Not all about glamour

IN the last few weeks, I have been travelling a fair bit. As I like to get to know people, I find myself chatting to those I’m introduced to and observing the way people behave. I find this both relaxing as well as educational. You learn a lot about human nature by engaging with others and simply watching them.

One of my recent trips was to a developing Asian city with a sharp disparity in living standards between the rich and poor. On one hand, there was the chauffeur-driven class who move around in cars that cost more than homes, complaining about how difficult life is.

On the other, there were the masses on bicycles, carting themselves and their goods on their trusty bikes laden with bags, going about with an air of serenity. Whether it’s rain or shine, these people are out there to make ends meet.

On this trip, I visited factories that run for more than 14 hours a day non-stop. The environment is far from clean and comfy. There are no clean toilets and no clean water. And yet the workers are there day after day, earning income to pay for two, or if lucky, three meals a day.

There were dye colour vendors setting up tents with signages that said “eco-friendly dye”, but there were colours of neon and artificial colouring. There were street beggars asking for change and we were told not to help. There were even beggars at the airport whom we couldn’t do anything for.

My business travels often expose me to this darker side of life. Being a designer is not all about glamour and glitz. We have our fair share of visiting dirty premises, putting in long hours and dealing with many different situations. Most of us accept this as part and parcel of our vocation. How different we are from the up-and-coming young ones, designer students and new designers who complain about how tough their lives are.

Taking the easy way out

I’ve had interesting discussions with teachers and artists, who share my dismay over how most young people think and work these days. I’ve heard complaints about young people being allergic to dust, sun, rain, soap, height … so that whenever you ask one of them to do something, there is always a reason not to. They are not willing to learn about the basics and start from the bottom. They are always looking for short cuts, ways to escape anything that smacks of drudgery.

I’ve had many interns working with me over the years. When they ask for a report card, and you give them an average rating because of their weaknesses, instead of trying to understand why, they are indignant, insisting that students who are far worse than them have gotten higher grades. I have been asked point blank to award full points for interns who did not deserve it. Some friends who are teachers tell me stories of how they are reprimanded by principals for failing their students. They were told either to give the students good marks because their parents were paying huge fees, or to resign.

Such stories are really unsettling, as they make you question values. When I was learning the trade, I would never dare question my teacher if she took away 20 points for a tiny marking that was missing on my paper pattern. This made me aware of how I’d been careless, and would motivate me to create a perfect pattern the next time. I remember how I continued to iron and steam hundreds of garments even when I had blisters all over my hands during my three-month internship and year of full-time work as a general worker.

Compared to that, what is so difficult about trying to create a window display, helping with stocks, or making head gear?

Unfortunately, there are no easy routes to success … unless this is passed to you on a silver platter, in which case it is not your success, but the success of your parents or grandparents.

If I had not been lucky enough to have won a scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to study in an expensive fashion school in Canada, where I enjoyed every single day of learning. I didn’t complain about not being able to afford a sewing machine there, and used the school’s machine every day up to three in the morning.

Challenges toughen us up

I was doing three competitions in my last semester’s final projects, and was so exhausted I accidentally ran the sewing machine needle through my finger. I fainted from the pain but continued after recovering. I was allergic to fur, but was selected to represent my school to take part in a recycled fur coat competition. I felt very sick from inhaling all that fur, but didn’t give up and completed my task. I learnt to be tougher and to take pride in what I do.

My advice to students and young ones is to think wisely before you spend your parents’ hard-earned money. Enjoy every minute you have been given to learning something new; no one can steal your knowledge from you. It is yours forever.

Mel’s Place is a fortnightly column by Melinda Looi for The Star newspaper.

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