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An opportunity, not a threat

An opportunity, not a threat

Jesler in Freiburg

I've always prided myself on knowing my languages. Until I went to Penang, Malaysia.

While enjoying my delicious banana pancakes one warm morning, Sandra, the (Indian) woman in charge of the restaurant area of the little hotel I was staying at came over and we started chatting casually. The conversation quickly turned to the different ethnicities living on the island - not a big surprise considering I was staying at a Chinese-style hotel, located on China street, in the middle of - and here is the catch - Little India. In Malaysia.

As it turns out, Sandra speaks five languages nearly perfectly: Tamil, Chinese, Malay, English, and Hindi. How? Well, the first four are taught at school, the last one from Bollywood movies. “Everyone just learns everything: Chinese students learn Malay without thinking “Hey, this is not my native language, I won’t learn it.” You already speak all four languages before you realize they’re not your mother-tongue.”     

Now, it's important to add that what I now called ‘Chinese students' aren't first-generation Chinese immigrants. Not even second generation, or third. Most Chinese Malay went to the region during the 15th century! Indian Malay settled on the island in the time of the British Empire. 

But if it’s that long ago, why are they still referred to as Chinese, Indian, and Malay? Well, that’s mainly because these groups have learned to live next to each other in harmony. That’s why you can find four houses of prayer of four different religions within 200 meters of each other in the same street. And that’s why everyone celebrates Chinese New Year with the Chinese and Deepavali - the festival of lights - with the Hindus.

I can see the same in Singapore: a few weeks ago, Singapore celebrated its Birthday. Or, rather, it celebrated everyone who is part of the Singaporean identity: there were broadcasts on TV where people - Singaporeans - shared how their grandparents, their parents or even they themselves immigrated to Singapore a while back. How they found their place in Singapore.

Overly idealized? Maybe. Probably - I mean, what do you expect? It's on TV. But that doesn't mean that it's fake. Just like in Penang, most Singaporeans are used to living next to different cultures and seeing this as an opportunity rather than a threat. 

Maybe that's something we should think about a bit more back in Europe. I for one love being surrounded by different cultures, identities, and cuisines (especially cuisines) right now.  

Jesler van Houdt

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