Race relations 2: Once an ethnic minority…

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Tang Li
Tang Li

Life abroad as an outsider can help one understand what ethnic minorities go through

By Tang Li

Tang Li
Tang Li

I spent a good part of my life as an “ethnic minority.” From the age of 11, all the way to 19, home was a small market town in Hampshire, Southern England. I was one of perhaps a group of 30 odd people in a town of some 10,000 plus who was obviously not White Anglo-Saxon.

I was the only person who could communicate with the owner of the Chinese takeaway (who was from Hong Kong) in a language other than English. While English is to all intents and purposes my “mother tongue,” I took pride in the fact that I could speak Cantonese, a language that no one else could understand.

While I did face one or two “racist” encounters, life as an ethnic minority in southern England wasn’t bad. Sooner or later, people got to know my name. I could walk into the bank and just say “My name Tang” and the bank officer would pull out my bank record and attend to whatever needs I had.

This easy convenience changed when I had to come home for national service. Suddenly, I was just like everyone else. I noticed this most when I could no longer get things done at the bank without identification. I remember the bank officer telling me, “Sorry, it’s quite a common name.” It was like being told that I was officially no longer interesting.

To my chagrin, people were less accepting if you were different in some way when you looked like them. In the two-and-a half years of National Service, I probably had more jibes directed at my “accent” than I had in the preceding seven over my skin colour.

Nevertheless, I made the decision to come back to Singapore to work. I have now been back in Singapore for 12 years. Slipping between English and Singlish is now a natural habit. My Mandarin has become better for the simple reason that I use it more than I did in the UK.

However, there’s another part of me that still feels for being different. I don’t expect “new arrivals” to become like me. In fact, I believe they can be themselves and still get on with life because …well, I did too. For example, one of my closest friends is a Nepali immigrant. I don’t expect him to become “Chinese” just to fit in with me. If anything, I try to reach out to him.

I have not yet become a fluent Nepali speaker. However, I find it easier to pick up Hindi than I do Hokkien. I have always believed that if I am more educated than the next guy, I should be the one taking the initiative to understand his culture rather than expect him to communicate through mine.

I guess all of this makes me unusual. An article in the Straits Times on September 12 stated that while Singaporeans are willing to accept colleagues from a different culture, they are less inclined to accept someone from a different culture into their social circle. Doesn’t it say it all about our efforts to create a fully integrated society?

Tang Li is an independent PR consultant and writer  

See also Race Relations 1