’t work, but there was a time where I was struggling to get by.
“Without another parent to lean on, some necessities become luxuries…but I believe that I’ve become more resilient when my finances are in dire straits and [I have learnt to] better manage it.”
Things got better when he found a job after three years of working part-time.
After going through six interviews in a month, he secured a job as a senior laboratory analyst in January this year.
“My mum is working as a restaurant hall staff. She doesn’t earn much,” said Jing Kai. “My starting pay is already twice her pay.”
While he admits there hasn’t been much change in their relationship since he was young – they are still not close – Jing Kai believes in supporting his mother as much as he can.
“I made her breakfast once for Mother’s Day,” he said with a bashful smile. “I mean, I’ve worked in the kitchen, so I thought might as well lah.”
After witnessing the impact of his parents’ divorce on his family, he only hopes that his future family will not experience the rough patches he went through.
“If I get married, I hope I can become a better father to my children than my father was,” said Jing Kai.
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