story | Amanda Leong, Staff Editor
photo | Ruchel Phua, Staff Illustrator
At the start of this semester, I was surprised by the presence of two sprightly little children in the Cendana Dining Hall. At every meal, the young boy would walk triumphantly through the aisle of the dining hall with his small hands barely gripping the width of the cup. Despite his tiny frame, he posed an intimidating presence with his gangster vibe and badass attitude. In contrast, his sister, the little girl, gingerly knelt on her seat so she would be tall enough to reach the food on the table.
I’m not sure if other Cendols feel the same, but I always feel ten times happier when I see these little children in the dining hall. It’s amazing to me that this dining hall, the place where we jaded students complain about our workload and debate the complexities of “adult” life, is a space of wonder and excitement for these children.
I had the opportunity to interview the parents of these children, Assistant Professor (Environmental Studies), Marvin Joseph Montefrio, and his wife, Yasmin Ortiga, who is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Singapore Management University (SMU). They were joined by their helper, Jori, and their two children, Tala and Pe Pe (Felipe) at the Cendana Common Lounge.
Pe Pe was playing the piano in the background, with gusto. Tala got bored and was brought outside the common lounge by Jori.
How have the children settled into Yale-NUS College?
Yasmin: We used to live in Kent Vale and only moved to Cendana this year. These two places are quite different. In Kent Vale, it’s like a regular [condominium] where everyone has their own residence. Here, we feel that we are part of a community. It’s very nice.
Marvin: We were worried about how the kids will adjust to this space at first. In Kent Vale, they had already found their fun spaces and activities. There’s a playground and a swimming pool, and they liked walking from Kent Vale to West Coast Plaza. They thought that we were living in a hotel room or a service apartment when we first moved here because a couple of days later, Pe Pe said something like, “Let’s move back to Kent Vale.”
We worked our asses off to prepare the kids’ room so they would feel more at home in Cendana. Surprisingly, they adjusted to the space quickly. They got so excited when they found their toys in their room. We always joke that the kids treat the entire college as their mansion–the common lounge is their piano room and the entire dining hall is their kitchen.
They are already developing their favourite routes through the area. Pe Pe insists on passing through Saga, Elm and the Performance Hall when coming back from University Town.
They love playing with the vending machines in the Cendana courtyard and the library. It’s a big event for them. Pe Pe loved it so much that we actually took the time to find a toy that looks like a vending machine.
At this point, Pe Pe stopped playing the piano and decided to join us for the interview. He picked up my matriculation card and examined it excitedly.
They have also really gotten into the habit of “tapping” to open and close doors using our matric card. When we go back to the Philippines, they still pretend that the doors are automatic and go “toot” whenever they open the doors.
Yasmin: I’m just imagining it from their eyes. Being so small, the whole campus must seem like one gigantic playground that they have not yet finished exploring.
Marvin: You know, they are free spirited kids or “free range children” as we like to call them.
Have Pe Pe and Tala met other children in Yale-NUS?
Marvin: Andrew McGeehan is trying to organise a kind of block party in Cendana for all the children at the end of the semester. Some of the faculty members will open up their apartments and each apartment will have a unique activity so the kids can just float in and out. For example, in Andrew’s place there will be cat petting. What I proposed is karaoke and snacks, and maybe kid petting!
Yasmin: I wonder which will be easier to pet, the kids or the cats.
How have these children changed since moving into Yale-NUS?
Marvin: One day [while] we were in the dining hall, Pe Pe just suddenly picked up a piece of watermelon and said “ping guo” which got us confused. One student passed by and explained that it meant apple in Mandarin. Then he said to Pe Pe, “If you wanna say watermelon, say xi gua.” We mainly speak to them in Tagalog; they must have learnt Mandarin from school. We thought about requesting some of the students to speak with them in Mandarin, because we don’t.
Tala used to be shy. When she’s surrounded by other people, she’d just not make eye contact. Now, she’s not as fussy as before.
Pe Pe began to show off his numerical skills by counting up from one.
How have these children’s interactions with the students been like?
Marvin: In the middle of my class I saw a silhouette of this little guy outside the door. One of my students was like, “There’s a kid! There’s a kid!” and then I just let Pe Pe in for a while. It disrupts the class.
Yasmin: They are also a lot more present in Marvin’s meetings. I don’t know if the students like that or not.
Marvin: Whenever I meet up with students to talk about their capstone projects, they are always there running around.
Yasmin: We often like to make the joke that they are like the dementors in Harry Potter — sucking the student’s energy.
Marvin: In the dinners we’ve hosted, the kids will just run round and round. They give us trouble because they will have trouble sleeping early those nights.
Pe Pe begins to exclaim to himself, “ooh, ahh” while playing with my matric card.
Marvin: One of the first challenges we faced moving here was that they weren’t eating properly in the dining hall. They were just running around because it’s a big space — there are so many people and so much energy in the room. Sometimes we get self-conscious. They always enter with such hurrah but it’s not always gonna be a happy day. Once, Tala was crying the whole time. We worry about what students feel about it.
In Alfian Sa’at’s Optic Trilogy, one of his characters contrasts disillusionment and cynicism with the experience of a child watching a ball bounce for the first time. Even though it has been years since I’ve read this play collection, this description has always stuck in my mind. A bouncing ball seems so mundane and common a phenomenon that it is hardly noteworthy. In fact, it is almost always a nuisance to me, especially because I usually don’t catch the ball and it bounces away from me.
Is it possible to go through the routines of each day with the wonder and playfulness that Pe Pe and Tala feel on campus? Perhaps life can be filled with wonder if we allow it to be, if we choose to believe that each day is special because it will never be experienced again.