The taste of ice-cream: Vignettes from Refugee Union

Guest contribution by Vania Chow

“Ma!” Her younger son cried, tugging at her hand as they walked through the streets. The day was a hot one, with the usual Hong Kong sticky humidity that she grew to hate. He pointed to a poster banner plastered onto the window of the convenience store. ‘Summer discount- $25 for 3 ice creams of your choice!’ The sign read in its blaring red letters.

“My friends at school said that the new mint chocolate flavour is the best!” Her son, who had then only begun primary school, cried, hands tightening on his mother’s wrists with excitement.

“Can we get one?” Shaya’s mouth tightened, flattening into a thin line. As surprising as it was, this was the first time that her sons had ever asked her for something like this. Her older son was never one that was picky, or even very aware, with her food, and her younger son, before going to school, even if he did want something like this, never quite had the words to articulate it.

Vistas from Refugee Union. Photo: Raj Deol

In the heat of the moment, Shaya didn’t quite know how to respond. In fact, she wasn’t sure how she felt inside. A part of her was a little annoyed. Although she knew that it was only the nature of an innocent child to ask, she always hoped that, having grown up in the uncomfortable predicaments they did, her sons knew better than to wish for the impossible. After all, if they continued to live with such unattainable hope, she believed they would only constantly, forever be let down. The other part of her was tinged with guilt. Even though she knew that she had already done to the best of her ability to provide for her children, the lingering feeling of failure never left her. What kind of parent wasn’t able to provide their children with something as simple as ice cream, a pantry staple for many?

“Come on, you know we can’t.” Shaya wrapped her fingers along his tiny hands and pulled him along in the street, not looking down to meet his eyes that were staring up at her longingly. She couldn’t pull herself to face them.

“Why’s that, Ma, why’s that?” Her son slowed down in his steps, unwilling to be tugged away from the poster. Vanilla, mango, mint-chocolate, it advocated, Shaya could already imagine their sweet, tangy taste on her tongue, smothering it with a cool blanket under the steaming sun.

“I’m sorry,” Shaya returned, “But the budget we’ve allotted won’t allow for it.” As the two continued grudingly on their way, Shaya was well aware that her son turned back, not once, but twice, to look again at the poster. “I’ll let you know again if we have extra budget.” Shaya tried her best to reassure him. She was careful with her words: from experience, Shaya learned that it wasn’t wise to any promises with a timeframe, for, in her predicament, she could never be completely sure of what tomorrow would look like, and, personally, she was a firm believer in building a trusting relationship with her children.

Photo: Raj Deol

Today, several years later, her sons have only had ice-cream several times. The first time was at a Christmas party held by an NGO, and the second was one glorious birthday when Shaya managed to have a little spare on her food card. It was a difficult decision, spending that little extra on ice-cream, for there was so much more -dried beans, cooking oil, pasta- that she could have bought in advance for the following month. However, after lengthy discussion, Shaya and her husband came to the conclusion that this treat, this delicacy, this experience was a necessary one for their children, and was thus well worth the money. Perhaps her younger son had already forgotten the day when he asked his mother why they could not get mint-chocolate ice-cream, but Shaya never did.

Editor’s note: Food security is a pressing need for the refugee community as only HKD1200 is allocated each month, in the form of Park N Shop vouchers. There are no price adjustments for inflation and panic buying has led to food shortages this year. There are several ways you can assist – to help the family in the article and others in the community, you can get in touch with Refugee Union directly and donate long life food items to their centre in Sai Ying Pun.

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