What it feels like to be an Indian girl in NUS Business School

Disclaimer: This might be a controversial post. This is my first time writing about my racism experiences at university. I am not saying that all Indians in NUS Business School undergo the same experiences as me. It is not a unified experience but that doesn’t change the fact that I did experience these. All incidents described here are true incidents. I have only expressed my experiences so that people know that they exist. I do not intend to defame anyone or any organisation.

It’s one of those days. I can’t control my tears. Oh no, my eye liner’s getting smudged. God, this is so embarrassing. I hope no one sees me. I wish I was invisible. If someone does see me, I am going to say that it’s just watery eyes as a result of my sinus problem. Yes, that’s pretty believable.Β  Sigh. When I had conceived the idea of writing this blog, I had wanted to only write about the positive stuff. Why burden you with my sad stories? But well, there’s always something to learn, isn’t it?! This will be a reminder to my self, my children and my grandchildren. There will be tough times and you’ll get over it. It might seem like it couldn’t get any worse. But you’ll rise stronger each time.

Even before I actually started school, NUS Business School had some orientation event. I remember this particular Indian professor came up to me and in Tamil asked me my name and where I was previously from. After that he then whispered in Tamil, “We are the minority here. You have to work extra hard if you want to succeed here.” I smiled and said that I will. So far, I have never been taught by him and I never really saw him after that incident. I guess those words set the tone for the years that followed.

NUS Business school is predominantly made up of ethnic Chinese. You would see Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Indonesian Chinese, Chinese Chinese and what not. I am not complaining. That’s diversity, isn’t it?! It has been drilled into me since I was a kid that I will always be a minority wherever I am unless I work for some Indian organisation. The difference is that up till poly, I always had at least one minority friend in my class. Suddenly, I was all alone. So they said that to make friends, you need to go for Orientation week and so I did. Don’t worry, this is not about some dirty game that I was forced to play. Coming to think of it, that might have been better(No, I am kidding. I don’t want to lick whipped cream off anyone). We had a lot of games and for some reason, it required everyone to say some “phrases” in Mandarin. I can’t speak Mandarin because I have never learnt it. I struggled to remember the phrases and say it properly. But I tried my best. Having noticed this, my group’s leader came up to me and asked me how come I didn’t know Chinese? I was taken aback because no one has asked me that before. Like it was an expectation. Everyone in Singapore is supposed to know. I told him that I didn’t take Chinese in school. He got very confused. If the question that he had already asked wasn’t bad enough, he then asked me if I was a Singaporean and if I was born in Singapore. That was a slap on my face. My nationality was questioned because I didn’t speak Chinese. Wow. It was just plain ignorance. I can’t remember what I said after that or if I even said anything at all. I was just stunned. Since primary school, I have been on the receiving end of Appunehneh jokes and jokes on my skin colour. It doesn’t help that you’re a girl and that too a fat one. I had foolishly hoped that when I go to university, it would all stop because people would be less ignorant. I realized that it had just taken another form.

My first semester was the hardest. When I had entered NUS Business, I had no friends because none of my friends from SP or Yishun Secondary School were in NUS. My brother was starting his first semester in NUS too. But I did not want to bother him as he was finding his way as well. During breaks, I would sometimes join my classmates but they would often speak in Mandarin and I would just not understand. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they did not know that I did not understand Mandarin. One day, during a class on cross cultural communication, I shared my experience in NUS Business School where sometimes people leave me out in conversations by speaking in Mandarin. Following that public confession, it just never happened to me again. Maybe it was my fault that I did not tell them the first time they did it. Wait, I think I did. They probably thought that I was just joking. But this is what makes it difficult. You would have to forever be explaining and earning your rights. It would just never come easy.

While the previous incident was bad, it is not bad as the one as the one that I’m about to tell. To commemorate NUS Business School’s 50th Anniversary, there was a Special notebook giveaway at the BBA office. There were limited number of books and being the Kiasu Singaporean who loves freebies, I went to the NUS BBA office to collect it. While the people before me were allowed to just take it and leave, when it came to my turn, the staff told me that they were only for NUS BBA students. I said that I am one. He asked me to show my matriculation card but seeing that I was going to take it out, he said nevermind and giggled. I stared at him. In a vain attempt of lightening up the situation, he said that he’s a racist and giggled again. I just took the book and left immediately. I was disgusted by the entire event. That was just another reminder that I would have to forever be explaining and earning my rights. It would just never come easy.

Well, it isn’t all bad. Given the emphasis on class participation marks, it’s important that the professors remember you in the first place. Looking different and having a different way of thinking helps to set me apart from the rest of the class and to be remembered. On the flipside, it could be bad because you can’t just skip classes. The professor would know if you’re not there. But I don’t skip classes anyway. I am a good student you know! Haha! Similarly, the cleaners and librarians remember you and you have the frequent exchange of greetings. Well, I do not receive any economic benefits from it but sometimes hearing good morning from a smiling face is all that you need to make your day.

Why am I crying today? I am usually fine with racist jokes. Maybe the jokes that I heard today were just really bad. Maybe I had tolerated this for so long that today I just broke down. Maybe today there were some personal insults as well. Maybe it’s because I am PMSing. Maybe I just feel so lonely. Maybe I am just tired. I don’t know. I think I am the only Indian girl in my course. It hasn’t been easy. Not everyone is like the people described in this post. I do have some nice classmates I guess. I have tried my best to assimilate. But the more I try, the more I feel like a misfit. Maybe accepting me into NUS Accountancy was an error on the Office of Student Admissions side. This is just preparation for the real world where I may be the only Indian girl in a crowded room.Β  I am probably going to sleep it off and act like nothing happened when I wake up just as I always do. It will all be okay.

P.S. This post was written yesterday(23/2/2017) on my phone but only posted today.

Also read the follow up on this here.

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73 Comments

  1. Hi, thanks for sharing – took a lot of courage on your part πŸ™‚ Just wanted to share my two cents, having just recently graduated from NUS BAC too. The career office guy deserves a knock on the head, and that’s just downright unprofessional (maybe he was just some aloof kid? he should know better). But I don’t see how conversing in mandarin with each other is racist? I’m a Chinese and usually converse in english with my friends (really bad mandarin haha), so I can relate because I can’t converse normally in mandarin without being made fun of… but maybe you just need to be patient, and find the right group of english-speaking friends to hang out with (from my first-hand experience, they do exist in NUS! took me three semesters before finding this bunch of cool dudes haha). Enjoy yourself! And stop thinking that you’re being oppressed or anything because you might really just be thinking too much into this. I wish you all the best for your remaining time at NUS!

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    1. I don’t think she’s labeling the fact they spoke in Mandarin as racist, everyone is obviously entitled to speak in their respective mother tongues. The fact that they spoke in Mandarin, WHILE our (non-mandarin-speaking) author was seated with them, would have led to her feeling excluded from the entire conversation. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that they don’t know any conversational English so it would have been more considerate if they had put themselves in the author’s shoes and try to be more inclusive when making conversation! πŸ™‚ Imagine if you were hanging out with a group of people who don’t speak your language who, despite knowing you don’t speak their language, continue to do, instead of speaking in a language that all of you understand. Would make you feel pretty left out, wouldn’t it? πŸ™‚

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      1. Kas, this is human nature. I’m a Singaporean Chinese and when I’m with my majority Malay friends, sometimes they speak in Malay. I work for a Japanese MNC and they usually converse to each other in business settings, except when they are speaking to me. When I travel overseas for business, the same thing happened. But I accept it because this is part of human nature and people are more comfortable with speaking their native tongue. If you call that racist, then everyone is racist by being human.

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    2. You can’t just tell people to “stop thinking that (they’re) being oppressed”! Racism doesn’t have to be explicit for it to be considered racism, implicit racism is just as hurtful. Moreover, casual racism is an issue that minorities face frequently. We either have no choice but to either keep silent or be accused of sh*t-stirring/ be told to “stop thinking that (we’re) being oppressed” and I think the author’s experiences entitle her to feel the way she does. πŸ™‚

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    3. how did you manage to graduate from university with such a ridiculous & thoughtless response?

      “maybe you just need to be patient, and find the right group of english-speaking friends to hang out with”
      “And stop thinking that you’re being oppressed or anything because you might really just be thinking too much into this”

      … I don’t think her patience has anything to do with ‘finding the right group of english-speaking friends’.

      … She isn’t thinking too much about being oppressed, she’s relaying experiences she’s encountered which may have caused her too feel excluded.

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    4. At this point, Your 2 cents worth and the ‘dear kelly’ dibocle are starting to share many similarities. Backhanded advice like ‘dont think too much about being oppressed…’ goes to show the privilege you enjoy, the indifference you exhibit.

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    5. It’s really great that you’re trying to help, but telling someone who is being discriminated (like previous replies have said: implicit/casual racism is a thing. Just because people are not leaving someone out on purpose does not change the fact that that person still feels left out) to ~stop thinking like that~ just comes off as insensitive and like you’re invalidating their experience. It did happen and she does feel that way. And that is completely fine because her feelings are her own (additionally, other replies below shows how this resonates with their own experiences as well so it really is something minorities can identify with).

      What you can do, seeing as you’re part of the majority group, is to understand where she is coming from, offer support and check yourself/the people you hang out with. Please don’t tell someone who is bravely speaking up about such a controversial issue that their feelings and thoughts might be a result of “thinking too much”. If us minorities don’t speak up about such experiences, who will? This cycle of soft racism has been going on for so long in Singapore and has pretty much become expected/part of our culture — so much so that even you can’t see how hurtful it can be. It’s about time that we become more conscious about how minorities are being treated; and posts like this will definitely help if readers try to show a bit more empathy instead of rejecting their points of view.

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      1. Thank You so much for that, I have had a very similar incident when I was very close with my Chinese friends, they made me feel completely excluded in their conversation ( although not on purpose) and never translated it to me in English and I felt very down to the point where I confronted one of them only to realise that she placed the blame on me for not understanding and I felt guilty until I realised that I shouldnt be because English is the first language spoken in Singapore and we shouldnt feel bad for not knowing the majority of the population’s language. Thanks again, I finally feel happy to know I shouldnt feel bad about it

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      2. @Nidhi:

        Omg I feel you!!! I always try to be light-hearted about it and say like “eh channel 5 please” or ask people I feel most comfortable with to translate…but recently I’ve realised that it’s really just not fair at all to have entire conversations in a language that’s convenient for the majority when 1) they are fully aware that there is a person (or people) who will not understand what they are saying, and 2) they know a language that everyone in that conversation can understand. Like, if people use a word/phrase that is difficult to translate it’s fine lah, the meaning can be inferred. But full conversations are just flat-out discriminatory lmao no matter how conscious they are of it. Which is why we should always speak up!!!

        Don’t thank me, tbh, glad that you have managed to come to that realisation! Hope you don’t have to go through it (well, not so often, at least) in the future πŸ™‚

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    6. You sound like a kind person, just perhaps a little unaware of what minorities may experience. Perhaps travelling more out of your comfort zone would help you to understand how unintentionally exclusive one can be in a country where you are the majority. Try travelling to non-cosmopolitan locations where being a Chinese is a minority, it can be a breath of fresh air and really help you to grow and mature as a person. I don’t mean this unkindly. But truly, when I am with friends who don’t speak Mandarin, I always make sure I clarify and explain any jokes/speech that are accidentally peppered with Mandarin, especially if they are included in the conversation. As long as you aren’t being patronizing, it’s fine to put in a bit more effort to help minorities feel more inclusive. I’m also sorry you had to experience being made fun of because you can’t speak Mandarin well, I agree that’s not very nice. Ethnicity and looks aren’t always one and the same, and we shouldn’t assume as such. Again, I’m sure you are a nice person, and I agree that I hope Chandra will be able to find a group of good friends who will treat her with the respect and dignity she deserves as a human being. Cheers, have a good one.

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    7. This post is about the young lady’s experience with racism. Please stop denying her experience. You are not her n you will never go through racism in Singapore the way she did.

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    8. I hope you get a job in a company where everyone speaks in a language which is not your native language during a meeting. Let us know how you feel then.

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      1. As a matter of fact, this always happens to me as I am working in Hong Kong where everyone speaks cantonese but I am totally fine with it as I know I chose to work there so I just have to accept it.

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    9. “Stop thinking you’re being oppressed” – this is an example of something you do not say to someone who has just explained why they are feeling that way. Even more so if you have never been in a situation where you are the minority, constantly having to explain yourself to the resident majority.

      (Girls, it’s like having people constantly tell you “not to be hormonal or emotional” instead of listening to your valid points. Boys, it’s like constantly being told to “man up and get over it”. This is not cool behaviour at all.)

      Nothing wrong speaking whatever language you like in your home, at the wet market, at a private party.
      This incident was at a school in Singapore. The NATIONAL University of Singapore. Not the pasar malam.

      It’s called situational awareness, and this can be learned by observing your surroundings and behaving in an appropriate manner. It’s like how a bikini isn’t great for an office meeting, but is totally okay for the beach.

      The last time I checked, the first language of Singaporeans is English (something about being a former British colony, fyi).

      It is the mode of instruction from Kindergarten through A’levels, and university. School-related activities should be held in the first language of the country. Is this not true? Do you guys take your O/A’levels solely in Mandarin? Because I remember it being solely in English, except for TL/ML/CL.

      Are you implying that it is okay to disregard the official language of instruction just to cater to some who do not have the social awareness or courtesy to communicate in an inclusive manner?

      Or perhaps it is that the students at NUS are so poorly equipped by the failed education system, that they are unable to communicate in their first language, and have to resort to such obtuse, rude behaviour to compensate? (kidding, Singapore’s education system is stellar, so can’t use that excuse!!)

      Does NUS have no English requirement or was it bypassed by these students? Do you not need to have at least passed your O/As in English or General Paper to get into University?

      Do secondary school students not learn about other cultures and language groups in Singapore during Civics&Moral Ed. anymore?

      This is not an isolated occurrence. The author’s experience reminded me of my primary and secondary years in the 90s, even though I attended some fairly ‘brand-name’ schools, there were always rude troglodytes who insisted on yakking away in Mandarin – this is a problem when it comes to group work, and the resident Malay or Indian kids get completely ignored, bullied and marginalized.

      Fortunately, there were some teachers to quickly shut down this sort of rude behaviour. They would say “Speak English, we are not in China.” Amen to that.

      We are all bilingual in Singapore – we ALL take English at a first-language level. Perhaps Chinese Singaporeans need to remind themselves that non-Chinese Singaporeans never really had a choice in their 2nd language, and were grouped basically by skin-colour… a lot of people were forced to learn Tamil, even though nobody at home speaks it. On top of that, we have to endure ridiculously racist taunts of apunenenene, blackie, shitskin, “go back to India”….

      I thought this sort of garbage ended in primary school.
      Sitting at my desk halfway around the world, and I cringed so hard reading this article, partly because of the fond memories, and partly because it’s so bloody embarrassing for the NATIONAL effin’ University of Singapore to have this sort of behaviour go on in their campus.

      Shame on you for trying to normalize discrimination, rude behaviour and a complete lack of civil awareness.

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    10. I dont know who this NUS bac guy is but i would like to certainly meet him and knock some sense into him.

      This will be the same guy going into a country where his race will be a minority and he feels excluded. It’s very easy for chinese to say that this girl here isn’t going through racism. That’s because you lot just lack awareness and you think your jokes are fine. Ridiculous
      I’ve heard many stories of Chinese going to Australia and being subjected to racism and being labelled as yellow skin. Sadly, this is the same kind of racism the indians get here. So to say she’s not being subjected to racism is bullshit. I could go on longer here but i know majority of you are just as ignorant as ever because yOu guys are the majority of this country.

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  2. YEUNG, Yin, Bernard
    Dean, Stephen Riady Distinguished Professor
    Department: Strategy & Policy, Finance
    Office: BIZ1 6-18
    Contact: (65) 6516 3075
    Email: bizdean@nus.edu.sg

    Do send an email or something detailing the actual event concerning the staff who treated you in this manner to the Dean of Business, please. Let the head of the department bring the hammer down on him.

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    1. “must have”

      Why? It is English that is a compulsory subject in Primary and Secondary schools, not Mandarin. Since her Mother Tongue is Tamil (presumably, since she understood the prof), that is the only other language she is obliged to learn “while studying at Singapore”. Sure, people may have picked up some Mandarin while hanging out with friends, but don’t even try to convince us that /everyone/ would have learnt it.

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    2. That is just absurd. Gentle reminder, the first language in Singapore is English, not Mandarin.
      “You must have learned Mandarin” – please for the love of the 21st century step out of your tiny hole of narrow minded-ness and embrace the fact that there are people in Singapore who don’t speak Mandarin. Good day.

      @Chandra, thank you for being such a courageous soul and sharing your thoughts. I hope we can all be a little more braver like you to share our experiences and make the world just that bit more open minded and accepting. Cheers, and hang in there.

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    3. I don’t suppose you have ever been to Singapore – travel can be expensive. But it is really sad to hear such comments in the age of the Internet. A quick search will inform you that English is the official first language (along with Malay, Tamil and Mandarin), and all instruction in academia and the business world is in English.

      The average Singaporean student spends more than 80% of their time in school receiving instruction and working in English, and Tamil/Malay/Mandarin is relegated for their respective classrooms. The standard exams that every Singaporean child goes through at age 12, then 16/17 and 18, are conducted in English except for additional language courses, obviously.

      Every Singapore-educated student who wishes to attend post-secondary would have completed their O & A level examinations. a.k.a Cambridge exams…. (Cambridge is located in England, an English-speaking island, like Singapore). These exams are (surprise!) in English.

      We are considered native speakers of English. It is tiresome in 2017, that I find myself explaining simple facts on history, geography and politics, when these are easily available for free online.

      Please don’t be the reason why I have to keep explaining to North Americans that:
      1) Singapore is not in China – it’s quite far away
      2) it is possible to be a brown native-English-speaking Singaporean (also bilingual in Tamil that no one cares about)

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  3. Chandralekha I feel for you….I’ve been in the same shoes at NUS as well…all I can say is rise above these small minded people. You will find your click of friends and if you don’t it’s not a big deal…perhaps not worth all the effort either….I wish you all the best…

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  4. I’m so sorry this happened to you, it sucks that people are so ignorant even in university. As a fellow Indian, I get it completely, and unfortunately the stupidity never really ends.

    You build a thick skin eventually, but my best advice is to never stop speaking up. Don’t let anyone get away with their racist/discriminatory bullshit. People may call you overly sensitive and say you can’t take a joke (some things aren’t funny, period) but when you stand up for yourself and educate the ignorant about why they’re being offensive – you might judt start some positive change πŸ™‚

    Best of luck and hang in there!

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  5. Hi there,

    I don’t normally do this, but I just felt like saying a few words.

    I’m sorry tt u had to go through all that. As a Singaporean Indian guy who has gone through the education system I sort of can relate to your experiences. At the same time I’m not saying tt I totally understand or tt it’s smth we all as Indians or as the minority in Singapore go through. What I wish to say that each experience is unique while we can draw some similarities and differences between each of them.

    Just want to share something that has helped me view things in a different perspective. When someone gives or offers you a something, you have the option to either accept it or politely reject it. It’s e same with words or what ppl say. When ppl say unkind things or say things tt make u feel tt u don’t belong, don’t accept those words. When u don’t accept those words meaning they don’t mean anything to u. U reject them totally. U don’t get angry, sad, mad or frustrated. Because you can only feel those emotions if you accept those words and thus allow them to affect you. By rejecting these “unwanted gifts” u might feel slightly more zen and better.

    Thank you for reading

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  6. Went to the same course at NUS, had the same experience as you. Idk, maybe worse because I am Indian and had the hijab on too. They didn’t even want to sit beside me in lectures. The weird thing is, people from other faculties (arts, engin, science, even music and med) were way nicer!!! Really really glad when uni was over.

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  7. Hi Chandra, I’m a Singaporean Chinese student and growing up, while I’ve had many Indian/Malay schoolmates I just never had the chance to mingle much and be close friends. However, some of the nicest most humorous and smartest minds I’ve met are of minority groups in Singapore and I just wanna commend ur courage to post this despite how it might be received. Discrimination happens regardless of our profiles and is especially apparent for minorities. It’s high time someone pointed something like that out so those who are unaware of their actions can reflect on it. I hope you’ll stay strong through your time at NUS and know that there will be many others out there benefitting from your post because they can empathize with that situation. All the best! 😊

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  8. Hi Chandralekha,

    I am an Indian boy and my friends and I were having the conversation about how it is much harder to be an Indian girl living in Singapore and your post truly reconciled our claim. Even I break down sometimes and I guess it is normal. But it is important to have a core group of friends whom you can rely on at all times. And it doesn’t have to be in NBS. I am happy that you have put it out there but it is just a natural inclination of a racial majority to behave in an ignorant manner. The problem will not go away but at least you can now rest easy in the knowledge that you have done your part towards building a multiracial society. Keep on fighting th good fight. And I am sure you will do just fine.

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  9. Dear Chandralekha,
    The responses you are getting to your story is worthy of analysis itself. Let’s draw the line. What you have experienced and will continue to encounter is everyday racism. We need to hear more of these stories; so thank you for putting them on paper. Despite its claims to be a harmonious multicultural society, no one is allowed to have an open discussion about racism in Singapore. Even the right-minded (so-called English educated Chinese with ‘badly’ spoken Mandarin) who claim to be victims of ‘exclusion’ do not comprehend what it feels to be discriminated because you look different, you are out-of-place (in a sea of Chinese @NUSBS) and that you have to work twice as hard than them to achieve your goals. Little wonder, you don’t see that many Chinese in the heart of Little India or Geylang Serai because that’s precisely how most Malays and Indians feel going about their daily lives in the rest of Singapore.
    We must combat racial discrimination and called it out for what it is. Please don’t ever feel embarrassed or awkward about retelling your stories. The indifference that you experienced and blatant disregard for your presence only reinforce the fact that if you are in the dominant majority with a whole lot of privileges (economic & cultural capital & social network); you don’t ever need to reflect about your identity and sense of belonging in Singapore.
    It is no exaggeration that there are others at NUS who are also feeling left out because of the colour of their skin, wearing a hijab or can’t speak Mandarin (I bet all NUSBS classes are taught in Mandarin!). Contact them and organise yourself as group (unlike those idiots licking whipped cream). Go and speak to academics and let the university know. We need to create more awareness that any form of discrimination is unacceptable.
    On a personal note, unlike those Chinese who try to explain why other Chinese are not switching to English to include you in the conversation – all excuses – it takes a special person to be always aware of what is happening around you and treat others as you would like to be treated.

    Raj

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  10. Dear Chandralekha,
    The responses you are getting to your story is worthy of analysis itself. Let’s draw the line. What you have experienced and will continue to encounter is everyday racism. We need to hear more of these stories; so thank you for putting them on paper. Despite its claims to be a harmonious multicultural society, no one is allowed to have an open discussion about racism in Singapore. Even the right-minded (so-called English educated Chinese with ‘badly’ spoken Mandarin) who claim to be victims of ‘exclusion’ do not comprehend what it feels to be discriminated because you look different, you are out-of-place (in a sea of Chinese @NUSBS) and that you have to work twice as hard than them to achieve your goals. Little wonder, you don’t see that many Chinese in the heart of Little India or Geylang Serai because that’s precisely how most Malays and Indians feel going about their daily lives in the rest of Singapore.
    We must combat racial discrimination and called it out for what it is. Please don’t ever feel embarrassed or awkward about retelling your stories. The indifference that you experienced and blatant disregard for your presence only reinforce the fact that if you are in the dominant majority with a whole lot of privileges (economic & cultural capital & social network); you don’t ever need to reflect about your identity and sense of belonging in Singapore.
    It is no exaggeration that there are others at NUS who are also feeling left out because of the colour of their skin, wearing a hijab or can’t speak Mandarin (I bet all NUSBS classes are taught in Mandarin!). Contact them and organise yourself as group (unlike those idiots licking whipped cream). Go and speak to academics and let the university know. We need to create more awareness that any form of discrimination is unacceptable.
    On a personal note, unlike those Chinese who try to explain why other Chinese are not switching to English to include you in the conversation – all excuses – it takes a special person to be always aware of what is happening around you and treat others as you would like to be treated.

