Living in the UK

Wednesday 28 July 2010
I was flipping through The Sunday Telegraph on Sunday (25 July 2010) and came across an interesting story about refugees in the UK. One particular interview caught my attention. Here's an excerpt from the article. Please excuse the grainy photo as it was taken with my iPhone.

"Gillian Slovo 58, was born in South Africa, the daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, two pioneering white South African anti-apartheid activists. The family fled to london in 1964 and she has lived here ever since. Slovo, a writer, has a daughter and lives in London. 

........ too rude, not nuanced enough for the British. Class was also an enigma as I came from a country riven by race, not class and I found the class issue impossible terrain to comprehend. 

But as the years have gone by I have become more and more comfortable in Britain, while the South Africa I knew has changed so much. It has of course changed for the better, but, nevertheless today to me - of course - it is far less familiar, and it is now over there, not here, that I feel like a foreigner".

It was a startling revelation to read a succinct description of an experience similar to mine. In Malaysia, people are more direct and likely to dispense of social niceties. They don't regard it intrusive to ask extremely personal questions especially topics regarding finances (how much do you make? How much are you paying for your mortgage/rent). You also rarely hear people asking "may I have a cup of coffee please" at eating places. It would be "one coffee".

A couple of English friends very patiently explained the nuances of the class system. Not long ago, a kind gentleman from my local drycleaner offered to drive me to his tailor to correct an alteration. He spoke at length about his working class background and seemed resigned to his fate. It still is a mystery to me especially coming from countries like New Zealand and Borneo where the diferences lie in wealth. Those who have it and those who don't. And of course, your skin color. This will ensure whether you get a place in the university, a job, better treatment at government agencies and so forth. On one of my last visits back to Borneo, I was stunned into speechlessness when I saw an advertisement for a TV reporter flashed across the screen with a caption, "Chinese, Indians and non Bumiputeras (non native) need not apply".

Needless to say, after spending more than half my life abroad, I feel like a foreigner in my country of birth. The only saving grace is I still speak the dialects.


  1. Hmm... this is such a loaded topic for me. I have actually really grown to like directness, because there is so much superficiality hidden under the cloak of being 'polite', but then there are so many nuances of how direct you can be, and in what circumstances.

    There is class system everywhere. Even in NZ, which on the surface appears to be 'class-less'. I still want to go home at some point, because even after living abroad for so long, I've never felt like I belong here. But yet I know that the fantasy of Malaysia I have in my mind is completely flawed and out of date. Such is the dilemma of the immigrant!

  2. I agree that class system is everywhere, even in the same country among natives, who speak the same language and have the same skin color.

    You'll be judged by what you wear, what you drive, where you live and how big your house is... This is sadly how the world is. Don't give a damn about them. :-P



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