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
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