Niki Cheong is blogging

Ethnicity and nationality - The Bangsar Boy in London

I originally wrote this article for my first column of Tale of Two Cities for StarMetro which was scheduled for October. I was meant to write monthly starting then after my The Bangsar Boy column was put on hold while I am here in London. However, due to scheduling issues, my first article will only be published in December.

Since that is some time away, I decided I would write a new piece for then and post this article up here. Please let me know your thoughts on the issue – obviously, this reflects my opinion and how I currently feel and I am curious if anyone else feels the same way or differently.

By NIKI CHEONG
i.am@nikicheong.com

EVER since my first visit as a 16-year-old teenager, London has remained at the top of my list of favourite cities I’ve visited (Kuala Lumpur, being home, is of course excluded from the list).

I like it because I feel very much at home here.

While Londoners complain about the transport system, I find it easy to use and navigate. And amid all the reports of crime, I actually feel rather safe in this city (touch wood).

By most significantly, I like London for the fact that I speak a common language as everyone else. Living in such a transient city as this also means that the people who come through here come from various cultures but speak English as a unifying language.

Language is a big factor for me because I feel uncomfortable when I can’t read signs or approach people without sounding silly. I grew up feeling out of place even in a city as Singapore because the locals would come up to me speaking in Mandarin.

When I explain – or at least attempt to – that I am unable to communicate in that language, it is usually followed with awkward silence, probing questions or worse, accusations of how I have forgotten my roots.

This has never happened to me in London. In fact, instead of judging me or awkwardly changing the subject, my five classmates from China find this to be fascinating.

Looking at me, I am obviously ethnically Chinese. Yet I have so little in common with them – I don’t identify with much of their culture, I don’t speak the same language and I have no connection to the “motherland”.

Motherland to me is Malaysia and being an eighth generation Malaysian, I define myself (if the need arises) by my nationality as opposed to my ethnicity.

Recently, during a Facebook conversation with one of my former students in KL, I was asked if I felt ashamed that I couldn’t speak Chinese. I was not offended by the question, but I found it hard to understand why anyone would suggest that in the first place.

None of my Chinese classmates has asked me that question, I think, mainly because they very quickly saw how I was different from them. This despite the fact that they too are different from each other, coming from different cities and provinces, and speaking different dialects.

But my student’s question got me thinking about ethnicity at a time when it was something that crossed my mind a lot. Obviously, being new to a foreign country forced me to evaluate the context in which I might fit into this new society.

However, I was also thinking about ethnicity after an interesting night out at a club in Soho with my Australian best friend and his Malaysian partner. I was tagging along to a birthday party where a majority of the guests were of Chinese descent.

What I found fascinating was that everyone spoke in a different accent depending on their backgrounds; there were those who are British-born, some who had come over from a variety of countries for studies and never left, and others like me who had just moved over or were visiting.

For me, this scenario was the most simplistic way of considering ethnicity in a globalised (or a post-migration) world. I suspect that very few people there that night would identify with their “Chinese roots”, especially if they were not born in China or grew up there.

I know a couple of my locally-born Chinese friends would reply, “I’m British” if I were to ever ask them about their heritage. They either see the Chinese factor as a given considering their skin colour or it just didn’t matter to them.

I found this really interesting because it drew a contrast with the way we approach ethnicity back home. In Malaysia, multi-racialism forms our social fabric. In a cosmopolitan city like London, where more than a third of its population, according to Wikipedia, was not born in Britain, it is arguably similar.

Yet the way people here relate to ethnicity is so different than back home where we tend to celebrate our differences a la unity in diversity. Over here, there is less emphasis on that.

Sure, many people still stay true to a lot of their heritage and traditions but you can’t help but get the feeling that at the core of it, differences in this context rarely matters because it doesn’t (or shouldn’t).

In my first couple of weeks here, I’d joke with my friends that no one in London “speaks” English. I was referring to, of course, the fact that there are so many different accents floating around but people rarely stop to identify and single them out.

It is like living as an orchestra where everyone’s different accents makes up the music. And while every instrument has a different history, form and purpose, they are seen as a collective instead of individually because they all contribute to the same symphony that is the buzz of London.

