“The perks of being a wallflower, huh?”, quipped an acquaintance. I responded with a wry smile. She was referring to an observation I made about the cliques I joked would form as the party – one of many we had during orientation week – progressed.
Having dabbled quite extensively in coming-of-age novels in my late teens, her words in an instant brought to mind a similarly named novel. The main protagonist, Charlie, feels slightly rattled about beginning his first year of college. His shyness and disdain for most things social see him camouflage into the background, invisible to most of his peers. He is a ghost among humans. A wallflower among cacti. Yet, as is the case that not all plants starved of sunlight simply wither and die, so too the introvert does not.
At parties, for example, though I am drawn, almost by law of nature, to the edges of the room, it is where I am perfectly happy, close enough to the hustle and bustle to get a sense of the chatter, yet distant enough that I do not get reeled in by the tide. It is – to a number of us introvert types – a familiar territory, where observation and reflection reside. It is also from these quieter fringes that – in addition to being a deracinated foreigner from a faraway land – I think I acquired a heightened appreciation of my surroundings, a place where I’ve become more sensitive to nuance.
Charlie and I, in many ways, are not too dissimilar. Except, instead of the hard graft of honest men and women sweating and smelting in giant burning furnaces, emblematic of the so-called ‘steel city’ of Pittsburgh he finds himself in, the financial metropolis that is London bears quite a different imprint.
LIFE IN THE CITY
It has been about two months since I first arrived in London for my postgraduate studies. Having never been ravished by the wanderlust strain that affects many people I know, and so never having had the urge to travel much, I am struck by what visiting abroad – or, in this case, living abroad – can do to a person. It is almost as if being stripped off of the familiar opens an unblinking third eye that functions as an appendage of what sociologist C. Wright Mills calls the “sociological imagination”.
For one, I have become more aware of my speech. In part, this has to do, in my opinion, with the suddenness with which I found myself constantly surrounded by people who, though they all speak the same English language, sound quite different than I do. The reverse is therefore also true – that the way I speak, not immediately understood by some, may require a double (or quadruple) take for those words to be fully comprehended (though it probably doesn’t help my cause that I am also a fast speaker). Now please don’t misunderstand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a Singaporean accent or ways of talking. Difficulties of comprehension may be experienced in common by all who encounter others with different manners of speech. That said, it probably wouldn’t aid with comprehension if one soldiers on and continues to pepper ones’ speech with generous seasonings of Singlish. (Also, after the tenth time being asked “what does ‘lah’ mean?”, you would probably – driven by an aversion to explain it for the umpteenth time – take action to stop being asked about it again). Also, instead of kopitiams and cafes as havens to lepak (relax), a lot of socialising in London takes place, regardless of age, in pubs. Such is the local love affair with them that, on practically every other street a pub. Indeed, the pub culture here is quite strong – even on weekday evenings, it is not uncommon to see them packed with people. As someone who can count on one hand the number of times he’s stepped into anything resembling a pub prior to coming to London, this, I must admit, I haven’t fully embraced.
Indeed, I am not the only one who hasn’t felt settled in. John (not his real name), a Singaporean I met through a friend, lamented about the “culture change” he experienced at school. “I feel like making friends here is more challenging. It’s as if I have to relearn how to make friends! They just don’t get me lah. Luckily, I also have my Singaporean friends to hang out with after class,” he exclaims, half-laughing.
His tone could be best characterised as sanguine frustration. Chris (not his real name), another Singaporean student from a university close by, remarks that while he is quite fond of the “warmth” and generally more upbeat disposition of the people here, he still hasn’t yet felt a deeper connection to the place and its people.
A common thread that runs through many of these conversations I’ve had with foreign (i.e. not only Singaporean) students – especially those who originate from quite socio-culturally different places – is consequently a longing for the convenience and familiarity of home, from the mere sight of countrymen and women, to the “simpler” pleasures of a hearty home-cooked meal.
A deracinated person might also tell you that old “tried and tested” rules about getting to know people – or more broadly speaking, socialising – may not work as well as one might expect as compared to back home. The kind of jokes one tells, for example, may conjure a different taste to the foreign tongue, not as savoury as it might be to someone else back home. Whereas one brand of humour works in one place, the same may not in another.
As was the case for me, one may also have to become acquainted with different manners of speech. This could involve (mis)perceptions of brusqueness – typically a result of more “straightforward” mannerisms of speech – as a result of freely speaking ones’ mind (especially on perceived “sensitive” topics such as politics) regardless of rebuke. In my opinion, this stems from a strong tradition of individualism within societies, as well as a more outwardly vibrant political culture that is the hallmark of many Western liberal democracies.
Of course, this is not meant to be a sweeping generalisation, or a warped twist of an “us” versus “them” rhetoric, in which people foreign to one seem to be almost subject to a particular gaze, where the “others” acquire an almost exotic tint. Nor is this about the fundamental difficulties with fitting in that Singaporeans studying abroad inexorably face. That is far from my intention. As partially alluded to earlier, I believe that the nature of differences between diverse people, rooted mainly in cultural orientations from myriad forms of socialisation, serves as a partial explanation as to why the individual experience of adapting to a quite different culture varies.
I can only speak from my unique and time-limited experience, and thereby what I have interpreted from my time here so far.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
There is no place like home. In fact, what is home? Does it merely encompass the physical structures that provide a person with shelter, or is it a metaphysical state of being that goes further? At 26 years of age, I am surprised that it has taken me this long to give the question much thought. Home, house, place, residence – to me, they all meant the same thing. But they are not the same. Think about how strange it would be if people spoke that, say, house is where the heart is, or there’s nothing like house, or the comforts of house. It doesn’t quite work the palate the same way that ‘home’ does. It doesn’t fill me with the same warmth of kith and kin, of community and camaraderie, of the friendly and familiar. Home – there is no place quite like it. ⬛
Abdul Hakeem Akbar Ali was formerly a Research Assistant at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs. He is currently pursuing his postgraduate studies in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics.