“Where are you from?” and a sense of belonging

When one is abroad and gets to make new friends, the question, “Where are you from?”, is one that will inevitably pop up. As the number of immigrants here rises, more Singaporeans are asking new acquaintances this same question.

For Chinese nationals, the answer can be just China, or narrowed down to the specific province or city. If the person who asks the question does not understand Mandarin, one’s citizenship is often an adequate reply. But if he or she is an overseas Chinese or has some knowledge about China, the answer may include province, city and even district.

Having experienced both situations often enough, I am beginning to feel that much more is involved in this seemingly simple conversation.

For someone with a straightforward life experience – born, raised and lived in the same place – the answer is equally straightforward. But it is trickier for a person whose ancestral home, birthplace, the place he grew up, got married and worked in are not the same – in different cities, provinces and even countries. There is a lot more that he can choose to say in response to the simple “Where are you from?” query. Why and what he decides to say may reveal a lot about him.

One may mention the ancestral home, perhaps out of a deep sense of affection for the forefathers, or maybe it is a place that is world-famous for boasting many renowned personalities. Yet another person may refer to the city where he was born, grew up, got married and set up his essential network of relations. He may have a fond memory of the place or, in short, it is a place where he feels he belongs to.

Whatever one says and the reasons for it, it is easy to detect the affection for, and a sense of identification with, the place mentioned. The feeling is neither ethnic nor national identification, but a sense of belonging.

Let me explain how this happens. First, one must enjoy a certain mobility, having been to different cities in a country or different parts of the world and, in the process, develops varying degrees of liking for the place he has spent time in, which is the basis for growing a sense of belonging.

Second, while such an emotional affiliation may overlap with national identification, they are different. It is possible for someone living in a foreign land to feel attached to that place but remains a citizen of the country where he came from.

Last year, when I was in Australia on an official assignment, the public relations consultant who received me is a New Zealander who has been working in Australia for some years. She told me: “I love Australia even though I’m a foreigner here. But dealing with another foreigner like you makes me feel that I’m an Australian. I love this feeling.”

Taiwanese Hsiao Bi-k him who holds an American passport but also serves as an adviser to the Taiwanese President, is another example of someone whose sense of belonging and national affiliation are not identical.

Last but not least, one has full control and freedom over the matter. While one cannot choose one’s birthplace, one can certainly decide, based on what one has experienced, the best place to settle in.

A place which can make one grow fond of, and identify with, must have its charm and attraction. A scenic environment, a warm and caring people, a gracious society, good living conditions and more opportunities for success are just some possible reasons.

The intense global competition for foreign talent has made some countries and cities take this “sense of belonging” approach to attract them.

The dynamic Shanghai city is an excellent example. It used to be the city that was “most discriminatory against foreigners” – in the eyes of Shanghainese, all non-Shanghainese were “country bumpkins”. Yet it has now opened its door to foreign talent and is promoting the idea of a “new Shanghainese”. One is a Shanghainese so long as one works or runs a business there, never mind where one comes from. Global capital and talent have flocked there and it now has plenty of dwellers who do not speak Shanghainese.

This discussion on sense of belonging and identification has a special meaning for an immigrant society like Singapore. If we can make passing travellers and foreign talent identify with us and sink roots here, there will be added dynamism and vitality for our progress.
















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