Back home discussion of the local/foreigner dichotomy has raged for weeks, months, years. As the city gets increasingly crowded and prices continue to rise, the frustration and anger over the high number of immigrants in Singapore is creeping towards boiling point. New media platforms are turning into a veritable buffet of racist and xenophobic sentiments.
Picking up on the vitriol, even the government has acknowledged that something needs to be done. We talk belonging, we talk integration, we talk assimilation.
It was all so easy to discuss in Singapore. As a Singaporean I was reassured of my right to be there and to belong. Everything I said, I could say with the confidence of a “native”; by virtue of the location of my birth, I automatically earned the right to assert my claim over the space.
Moving to Cardiff has changed things up a bit.
I’m not at home anymore. I don’t automatically belong anymore. Although my ability to communicate fluently in English makes things a lot easier than it is for many of the other international students I’ve met who have to struggle with language, the first few weeks here had me in situations where I was expected to prove my ability all the time. “Yes, I know I speak English well, thank you. Yes, I speak English as a first language. No, I don’t have to go for extra language lessons. Yes, yes, ni hao and that’s very nice of you, but I speak English.”
I haven’t experienced direct malicious racism, but there has been more than one occasion where people have walked past me on the street and started talking about the influx of immigrants and students from China, thinking I couldn’t hear or understand them.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t feel uncomfortable in Cardiff, and I actually am very happy here (one could even argue that I generally feel better here than I did in Singapore), but the fact remains that I’m often aware that I’m the foreigner here.
It makes me think about all the things we’ve said in Singapore about “integration” and “assimilation”.
Even before I left Singapore I was already uncomfortable with the concepts of integration and assimilation. I just think that the idea of expecting immigrants to pick up our culture and become like us is misguided. We can’t get harmony and cosmopolitanism by forcing everyone to become the same. That’s not how we can attain success as a global city (and I really don’t see how Singapore can ever avoid becoming a global city) that’s diverse and vibrant. Moving overseas has further crystallised my thoughts.
I’ve moved far away from home, but I’m still the same. People may perceive me differently, but inside I’m still me. I know what I like, and what I don’t like, and I know that a lot of these preferences have been heavily influenced by my background and my upbringing. I have certain traits and habits that may come from the culture and community I have been brought up in, and that’s how things are.
Perhaps, with time, I may discover that a British/Welsh method of doing things suits me better, and eventually change my habits. Then again, maybe that won’t happen. I don’t see a problem with either scenario.
As the immigrant, I would find it offensive and unfair for locals to expect me to conform or integrate, and give up my own preferences and habits.
It reminds me of the first time I moved overseas: in my third year in Hamilton (New Zealand), I got into a tiff with a friend over etiquette. Basically it all came down to a misunderstanding and differences in practice. I thought explaining the reasoning behind my action would help. I was told, “That may be how you do things back in Singapore, but you’re in New Zealand now and that’s not how my family does things here, so get with the program.”
At the time I was too shocked and outraged to be able to properly articulate what it was about that statement that had offended me so much. But upon reflection, what had happened was this: a practice I had been taught from childhood, influenced by a long history of Chinese cultural beliefs and practices, had been interpreted and reduced to a mere excuse, and found wanting, because I was expected to “get with the program”. I had been trying to explain the misunderstanding to put things right (I wasn’t even trying to argue that I’d been right!), but I was dismissed as the whiny foreigner.
That doesn’t make the local accepting, welcoming or respectful. It isn’t a way to encourage diversity and mutual understanding. It just hurts the foreigner and reflects badly on the local.
It would be unfair of us, as Singaporeans, to expect those who come to our shores to give up their own languages, preferences and practices to assimilate into our way of life (as if there’s just one definable Singaporean way of life).
Just because I prefer to have noodles for lunch over a panini doesn’t make me a bad immigrant to Wales. Just because someone doesn’t really fancy a mee siam at the hawker centre doesn’t make him/her a bad immigrant to Singapore.
I didn’t come to Wales to undermine their culture, their national identity or their sovereignty. I came here because I was offered the opportunity of an education that I believe will better my life. I don’t want to spend my time here constantly feeling like I’m being measured and found wanting. I don’t want people to despise me because I’m different. I want them to accept me despite my difference, and to embrace the diversity as something that adds vibrancy to Cardiff.
I don’t think this experience and these wishes that I have are any different from that of any other immigrant, be they Chinese or Bengali or Filipino. Standing on the other side of the local/foreigner divide, it becomes extremely clear. People are people, and no one should be expected to change until he/she decides to.