A few doors away from my flat lives a family that hails from Tamil Nadu, India. There’s a man, his wife and two young daughters. He goes to work each day in industrial overalls, and my guess is that he is either an S-Pass or Employment Pass holder working for a process company in the Jurong area. The Mrs is a homemaker.
Their flat faces a common corridor shared by two others, both of which have Chinese-speaking locals staying in them. So from the first month this Indian family moved in, I felt I should go out of my way to be friendly. I never see the Chinese neighbours speak to them, or even greet them; language may be the barrier.
The man — he speaks English — returns my greeting. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know him, we just exchange hellos whenever we pass each other. But over the past year or so, I think I have made enough of an impression that should he ever need some assistance from a neighbour I believe he would feel that he could ask me.
With two young children and a husband coming home with soiled workclothes, the wife has a lot of laundry, and she uses the common corridor to dry them since the hot afternoon sun comes in that way. I started off doing exactly the same as I practised with her husband: a smile, a hello, as I walk past, but I’m afraid, it has been a ‘culture shock’, perhaps both ways.
More than a year now, and she has never returned my greeting. At first I thought I was wrong to presume she knew any English, so I soon reduced it to a smile, and no words. Surely, that’s universal enough, no? But still she never smiled back. It wasn’t long before I realised that she doesn’t even make eye contact with me. Sometimes she just looks away and pretends to be busy. But more often than not, she scurries back into her flat when she sees me approaching from a distance. Her laundry would be half hung. More wet clothes would still be in the tub. Yet she would interrupt her work and duck quickly into her own doorway on sight of me. At first, I gave her the benefit of doubt: Oh, she needs to get more clothes pegs or that sort of thing, but after several such instances, I tell myself there has to be another reason.
Perhaps my body odour is intolerable, perhaps my smile just looks sick and predatory.
It gradually dawned on me that she was just uncomfortable, for cultural reasons, to be interacting in any way, however innocent, with a male stranger. To exchange greetings would be akin to speaking, and that was a great big no-no.
I was stressing her out by my insistence on being friendly.
Lately, I also began to notice how cultural habits are being passed down. At the beginning, the daughters were too young to play outside the flat, but now they’re a little older, they have tricycles and similar toys that require space and mobility. Occasionally I see them play in the corridor. But now I find that the girls are called in by their mother when I am within sight. The only times when they’re not called in are probably when the mother isn’t aware that I am passing through.
* * * * *
Earlier this year, friends and I (all Singaporeans) spent a weekend in a condo apartment in Kuala Lumpur. It being Chinese New Year, the kitchen was soon full to overflowing with food. As we were not staying for more than a few days and the apartment would be empty when we left, we just had to get rid of all the food, and fast.
One member of our group suggested we give it to the condo security guards.
“No, don’t,” I advised.
“What we have is not halal,” I reminded him. “The guards look Malay to me. This is Malaysia and the sensitivity threshold is probably lower than in Singapore. We should not risk causing offence.”
* * * * *
I would situate at least the first tale, if not the second, within the larger issue of neighbourliness and integration of new migrants. Much is made of how we should make extra efforts at getting to know our neighbours and making new arrivals feel welcome. There is certainly undeniable value in not being total strangers to people who are next door, though on this topic too, the government’s propaganda machine has made a social good into another toxic commandment, just begging for resistance. But, leaving aside this propaganda contamination, the point that might be worth considering is how even “neighbourliness” comes with cultural assumptions.
What is friendly behaviour in one cultural context is imposition and intrusion in another. The sharing of food, so often used to cement social bonds in certain cultures, not least the Chinese, and so regularly celebrated by American television and films — new arrivals in a neighbourhood are welcomed by showing up at their door, quite often with a pie in hand — can be explosive.
Integration, despite the best of intentions, can be minefield. And a moment’s thought will tell us why: it calls for a modulation of one’s cultural norms in order to accommodate the outsider. There are very few behaviours that have exactly the same meaning in different cultures. If we use our usual behaviour unthinkingly, what may to us be a welcoming gesture may be awfully misinterpreted.
But then it raises the question: If we want to integrate new arrivals in our midst, should it be the new arrivals who should re-organise their cultural habits to “fit in”, or should Singaporeans too change our cultural habits to accommodate them?
Should I persist in greeting and smiling at the wife? Or should I go easy on her and ignore her, the way her culture expects me to behave? It seems to me that the latter would probably be her preferred solution, but would you then accuse me of surrendering Singapore to the foreign hordes?