Further Tray-ning Required

Cleaning up after one’s self usually comes naturally in many modern and developed countries. So why has it seem to have cause a stir when the issue of returning food trays, crockery and utensils to its designated areas was raised in Singapore?

A few years ago, I came across a group of tourists from the USA who were accompanied by their local host to a food court in central Singapore. Upon finishing his plate of chicken rice, one of the Caucasians politely asked his host where he could return his wares to.

“You can just leave it here. Someone will take care of it,” his host replied reassuringly.

Somewhat baffled, the foreign guest asked, “Are you sure?”

His host nodded with confidence.

Despite that, the body language expressed by the group of visitors still indicated a sign of unease and doubt, even more so when they kept stealing glances back at their table while walking towards the exit.

When dining at a hawker centre or food court, I do my part by wiping off any spills on the table with some tissue paper whenever possible. Upon finishing the last spoonful of my nasi ayam penyet, along come these eagle-eyed aunties and uncles (affectionately known as “cleaners”) with a built-in radar-satellite-thingamajig for spotting patrons who have emptied their plates. Armed with a galley-sized trolley filled with dirty plates and utensils, these hardworking, albeit frail-looking, warriors – who should unquestionably be enjoying retired life – stroll down endless aisles of food courts and hawker centres and clear messy tables in swift fashion. After extending my gratitude verbally, often paired with a smile, I ask them whether they’ve had their meal as an ice breaker. A weak smile or nod greets me and the look in their tired eyes seem to tell an equally fatigued story. But I digress. Ultimately, it’s just not right to place blame on these aunties and uncles for doing what they are paid to do – or rather, what we should be doing by ourselves without any excuse.

Regardless of where you come from in this world, the act of cleaning up after one’s self is certainly one of the fundamentals of growing up. However, coming from a country where housemaids have been seen literally spoon-feeding their employer’s able-bodied adolescent children (among other ridiculous and petty tasks forced upon them), it’s unsurprising that people couldn’t care less about doing things without added assistance – not to mention cleaning up after themselves. I’m pretty sure these aforementioned entities are the same ones who leave a mess in other public places, such as libraries, and expect others to clean up after them. It goes to show that a well-developed country isn’t necessarily home to well-mannered people.

What makes it more audacious and alarming are skeptics of this recently revived “Tray-Returning-Movement” suggesting incentives to be offered to those who take the “extra effort” to return their dirty wares. This need for a “nudge” only solidifies the fact that people are neither gracious nor sincere in their actions. So you’re telling me you want someone to reward you with a can of Coke for clearing up the mess you created?! One even mentioned that “messy hawker fare” (such as clothes-staining chili crabs and fish head curries) limits one’s ability to make the effort to dutifully clean up after him or herself. Can someone please tell me where the logic lies in that statement? It’s rather sad to have to teach a grown adult – some of whom look and speak like educated scholars – something you would enforce onto a child.

Here’s a tip; try limiting the bones, uneaten produce and mess within the plate you were served with. If you fall under the barbaric-Neanderthal category, underline your plate with a tray and set the unwanted items aside; whilst still within the confines of the said tray. Done eating? Pick up the tray and return it to its designated area(s). I told you that it was like talking to a child.

In the distance, the aunties and uncles pray for your longevity after seeing such acts of graciousness.

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