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  11. Hi!!

    I’m so glad you’re speaking up about this; it’s a really courageous thing to do. I hope you feel a lot better now and that people around you realise what they’re doing and be more inclusive!

    It’s totally okay to not be cool with racist jokes and all this small actions from people who can’t even tell that their being hurtful. It’s bound to wear anyone down and, yeah, maybe that day was just the breaking point.

    Please never ever doubt that you deserve to be in that course, though! You got in as a result of all your hard work and the amazing intelligence you have. You do belong there. You will be able to get through the course. Things will turn out fine. Just keep holding on and don’t stop speaking up, yeah? All the best!!! ❀

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  12. Hi Chandra, as a Singaporean Chinese girl, I’m really sorry for all the ignorance you have faced. I acknowledge that as a majority I do not experience the hurt that minorities may from racist incidents. You are so much more than your race, you are a multifaceted human being with varied interests, identities, talents. I hope that in the future we will become a much more compassionate and educated society, and not let the flawed, socially constructed and unscientific category of “Race” (I prefer ethnicity anyway) be the one and only lens we use to view others who may look different from us. We should recognise and celebrate our differences, not ignore them or even worse hate “others”. In the meantime I hope that you will seek strength from others who do care for you. Don’t let it turn you into a bitter person, stay compassionate and intelligent. When they go low, we go high. ❀ Take care and I will be cheering you on.
    https://qz.com/700823/michelle-obama-told-graduates-of-the-poor-mans-harvard-that-living-without-privilege-is-an-advantage/

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  13. Stay strong. Same situation in arts as well when I graduated a couple of years ago. The language thing got worse as I enter the workforce, and negative bias tends to stick.

    There are times where I’m more confrontational, calling it out as racist and that there’s nothing funny about it. But there are times where you’re just left so hopeless, tired, and you cannot do anything. I’ve felt like that in NUS before. Once when the bus driver at KR MRT closed the front door on me, and when I ran to the back, he closed it after the second last guy. There was space on the bus. I was the only person at the bus stop left.

    These moments will keep coming as long as you live here. Be a strong force of character, pick your battles, and own the field. We gotta do more to stand out before race becomes a transparent factor….

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  14. Undoubtedly it’s going to happen.
    I guess your friends didn’t expect you to disclose such honest emotional reactions to their behaviors.

    If you are in the predicament of being the token minority, how do you proceed in the workplace and classroom? No matter what sticky conversations you’ve had or going to have in future, or ridiculous comments you hear, remember that visibility is one huge step to approaching a more tolerant society.

    Remember that who you are is not defined by what demographic you may fall under. Represent yourself well. And represent your minority well as well. The impression you makeΒ could very well impact the thoughts and feelings others have about you and others like you in the future.Β And don’t ever feel the need to deny who you are.

    Recognizing the struggles of minority students can promote more learning and tolerance for a spectrum of human experience. Once we refuse to alienate, that’s when we truly educate.

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  15. Don’t let anyone bully you, always call racist people out. I know sometimes there is a desire not to make a big deal out of it, but it IS a big deal and it shouldn’t be allowed to fester.

    As for people speaking in Mandarin when there are non-Mandarin speakers at the table, I’ve seen that happen at work too, it needs to be nipped in the bud. More than likely it is done unconsciously but it is still inconsiderate as hell

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  16. Hi Chandra,

    Really sorry for hearing what you went through in school :(. Yes unfortunately a lot of Chinese are that ignorant (to the extent of being stupid), but its a majority bias thing that becomes unconsciously ingrained in Singapore. And the general attitude towards such discrimination is either “its just a prank bro” or plain apathy.

    Just think about all the shit that you have dealt with to get to where you are today. It’s no easy feat being where you are now (even more so given your background), and in NUS BAC besides! (I am also from NUS BAC, I think I am from your valuation class). You have handled so much in life, you can definitely do even more!

    If you can see my email and need someone to talk to, feel free to drop me a message. I am from your cohort after all.

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  17. Hey there! As another minority (Malay Muslim), I have encountered similar experiences. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against my Chinese or non-Muslim friends. In fact, I actually do have several Chinese and non-Muslim friends who can be very thoughtful (and I appreciate them so much for being so). Yet, I do agree that a large majority of them needs to be more understanding towards minorities. People can laugh that we are being too sensitive at times but in any situation, the majority will never truly know how the minority feels. I have had to suffer at the expense of ‘Malay only know how to lepak’ jokes and have to constantly remind friends that I can’t eat at certain places. People ‘jio’ others in the chats and they almost always conveniently forget that I’m there and suggest non-halal places… Of course, I do remind some of them that I don’t speak Mandarin/I can only eat Halal but to be honest, these kind of incidents always happen so I only remind friends I care about. For my superficial acquaintances, I’ll just ignore them. If they ‘jio’ me in a group to a non-halal joint, I’ll just flat-out ignore them or tell them I already have lunch plans somewhere else. I really do feel you. It feels like everywhere and anywhere you go, you feel outed among the majority. You are constantly reminded of the minority which you are…and then the realisation sets in: we can never truly be included but almost always excluded. It’s a shitty feeling really. But then I remind myself, that they don’t deserve my time nor do they deserve to know me at all. The people who are worth my effort are the ones who truly understand and don’t require a reminder every 10 mins to be inclusive.

