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The trouble with getting along – is it us or them?

Fiona Ren

Thu Feb 23 2012


We stood out like brown pebbles in a bowl of ivory ones. It might’ve been our physical appearance that gave away our “international” status. Or maybe it was our body language – awkward, a little too alert.

I counted less than 20 of us lingering in the courtyard of the college where I would be residing for the next three years. I remember seeing us as LEDs, each emitting a colour that indicated the country from which we came. It was O-Week, day one, and already I wanted to go home. All I saw were strange faces in a foreign land.

Having grown up in Malaysia my whole life, I was accustomed to its culture, its people, my family, friends, and my surroundings. Standing alone in that courtyard with over a hundred other students that day, it suddenly hit me that I was a minority in the backdrop of a multicultural society different from the one I was used to.

The situation was foreign to me (pardon the pun), and I reacted like how most of us would – by avoiding it. I remember actually choosing to sit alone one O-Week afternoon until a group of local girls nearby invited me to join them.

Looking back, I think what made it difficult for me to blend in with the locals in the beginning wasn’t simply the fact that I was aware of my “difference”. The problem was I was too conscious of it.

A memory I can’t seem to delete happened once again during O-Week in college. The activity picked to initiate bonding was bowling, and we were split into groups of maybe five or six a team. Instead of harnessing all my energy and attention in ensuring the ball maintained a straight course down the alley, my mind kept screaming out that I was the only person in the group with naturally black hair, and probably the only one whose first language wasn’t English.

Such inconsequential thoughts must’ve manifested through my face, which wore an unsettled and probably even gloomy expression for as long as the game lasted. I hate to admit this, but I think (okay fine I know) that I carried this countenance with me to lectures and tutorials throughout my first year in university. It’s the only explanation I have as to why I spent a lot of my classes sitting between two empty seats if attendance was scarce.

Certain communication barriers, imagined and truthful, exacerbated my personal feeling of isolation. It wasn’t merely that I couldn’t understand Australians sometimes because of their usage of slangs (although I pardoned myself for this a long time ago after seeing that familiar expression of confusion on the faces of Australians who’d just come across Malaysian slangs). It was also the fact that I started being conscious of my accent.

Honestly though, I don’t think I would’ve been as aware of my pronunciation and inflections if I hadn’t been told by a friend that some of the local kids in our college were under the assumption that international students couldn’t speak English. The punch line here was that the international students that the claim was directed at, couldn’t or didn’t speak anything but English. I learnt later, that it was our accents that caused meaning to sometimes be lost in translation.

Because I was now mindful of my distinct way of speaking, I would hesitate every time I wanted to add to a conversation or discussion. Sometimes it actually seemed as if I had a speech impediment. So I convinced myself that it was better to sit mutely in tutorials than to give someone the chance to say something unkind about me behind my back (as some of you will find out, Arts is not the most popular degree choice for international students). In retrospect, this was probably one of the most ridiculous logic I’d ever come up with, because not only did I lose out on participation marks, I was also disadvantaged when I needed to talk to someone about a problematic assignment.

I think these reasons may explain why I gravitated towards the company of my fellow international students to seek solidarity. Around them, I never felt like an outcast.

Up until a while ago, it always frustrated me wondering how some people could navigate between two groups, envying them for making it seem so easy. My friend Tom (not his real name) was one such person. I used to think that he was able to get along with everyone because of his ability to play almost any musical instrument given to him. Such talent that could be exhibited during college events surely made one popular right? But the more I thought about it, the less I believed in my own argument.

Tom always had a smile on his face and greeted anyone he knew with enthusiasm. It didn’t matter if he’d only met them once for less than a minute.

A native of Singapore, he never cared that his accent was different to his Western peers. In fact, I vaguely remember him trying to teach several locals here some colloquialisms from home (you can’t just add “lah” to everything).

I am convinced now that it was Tom’s affable nature that helped bridge the gap between our seemingly different cultures, between “us” and “them”. He didn’t need to go out to a bar every single time he was asked to strengthen relationships or secure friendships. This could be done with just a simple “hello” or a “how’re you going?”.

After nearly a year of avoiding eye contact with my peers, I decided to test the validity of this strategy for myself. Take it from me. It worked.  And the best part was, I didn’t need to change anything about myself, nor compromise any of my principles.

Sometimes I feel if I were given the chance, I’d do it all over again, but differently. I’d let myself be myself, and I’d make more of an effort to be amicable with those around me, whoever they may be. I suppose I realised a little too late that at the end of the day, we’re all the same, and that everybody gets fed up sooner or later of the sour-faced girl who can’t look you in the eye and say “hi”.