'Yes, but don't worry bout me.' I said hurriedly as I gestured him to go ahead, with a 2L bottle milk in my hand.
'Don't let me hold you back. You go first. Really, go ahead!'
So I went ahead and paid £1 for the 2L milk. What a bargain, I thought.
As we both left Farmfoods, he shouted 'Don't be late for tea!' I don't quite know how to respond to that as I was really going to make tea when I reach home, so I just laughed at his comment. Then we both went on our way.
That was a short exchange between an old Bedfordshire man and I while we were shopping at one of the cheapest frozen food stores in town. Not that I am a fan of frozen meat, but the things on sale there are cheap, and since it's the direct opposite of where I stay, it's the place I frequent almost daily when I am on my hospital placement here. The short exchange we had in this store was heartwarming to me. It may mean nothing to a regular member of the extremely polite British society, but it meant a lot to me. It made me doubt, should I even leave this country?
Just a few days ago, it dawned on me that this is actually the final year I will be in this country. 5 years ago, I arrived in this country for the first time. I knew almost no one apart from the freshers who were travelling with me, and I could not understand what the immigration office was asking me to do. I thought I spoke reasonably well English (at least for the Malaysian standard) but this British accent was something else - it was like a completely new language to me!
During my undergraduate years, I interacted mostly with Malaysians or Singaporeans only, and I shy away from all the local students. Partly because the MAS/SGeans were the cure when I felt homesick, but partly because I could not understand why do the English students love to 'go out' so much! ('go out' meaning go partying, go to the club, dance etc.). I was not a fan of alcohol, and I have been brought up with the idea that 'one who drinks alcohol' is probably 'one who is morally wrong in every other aspect of life', what more on going to the club and dance!? It was hard to mix in with the local students when you always miss out their social events. So during my first three years, the English people I actually interacted most with are my supervisors.
Most people graduated after 3 years, including the group of friends whom I regularly hung out with. The only people left are medics and a few engineers, who hid in their labs most of the time.
Year 4 is the first clinical year in Cambridge. As a clinical student, you're like a nomad - you move from one hospital to another, almost every month. I was barely in Cambridge at all. And in placements, the only 'friends' you have, are other medical students, and probably a few FY1s. It was also daunting for me initially as this is the first time I have to go into the hospitals and talk to patients from various backgrounds in the English cities/towns/villages, young and old, white and non-whites, and most of them, not in the perfect mood 'to have a little nice chat' with you because they are sick, that's why they are there in the first place. However, thank God for my very helpful supervisors, doctors and colleagues, I actually had not much problem doing things a medical student is supposed to do in the hospital/GP surgery.
Fast forward to now, I am actually quite comfortable talking to patients, to my seniors and to my peers in clinical school. Although I do get the occasional well-intentioned, curious 'Where are you from, dear?' 'Are you from China/Vietnam/Japan/Korea?', and the occasional purely racist comments (esp when I don't have my stethoscope or my student doctor badge on me), I have been getting along well with most people. I don't blame the regular white guy/girl who hurled racist comments at me on the street because, in some of these villages, I am literally the only 'Asian' face they see. The last time some of these old men saw an Asian face was probably during the Vietnam war they were in during the World War!
However, I do get quite anxious when I am having group discussions in non-clinical settings, eg during student conferences and in the church. It is particularly difficult whenever I am the only true, Asia-born Asian in the group, carrying a thick Malaysian accent. Perhaps I am just being overly-sensitive, but there were times when my opinions were ignored conveniently and what I wrote glanced over during a discussion. There were times when I spotted a room for improvement in the discussions, but I just put a foot in my mouth because who cares about my opinion anyway, just let it be, even though the work will not produce the best result it could. And sometimes during breaks/lunch during conferences, I was left with no seats in any group so I had to plant myself in any seat I could find. Sometimes, I approached other people and try my best to strike up a conversation; sometimes, people who took pity on the girl who sat by herself and came to talk to me. However, often, the same person whom I had an interesting conversation with just an hour before, somehow can't recognise me at all when we met again because I am just another Asian face and they couldn't tell the difference between our Oriental faces.
I am not saying this sort of situation happens on a daily basis, however, it does not happen too infrequently as well. It makes my heart aches whenever it happens. At first, I thought it's probably my lack of communication and persuasion skills to charm strangers that resulted in people not taking my opinions seriously. However, I've experienced these things when my aSEAn friends were with me as well, and they agreed, it was clearly...racism, subtle or not.