12.09am Greenwich Meridian Time

Discussion (13)

There are 13 responses to “Ethnicity and nationality – The Bangsar Boy in London”.

  1. so very true.

    matter of fact when i was visiting london, i rarely heard any “english accent” with most people i met being my friends who were malaysian and people working in shops/restaurants, probably from eastern europe.

    london is a far greater melting pot than a country like malaysia with 3 big communities which make things interesting.

    • I think both sides have their benefits, but race is a dirty word here (even if it is a politically correct movement) and as such, less politicising. I think that’s what makes all the difference.

  2. Niki – I love this entry, would you mind if we featured it in next weeks Chevening Conversations blog and advertised it to the wider Chevening community?

  3. Justin Ling responded:

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    Such a beautiful write up…i really enjoy reading it! :)

  4. tf responded:

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    I think in most countries there’s more emphasis on assimilation. in malaysia, emphasis is on maintaining one’s cultural identity and integrating. assimilation seems to work better by and large, but malaysia has done a great job over the years. only of late, has the whole issue of unity and integration been politicised and, quite contrarily, done the opposite and created friction.

    London truly is a melting pot of people from all over the world as you said, but racism and xenophobia still exists… it isn’t politicised the way it is in malaysia and unity isn’t something politicians in england harp on about and brand in order to win votes.

    • I totally agree with you, TF. I think in some places assimilation has worked well, in other societies, like the Malaysia we knew before, it was quite wonderful as well (then again, one can argue that there were many problems that were waiting beneath the surface).

      But yes, it is the politicising that ruins everything in my opinion. But that also comes from the people – we allow these kinds of politicising to happen, we play to the rhetorics and we react through insecurity and defensiveness.

  5. Having recently been to NYC, I heard more accents there than I did in London. Seems to be it a bigger mix over there than in London.

    I’m what some would call a banana. For me, I feel its a shame I don’t speak Chinese/Mandarin but I am not ashamed. Having said that, I did unintentionally teach myself Cantonese by watching lots and lots and lots and lots of HK shows (3 hours a day, 5 days a week). Haha!

    Eight generation Chinese? Wow.

    • Thanks for your observation Amanda. I suppose this might also be true in many other cosmopolitan cities.

      I’ve been to NY a couple of times, but this never occurred to me during my visits. Maybe it’s because I was only there for a few days, or I only visited the touristy areas so I expected the cacophony of different accents already. Maybe it was just too busy that everything became static noise.

      But I wonder if it is also different in that I think most of the “accents” belong to visitors in New York (beisdes, of course, foreign workers and migrants like in any country). I suspect that London is different in that there are a lot of residents who come from Europe (due to the EU pact) and as such, appears a bit more distinct to me.

      As for the banana label, yes I am very familiar with it. :) And your line about shame and ashamed I think captures what I feel as well. I did try to take Mandarin lessons, though, but to no avail!

      And yes, eighth generations. I challenge anyone – politicians or otherwise – to tell me to my face that I should “go back to where I come from”. 😛

  6. nice one, niki. now, if only some of us (especially politicians) back here in Malaysia start to think and speak as Malaysians first and not as Malays, Chinese, or Indians.

    • I hear you. It’s hard though, considering our history and bad habits that are so deep rooted in our political system, but we have to remain optimistic that it will happen.

  7. William responded:

    · Reply

    I’m Chinese Malaysian but I cant speak Chinese either. I had bothered me for years and I did try learning. I felt the same that I couldn’t identify myself much with my culture and it did make me feel left out a lot. Eventually I learned that it’s more important of who you are as an individual than identifying yourself within the confinement of your culture or race. Nice to know not all us ‘bananas’ are alone.
    Funny enough, I’m in London for awhile too and I’m absolutely loving it.

    P.s: Cycling the parks are awesome.

  8. Mrjinjang responded:

    · Reply

    No Nkki, there is a big difference in UK there is no NEP. In Malaysia there is legally sanctioned state racism. Also don’t forget May 13 when innocent unarmed Chinese were targeted by Gov. instigated militia.

    Repent for these things and you might see a different Malaysia

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