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  18. Hi Chandra,

    I am an alumni who recently graduated from NUS Business School. Please hear me out πŸ™‚

    My experience has been that regardless of whether students are Chinese or not, the culture and environment of the school has always been very westernized. English was definitely the dominant language; I almost never spoke Chinese to my fellow Singaporean/Indonesian Chinese groupmates. I also don’t recall any modules being offered in Chinese at the undergraduate level. The only group that I did use some Chinese with was the Mainland Chinese students. To be fair to them, a significant proportion had relatively poor English in the beginning and resorted to using Chinese because they were much more familiar with that language and could express themselves better. It probably also takes time for them to get used to multicultural Singapore, having grown up in homogeneous China. You may be referring to this group when you said that they were leaving you out in conversations? Assuming that you are a nice and decent person, I highly doubt that they dislike you personally or are deliberately excluding you. Speaking up at the right time and on the right platform was a good move on your part πŸ™‚ As for the Orientation group leader who asked you why you don’t know Chinese, any ordinary Singaporean should be familiar with our varied Bilingual Policy. If I were to hazard a guess, perhaps his ignorance of this suggests foreign origins?

    On another note, this might surprise you but making friends in university is actually a challenge for many people, Chinese or not! Gone are the fixed classes and similar timetables which make it easy to get to know other people. You are definitely not alone in this and it would be a shame if you went through 3-4 years thinking that you will always be a misfit. Please give it more time and try out either Residential Colleges or CCAs where you will be able to meet people with the same interests πŸ™‚ Making friends need not be restricted to Business School! Sometimes, people may not be discriminating against you racially but are just not on the same wavelength as you. In that case, it is actually better for you not to waste your precious time and energy on them! I personally took around 3-4 semesters before I felt more comfortable with the whole environment of NUS Business School, and it varies for different people. Despite being Chinese, I have also had my fair share of bad experiences, i.e. failed teamwork in group projects, discrimination based on an interviewer’s petty personal preferences… the list goes on. I think that there will always be nasty people around who choose to put others down in order to mask their own insecurities, Or they may be fundamentally good people who are simply having a bad day or are prone committing verbal gaffes. You just happened to be there and got hit through no fault of your own. Know that your innate value as a person never changes due to someone else’s opinion and don’t let them get you down!

    All the best, I truly hope that you will be able to recover with confidence and have an enriching university experience πŸ™‚

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    1. Please don’t be that idiot who blames China students for these things. These are Singaporean Chinese who do and say these things and I’ve experienced themselves myself, as a former NUS student and in the workforce. Of course there was plenty of that in Sec and Pri school too.

      And to be frank your share of experiences will never be the same because to be excluded by a majority of the population based on your race is something you’d never be able to identify with. Everyone has bad experiences, but not everyone goes through racial discrimination.

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  19. so sorry to hear that.

    in my primary school, we have a number of malays and indians in our class, and we always use english to communicate, even until today, we’re still in touch.

    in ntu accountancy, we had a malay classmate, and communication was always in english.

    i’m appalled at the ignorant remark during the orientation, and the disrespectful remark of the staff.

    many of my buddies and childhood mates are non-Chinese, we share meals and we share our lives together. never a problem with that. in fact, i met a sri lankan during my internship, and even flew to sri lanka for his wedding.

    please don’t give up, i’m sure there’s someone and many ones who’d love you as who you are.

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  20. Dear Chandralekha,

    Thank you for airing your concerns. Unfortunately, as a minority in singapore we are often subjected to casual racism. The sad truth is the majority do not even realise they are being racist. I hv 2 young kids and I hope they do not face such racism as they are growing up. It is necessary to create awareness. Everyone, minority or majority need to be responsible and sensitive to someone from another race. I have forwarded your message to my Friend who is a lecturer at NUS business school. They need to be aware! I hope that more and more Singaporeans will stand up against racist behaviour.

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  21. Hang in there it’s sad but it’s true racism does exist even I being a Singaporean of Indian origin always have to explain my being Singaporean people are like but your not Chinese I just ignore them. I am sure these tough times will pass and these experiences will make u a stronger person all the best

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  22. Like many readers here, I am really sorry to hear that.

    I am speaking as a Singaporean Chinese, but please do not discount my words. I feel you – perhaps not as much as you. I am sorry that you have to go through all of these – I just hope that you will remember that you went against all odds to get to where you are today: coming from a minority ‘racial’ (ethnicity sounds better though, but in Singapore context, oh well) group, a neighborhood secondary school, a polytechnic background and making it to university eventually. I came from a neighborhood secondary school and polytechnic as well, so I know where the struggle can be. Please give yourself credit for doing so well and making it there. I can relate especially coming from a similar background like yours, and I felt that these actually help me in university and in some way, my life (maybe because I majored in Sociology. Not that easy to relate in Accountancy I guess, haha). What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You are really strong to speak up today.

    Saying ‘jiayou’ may not sound logical right now, so let’s try ‘fighting’ (hope the kpop bug did bite you a little, but if it didn’t, I think it means ‘do your best!’). Fighting! Give it your best, and do all of us here proud. πŸ™‚

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  23. Don’t feel disheartened. You have come a harder way than your Chinese peers, from there you have learnt more and can stand firmer in tougher times. Because of the larger Chinese population, some feel privileged and at home with their behaviour and comments of making fun of minority sometimes. This can only happen when they are on home ground. When they are out of the country and in a foreign land, they will realise they are the minority in this big wide world and they may even become the target of racism of any kind. And in all this time you have mastered the “skill” of coping and defending your heritage if you have to. You have been better prepared for the world.

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  24. Hi, sad to hear about your situation and hope you are still there struggling to stay strong. I am sorry because I can’t say i understand you because I am one of the majority, I do agree that sometimes we just naturally communicate in Chinese unintentionally.. But i think your friends are rather rude to have not made that extra effort to speak in English with you, I hope that you stay away from toxic people and continue to have fun in university! I know its hard to find good friends after these hurtful experiences you had, not forgetting that orientation has ended, making it even harder to speak to strangers.

