When I told everyone back home that I had decided to come and study at St Andrews close to two years ago, the first thing they warned me about was the Scottish weather. ‘Going from sun soaked days to downtrodden and bleak weather will not be an easy transition,’ they remarked. The second thing mentioned was how bland the food would be for someone used to spicy food. No one mentioned any of the racially sensitive experiences that international students (especially those from non-American or European countries) have to go through.
I was watching Buzzfeed videos (it’s the holidays I can hardly be judged for that) and one video really resonated with me called ’26 questions Asians have for White people’. One of the questions that provoked me was something that I am asked on a daily basis: ‘Why do you speak such good English?’ In any social interaction, “Where are you from” is usually part of the introductory process. In a university where there is such a pronounced international presence, I often find it a surprise that I am asked why I speak such good English. On the surface, this might appear to be a compliment; the person is telling me I speak good English. But hidden under the surface is a backhanded insult; why are you proficient at speaking my language, at a level that rivals my own proficiency.
I realise that I just launched into a rant with minimal context. I’m from Singapore, a little red dot on the world map, but one that is rapidly increasing in importance with the rise of Asia. When I share this personal detail, the first thoughts of the person I’m talking to are:
- the ban on chewing gum – there is a ban on the sale of chewing gum, not the possession of it
- how clean the place is and
- the fines that are world famous.
These three points are the world’s rather narrow view on Singapore. These are comments people make if they even know where Singapore is. I have, on many occasions, had to explain where Singapore is – no not in China in case you were wondering – or reiterate that it isn’t a third world country, contrary to popular belief.
The next question I am asked is ‘how come you speak such good English?’. As a former British colony, giving us the legacy of the English language, with a population made from immigrants from China, Malaysia and South India, the official languages of Singapore represent these different racial groups – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. There is no language called ‘Singaporean’ as has been suggested to me before. Frankly, I find this ordeal very offensive, yet have to go through it time and again.
Growing up bilingual, completing my pre-university education in English and even considering an English degree at this university, being asked how it is that I speak ‘good English’, or the general expression of surprise feels like a slap in the face. It feels as if they are saying that no matter how hard I work or how well I communicate in English, it will never be good enough; that I would have to go above and beyond the level of a white person’s performance to even be considered for the same position. In this day and age, this is really an absurd notion.
There seems to be an inherent sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that has unwittingly been cultivated within the St Andrews community.
Check out Part 2 to read more about the St Andrews experience as an international student.