The thing about curry and foreign talents

Faisal Wali

A curry buffet spread

A curry buffet spread

One incident that created an online buzz was an article published in Today about a dispute between two neighbours. One was a family who relocated here from China and the other was a local indian family.

The dispute began when the local indian family cooked curry at home, producing an aroma which the Chinese family could not tolerate. The indian family mindful of the Chinese family’s aversion to the curry aroma would close their doors and windows whenever they cooked the dish.

However, this was not good enough for the Chinese family who told the indian family “not to cook and eat curry”. The dispute made it to the Community Mediation Centre (CMC). A mediator from the CMC managed to reach a compromise between the two families – the indian family will only cook curry when the Chinese family is not at home in exchange for the latter giving the indian family’s dish a try.

However, this incident created a buzz online, with critics who are unhappy with the government’s open door policy having a field day. Many of them were unhappy over the way the matter was resolved. They insisted that the Chinese family should integrate into our culture instead of unnecessarily ‘penalising’ the indian family who has tried its best to prevent the curry aroma from escaping their home by closing their door and shutting the windows.

Their arguments are not without their merits. After all, curry is a popular local dish that is made and enjoyed even by chinese Singaporeans. Mention the word “Jalan Kayu” even to chinese Singaporeans and chances are that you are going to get responses like “Oh, I remember that place which is famous (or formerly) for its pratas”.

Pratas, as you and I or any other Singaporean knows is usually eaten with curry. The discontent online is over the fact that a local family has limited opportunities in cooking a dish they or any other Singaporeans love over the need to placate a Chinese family.

In recent times, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has been expousing the virtues of foreign talents. However, before any debate of “foreign talent”( in its purest sense) can proceed, there is a need to establish a proper understanding of what we mean by “foreign talent”.

I believe no one will have a quibble if one of the important defining traits of a foreign talent is one that will that will bring in skills, knowledge and expertise that locals lack. Locals benefit by transfer of these attributes from foreign counterparts.

Such foreign talents are for example, academics, top management officers or technology gurus. Or they can be simply a foreign entrepreneur who starts up a firm and hire local Singaporeans, and provide a source of employment.

The other important defining trait of a foreign talent is the ability to integrate. During my travels and exposure to other cultures, I have met such foreign talents who are comfortable adapting well to another foreign culture.

When I converse with Chinese (from PRC) students from Ivy League colleges, I found their spoken English to be profoundly perfect. They are the types who scored quite high in the verbal section of their SAT test, and you have to take into account the fact that English isn’t their first language.

Contrast this experience with the one I had months ago during a short conversation with a telemarketer who called me to market a product. The first thing she asked me was whether I could speak mandarin. Obviously, I can’t say I know mandarin other than the usual greetings that I picked up from my chinese Singaporean friends. However, I could tell she had a Chinese accent.

I asked the telemarketer which part of China she was from, and checked it on Google. Turned out she came from one of those rural areas. The problem with her is that she expects us Singaporeans to speak her language, obviously showing a lack of effort to integrate.

English has always been the medium of communication between the various ethnic groups, and I can only imagine the hard time these people will face when they communicate with non-chinese Singaporeans.

Another acquaintance of mine is a doctor who graduated from one of the Ivy Leagues medical schools whom I met during one of my travels. It turned out that he previously worked in hospitals in Indonesia and China. He asked me if I was able to converse in Malay, and to my pleasant surprise, he was able to verbally string a fluent sentence in Bahasa Indonesia, a predominant (Malay) language in Indonesia. He even knew more than the standard greetings in mandarin.

If you believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution where an organism has to adapt or be extinct, this process of adaptation is similar to integration into a foreign culture. I had to do it during my work and travels overseas. The rule is either to adapt or end up in a lousy situation. All those skills and talents which foreigners bring in will come to naught if they cannot adapt to the local culture.

Thus, being a foreign talent is not only about bringing in skills, knowledge and technology we lack. It is also about adapting to our culture. Failure to adapt to the local culture will result in a tough, unhappy and nearly impossible road ahead.

With that, I would like to end with a rhetorical question to the mediator who handled the case from CMC. What if instead of the Singaporean indian family, it was an India indian who made the curry? How would it handle disputes between the families from India and China then?

Actually, the solution is simple. Integration. Among the foreigners, what separates the wheat from the chaff is firstly skills, knowledge and talents, and secondly, successful integration into our culture.

Photo courtesy of Coronation Inn