    But I really hope that you would have fun in NUS, continue to be proud that you have made it to such a prestigious course in a prestige school. The professor could have also undergo similar experiences, therefore warning you beforehand. Do speak to him if you need!

    Hope you feel better and stop crying because year 1 is ending soon!

    xoxo,
    Year 1 Business Student(not from NUS lol)

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  25. I am chinese and i hang out a lot with the minorities when i was in secondary school (my best friend was indian). There will be a table at the canteen with all the malays/indians and me only chinese. I feel you because my indian friends will all be speaking in Tamil and i don’t understand a word they said, yet i laughed when they did. And don’t forget the manjan here manjan there. Thinking back i don’t think they really saw me as a friend, maybe we had different backgrounds and culture that they feel i don’t fit in? I don’t think they were racist, they just felt comfortable among each other. Because of that, I got another culture shock when i went to poly and everyone spoke chinese, i thought english was the main language in singapore? that was when i realised that many chinese are so to themselves many don’t even have a single minority friend. Because i spoke english more, i got labelled a potato in poly. Subsequently, i went to Australia and experience racism myself (well every yellow skin is from china to them) Today, my best friend is someone i knew from poly. He’s indian and his wife is chinese. I’m a potato but i married a PRC. You just need to find the right fit, don’t fret if it didn’t come from people your class. People who look different or talk different often get labelled, take that difference in a positive manner otherwise everyday upset!

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  26. I once worked for an MNC who happened to hire an Indian manager. He made life difficult for us non-Indians in order to get us to leave. Whenever there’s a job opening, he made sure the job went to an Indian. Over time, a multi-racial company became a majority-Indian company. He was from Tamil Nadu, and he gave job opportunities to fellow Indians, preferably from Tamil Nadu.

    Instead of always playing the victim, try speaking up against racism once a while when it is perpetuated by your own kind. Many people in the industry can also attest that once an Indian becomes the manager or in charge of HR, it is only a matter of time before the majority of non-Indians get retrenched and replaced by Indians. When was the last time you also saw an Indian boss groom non-Indians for senior management roles?

    Be grateful you only have to work slightly harder to succeed as an Indian minority. Non-Indian minorities working under Indian majority often have virtually no chance of getting a job, let alone seeing success in an Indian majority environment.

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  27. Alice, is this the best you can contribute to this discussion?? Frankly, it is really pathetic! Do enlighten us as to how many more MNCs in Singapore are over-run by Indians? Don’t claim victim hood when your lot still continue to turn away Malays and Indians from jobs because you require ‘mandarin speakers only’; feel it is acceptable to tease and call-names or cover your nose because someone is darker in complexion and eat curry; dare not sit next to an ethnic minority on the bus/train; and so.
    If Singaporean Chinese are quick to distance themselves (bet you too) from your ancestral group (i.e. PRC immigrants) now in Singapore; what makes you think that your Indian born HR manager is going to favour a Singaporean Indian?
    I am sorry your response is out-of-line and completely dismissive of the pain that Chandralekha is enduring…

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  28. Hey there: just wanted to thank you for being so brave and forthcoming about your experiences! Also, wanted to say hi (I’m from Yishun Sec too and it’s so rare to see one of us make it to NUS!!) πŸ‘‹πŸΎ

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  29. Hi there,

    I just want to say thanks for sharing your experience with us! I’m an Indian girl in NUS too and there are times I shared similar experiences – such as friends having length conversations in Chinese when I cannot understand. And I’m still in year 1, so don’t know many people too well yet and am too shy to ask them to switch to English or translate, so I just sit quietly and the whole time feel like a non-entity, like I do not belong there. Quite depressing honestly. I try not to let it bother me and brush it off but it reading your post makes me want to voice how I feel. Making friends is harder too, however I have been lucky to find other minority friends in my faculty who are super nice and supportive, and have made my experience in NUS so far a pretty good one. I feel that people here are not trying to be racist and they do try to be as friendly as possible, nevertheless, it is much harder to click with them and our interactions remain superficial :/ I would like to make good friends with people of other races but I really don’t know how possible it is. And I agree that casual racism occurs all the time unknowingly by people and maybe speaking up about it can help people to avoid it and make people of minority race feel more included!

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  30. I’m curious and wonder if the Chinese leader is a local Singaporean. How would he be not knowing the mother tongue policy in Singapore?

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  31. Well I can quite understand the trauma of being a victim of racism. However I am born and educated Indian from Madras (now Chennai) and I have been discriminated by an Indian boss in my last job who told me a white man would be better for a job i wanted to do.

    I am an ex NUS student and had to get a password for my email. I told the malay guy who gave me the password, that it would be better to have a simpler password than all the capitals, numbers and small characters. He said these passwords are for the intelligent and he could change it. So i told him to change it to a**hole as i would always remember him. (It’s time NUS upped it’s game if it wants to be a global player, not just in FT rankings. I share this incident that u have to rise above it, show them that u will beat them at their game and come out smiling. There is no need to be a victim if you choose it. I guess you are a young student and it’s the greatest lesson in becoming assertive. Claim the space and tell the person that it was racist. In most cases, others don’t realise until they are in the situation. The business world has more in store for u.

    BTW, Indians are the most racist to their own race. So it’s a new dimension. One of the previous comments mentions that your excellence will pay off…just concentrate on what’s the best learning you can get out of this saga. Get strong as the real world is full of it. Singapore is actually the least (BTW I have lived here for 20years) All the best,

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  32. Don’t be disheartened, life will get better πŸ˜‰ I am a Singapore Chinese but just happened to be born elsewhere. When I first arrived, i could barely speak a word of mandarin. Going into primary school without being able to speak mandarin was horrible and the aunties and uncles everywhere would treat me horribly just because I couldn’t speak any mandarin. I also used to get called names like kentang because of this. Eventually, I learnt mandarin in Secondary school and life became easier – but because I wasn’t good at it, I still had difficulties elsewhere. I would confirm that racism does exist in Singapore but it exists everywhere else too. In this case though, I would think the language exclusion is just part of insensitivity, not particularly directed to you as an Indian but basically not making special adjustments for you either because you are indian.
    Now I’m living in a European country and also subject to discrimination of sorts. Racism does exist but don’t go looking for it, think the best of people, be the more graceful person and you will be happier for it.

