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IT'S 10.40pm on a Friday night. I've just left the office, and am waiting for my tardy Uber to appear. The app said my ride would arrive in three minutes, but it's been a quarter of an hour . . . and still no car.
I've spoken to the driver twice - "No, I'm at Braddell Road, not Braddell MRT" - but he can't seem to locate me. I glare at my Uber app, and hover my finger threateningly over the "cancel trip" button. But I think the better of it. The guy's been doing his best to find me, after all; it's not his fault that his GPS is sending him in circles. Plus, he did sound rather apologetic on the phone. At long last, a Kia Forte shows up. I tumble into the backseat gratefully and gracelessly, and say hello. He apologises - again - and asks if I've had dinner. Still in a bit of a huff, but with my manners intact, I return the question. He says he's eaten; he went home to enjoy his mother's cooking after finishing his day job.
I peer into the driver's seat: he looks to be in his late 30s. There's a crucifix jangling from the rear-view mirror. Ah, the judgy side of me thinks - must be one of those sheltered Catholic mama's boys. I ask what he does in his day job, and he says he's a project manager in a shipping company.
We chat for a bit about the oil price tumble, and how badly the industry has been hit. By this point, his ebullience and chattiness have defrosted any residual irritation I had been harbouring.
I start to ask follow-up questions; this time, they're borne of a genuine interest to find out more, not mere courtesy. I ask why he's spending his nights as an Uber driver, since he already has a day job. I assume the extra money is going towards some entrepreneurial ambition, or an early retirement fund.
"I'm a missionary. I go around to do the Lord's work."
Wow; not quite the answer I was expecting (although the swinging crucifix makes more sense now). "I also need to earn more to pay for my ex-wife." My mind feasts on the fresh detail, jumping to its own conclusions again. An acrimonious divorce with high spousal maintenance, I assume inwardly.
"I pay for my ex-wife's studies. She wants to become a Buddhist nun."
Wait, what?! Will the surprises never cease?!
He explains that she feels a deep calling to be a fully ordained Buddhist nun. It's something he 100 per cent supports, he emphasises. So is that why you split up, I ask. (I know, I know; I'm incurably nosy. I suppose I'm a journalist for a reason.) He says "yes" without hesitation, and adds that they never got into fights. They were married for 20 years and have a 22-year-old son. I'm dumbfounded - he doesn't look old enough to have a grown-up son. Apparently, he's actually 53 (so much for my guessing skills).
I say his ex-wife's decision to become a Buddhist nun must have come as a shock, but he astonishes again. "Actually, when we were dating, she told me that when she was seven years old, she felt that her calling was to be a Buddhist nun. But I said: 'Aiyah, when children are small they imagine all sorts of things, lah.' So we continued, got married, and had a son." Around their son's first birthday, she confessed that she was still feeling the urge to be ordained. He recalls himself saying with a combination of shock and irritation: "How can you leave?! We have a one-year-old son!" Eventually, they agreed that she would stay to keep the family unit whole - continuing her role as mother until their son reached the age of 18.
"I told her that when he goes to NS (National Service), she can leave. I prayed the whole time for her to change her mind, but my prayers weren't answered."
That must have been hard for you, I say. He nods his head slowly, before admitting that he was very down in the first two years after their split. Their marriage was annulled four years ago by the Catholic Church.
She now lives in Taiwan in a monastery-like school; he pays for her studies, as well as trips home for Chinese New Year. "She has shaved her head and all," he adds. His ex-wife has told him to go look for someone new, a "next love" of sorts. He tells me he's open to the idea, but doubts anyone would want to settle down with a 53-year-old.
"But, you know, it's okay. Maybe my calling in life is to be a missionary. I'm prepared for anything," he says with zen-like calm.
We pull up to my street too soon. I have so many burning questions - How are he and his ex-wife still friends? Does he regret anything? How did his son take all of this? - but the time for our chance encounter is up. I clumsily thank him for his openness, and for sharing his story with me. He tells me to enjoy my weekend, and to take good care. I reciprocate the good wishes, and feel utterly inadequate for it. As I turn the key to my front door, I marvel at how - had I pressed that "cancel trip" button - I would never have met this remarkable person, and learned about his remarkable life. For, isn't it true? You just never know who might surprise you, and which story you haven't heard.
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