Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Clothes Make The Man

Probably the best thing I did that helped my family to survive on my meager pay was make our own clothes. I sewed dresses, shirts, skirts, shorts and pajamas and bought only what I could not make myself: T-shirts, socks and underwear. I also sewed curtains, bedsheets, pillowcases. For a short while I sewed for my friends too and charged a small sum for my service.

All that scrimping and saving and sacrificing of personal time kept me debt-free as well as paid for the groceries, the doctor's bills and the kids' music lessons. We went to the cinema occasionally. We visited the library every weekend and also continued to buy books. We survived but quite often my purse was empty for several days before the next payday.

I don't remember Dottie wearing clothes which had been patched or mended—except maybe her school uniform pinafores which she wore for five long years—but Sonny wore most of his until they were threadbare and I had to mend them by stitching patches onto the holes and tears. Then when holes appeared on the patches, I attached a new patch on the old patch. There were patches galore on even a small pair of under pants. But he wore them without complaining or commenting. Bless him!

Being poor was not always sad and dreary. You could be dressed in an old and torn shirt and still have fun—like Sonny did. It started as a joke (he and I shared) whenever he (dressed in his full-of-holes T-shirt) accompanied me to the bank. While I was busy at one ATM, he'd queue up to 'use' another machine. Needless to say, the other ATM users would look at him from head to toe and would note his shirt and immediately acted as if they were potential robbery victims and they'd often change their minds about withdrawing their money! Or if they had brought a small kid, they'd pull the child towards them protectively! Then after attracting all that attention, Sonny would go stand at my side at the machine to tell about his little 'adventure' and for a moment the onlookers must have thought I was going to be robbed!

Those were the days of hole-y T-shirts, my friend, but they haven't ended. Sonny sometimes still wears his work shirts (with holes) to the mall if it is too much bother to come home to change his work clothes. And he'd tell me what happens, sometimes months after the incidents. Strangers really do judge you according to the clothes you wear. Some are sympathetic and others assume you are trouble if you wear torn clothes.

There was that time he went to the bookstore to get a box of water-colour pencils. A suspicious salesperson followed him around while he was looking at the more expensive boxes. The guy must have assumed that Sonny was going lift something off the shelf and not pay for it.
"These are expensive brands," he said to Sonny. "There are cheap ones over there."
"I'm buying them for my mother," Sonny told him. "And I don't want to give her the cheap ones."

On another occasion he was at a kids' store and had chosen a pretty pajama set for Baby. The salesgirls noted the torn T-shirt he was wearing and must have felt quite sorry for him. One whispered to the other: "What a shame! He really wants to buy this for his daughter even if he can't afford it." And they gave him a big discount even before Sonny asked for one.

Then there was the time he went to buy kimchi at this store, again dressed in his torn work shirt. The cashiers whispered behind his back...
Cashier A: How can he afford to buy kimchi? This tiny jar costs 20 ringgit!
Cashier B: Maybe he eats only plain rice with a little kimchi every day.
Cashier A: Yes, and since kimchi is very salty he can make this jar last a long time. Poor guy!

I used to tell Sonny that the clothes we wear are the first things people see and it’s only natural that they'd judge us based on our clothes and appearance. Then they’ll note our actions and the words we use if we happen to speak. Their perception of us varies accordingly. Unfortunately, our 'communications' with strangers don't often go beyond the 'appearance' stage and we can’t really show we aren’t losers, trouble makers, thieves etc unless they stick around longer. Of course there are people who’d label you as lazy, good-for-nothing, ‘sampah masyarakat’ even if your dress is decent. Little people need to put others down so they’d feel great—but that’s a story for another day.


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