Racism is a common thing around the world, regardless of which country you visit. I grew up in Malaysia, where there are many races, ethnicity and religions. Racism is just part and parcel of our daily life there. We either take it as a joke, or it's just institutionalised racism forced upon us, what can we do?Live your hard, work hard and be the person who changes this fact, top-to-bottom (if you're one of the leaders of the country) or bottom-to-top (if you're like me, a normal person on the street). We all make racist jokes against each other and have a good laugh about it. There was not much ill-intentioned racism going on on a daily basis, or at least I know that I can confidently fight back if anyone tries to do that to me because Malaysian Chinese is a 'minor race' in Malaysia but it's actually not quite 'minor'. And I can fight back because I was born in Malaysia, how dare you ask me to go back to China?! Besides, we live with people of different races and interact with them on a daily basis, there really isn't an excuse for someone to be outright racist to everyone every single day.
However, in the UK, I am truly a migrant, a minor race, a historically-viewed-upon-as-inferior group of people. I have enough insecurity within myself as a medical student and my language skills which I need to deal with, I just not guts to fight back when people present with subtle racism against me, especially in a professional setting or in a church setting. And if I decide to fight back against that random racist dude on the street, it is completely possible that I may get beaten up. Therefore, most of the time, I just ignored and get on with life. It was during those moments, I felt like I want to go home, I don't want to tolerate this for the rest of my life because what have I done to deserve this? I came here, studied hard and contributed to the economy (shopping!). What have I done that made me less than a random dude on the street to deserve those racist acts?
That being said, there are many moments and people that made my time in the UK extremely lovely. Just so I don't forget this country, with her 'many curves and edges', once made me feel that this is my second home, I'm going to list them here before I leave:
- The countless waves of laughter my placement buddies and I had in the pubs and in our kitchens, in Bedford, in Bury's and in Ipswich. We often laughed about insignificant things, but that's how we kept each other sane after a full day in the hospital. (People thought we were drunk when in fact, we only drank soft drinks and the free tap water!)
- The carpool with Calum, Sreela etc to and fro placement. Why did they want to go out of their way to drive me home, without expecting anything in return? I don't know, but they are probably the nicest English (and very importantly, Scottish) I've ever met and the ones who made me feel I am not alone in this country.
- The F1 on my respiratory ward in Bedford, Ahmed, and the SHO, Laura, who I only met a few weeks before, who taught me so many things on how to be a 'doctor', who were more anxious and excited than me for my first ever job interview and couldn't stop asking me how the interview went and when will I know the outcome. And Ahmed, who walked to Tesco to buy Prosecco and a chocolate cake just to celebrate when I got my first a job offer.
- My GP practice in Year 5, that went above and beyond what was required for them to teach us and inspire us to become GPs. And for providing us with an unlimited supply of coffee and tea to last us through the GP weeks. They were the ones who cultivated the love for English tea in me. 'Nothing a nice cup of tea can't solve.'
- The generosity of my college, Caius, and Trinity College, for providing me with luxurious student accommodations at unbeatable prices for the entire duration of my time here.
- The patients who let me poke and prod them about, when they were at their sickest, just so I can be a better doctor, one day, hopefully, treating someone, somewhere on this planet.
- The pretty changing seasons - the many colours on the trees during autumn, the snow-covered Cambridge in Winter, the flowers and bees filled spring when there is the 'just-right' temperature, and the hot-but-not-so-hot summer which you can just lie on the grass the whole day. I hated the cold at first, but I've grown to love these beautiful seasons and perhaps, I have become more used to living in the cold than the hot and humid weather now.
- The formals, the college gowns, the Latin grace before meals and the cheap and great wine from neighbouring European countries. (haha! Looks like I've learned to love something else apart from tea.) And you know, the countless things which are weird to do anywhere else in the world, apart from Cambridge.
There are many more instances which made me feel like I don't want to leave this country, ever. I will continue to add to this list until the day I depart, the wonderful moments I want to remember forever. And hopefully, I will return to this tea-filled land one day. Regardless, home will always be home - where there's 24/7 good food, where there's barely any grey sky and where I can speak in the languages I'm truly comfortable in and be fully myself, again.