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  33. Weird, being there for quite some time, I always see students trying to imitate the English accent despite serious pronunciation/grammar errors and even to simply using the wrong words for the whole conversation. Anyway, stay strong, it might be irresponsible of me to say this but, try to take this as a journey that will further strengthen your will. It is disappointing to have something like this happening despite Singapore being one of the country where it is acknowledged to have the most diverse race with equality in the Singapore pledge. I would say this goes to show just how rotten people nowadays have become.

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  34. Hi,
    I went through this until 2004. Then I just left the r country at 45 yrs old
    With a wife and 2 kids it is not easy being told that you cannot get a job based on your knowledge but what race you belong to,
    I started all over again People keep telling me that things have changed these days
    Looks like that is not true.
    When the time comes and you want to live better you are better off leaving and forget the place.Think of it as a dream or part of your lide,

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  35. Hi there
    I’ve read your story and wanted to let you know that your story is very relatable to mine. I am a Malay and I used to study at Temasek Polytechnic School of Business and I spent 2 years of my life there before deciding to dropout. Business schools are usually largely dominated by the Chinese and they are the superior race there. They always use these Chinese/Singlish terms that sometimes we don’t understand. And we are kind of obligated to know what they are in order to be on the same page with them. So being a minority there, we have to go with their flow, learn their language a little, play online games, like Dota etc in order to get along well with them. And also for us to survive in there or else, we will feel lonely and out of place. To me, I prefer not to do all that because I do not want to feel forced to fit in. I would do something on my own based on my own interest. In that kind of situation, it would suck to not to have another minority friend with you. In business schools, we rarely see a big clique of Malays or other minorities there, otherwise, the atmosphere would be different. I was also like you, I stand out, well, because I look different, I think different but I was socially awkward. That causes more problems for me because my entire class shunned me off (twice, in year 1 & year 2) and do not want me in their project groups. But before that, I have tried my best to build a good rapport among everyone and be a good student by studying hard because I needed to survive. At first I thought it was just me and that I needed help to improve myself in communication and interacting well with others. I even went for counselling and seeked help from outside people. (I’m doing so much better after I left that course and I realised it wasn’t me after all) But no, things just got worse, as they continued to shun me as days go by. It was a very bad experience for me. It wasn’t the school/course. It was the people, I realised. And the majority of them, sadly, happens to be the Chinese. Honestly, I have nothing against the entire race. I do not hate the race and the culture. In fact, I love them and I have a lot of close friends who I can trust who are Chinese. It was just in business schools in particular that I worry about because some of them can be very ignorant & insensitive towards the minority races. And I feel that the minorities in the school need to have a voice or someone to stick up for them too. This way, we are at least able to survive in the politics.

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  36. But please don’t be like me, don’t dropout of your course just because of the people. Your studies are too valuable to be wasted based on that. I am just merely sharing my story as a reference. Sorry guys.

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  37. hey,
    i’m chinese but can’t really speak nor understand chinese. Was in the same boat as you with regards to the language. I was in nus engineering and everybody spoke chinese around me, even AFTER i told them i can’t understand them. This continued on at the workplace. After reminding colleagues that I can’t understand them, I was told that then they can’t have a rapport with me.
    It’s not racism per se, more like people can’t step out of their comfort zone and language is a big part of it. Just think about why the Indian professor spoke to you in tamil, it was to build rapport with you.
    The plus point is the language became less an issue the more I progressed in my career, probaby coz asians automatically accord more respect to managers. Who knows…
    Cheer up. It’s not you. It’s them.

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  38. No need to feel disgusted by events such as those in the office. The challenge of racism is how do you choose to respond. eg. rather than letting the office boy admit to his sin of racism with a giggle, say to him ” I forgive you for that ” this is loving your enemies, which is very hard to do because we allow our emotions to rule over reason.

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  39. Thanks for writing this, Sis. I’m male Singaporean Indian. I left Singapore after seeing all the Chinese privilege at work when I was an MOE teacher in a secondary neighbourhood school. After teaching for 15 years, it was clear that racism in promotions is a fact of life as a teacher in Singapore schools. It was when one early afternoon when I decided to go swimming and met a female Chinese taxi driver who second guessed my reason for leaving MOE. She asked was it about promotion and I affirmed her. I asked why she knew it and she related that her son-in-law was Indian and he was not promoted when he was in URA explicitly because of Chinese privilege. Singapore’s brand of racism is deplorable. I decided not to get frustrated. I got even and the whole family left. No regrets. Wished I had left much sooner. Best of luck to you.

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  40. Some people are more comfortable expressing their inner thoughts in Mandarin. If you try to see it in a positive light, maybe they are so comfortable being around you that they forget that you do not understand the same language as them. Either way, a gentle reminder is always well appreciated. I had an Indian classmate who used to remind us that he feels left out when the conversation was in Chinese only. I felt grateful that he spoke up. We got a lot better about being inclusive. So help your classmates too in that respect πŸ™‚

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  41. Hi Lekha, Im Indonesian Chinese but didnt speak Chinese in PhD programme at Biz School too. Before my Indian fellow come here, among 15-16 phd students, only 1 Singaporean and 1 me who are not chinese mainland. Actually, I try my best, try to assimilate but still excluded on almost 95% conversation. Usually I make friend with exchange student, although theyre from china, they tend to be more casual. Actually one of my chinese phd friend ever appologized to me that they are already studying too hard such that they are very hard to think again to speak with me. Basically one to one relation is good, im just misfit if theyre in group. But what hurt is there was a class, the student asked lecturer in chinese and lecturer replied in chinese and i totally didnt know what happened. And after my Indian fellow come, I never felt so lonely, because now I have friend to discuss everyday. Usually i also become sensitive like you but now after finding good friends i dont care anymore πŸ˜‰

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