Tag Archives: heritage

Nationality, Ethnicity, Heritage & Me


2017 is being an intense year for the Western world, marked by the rise of nationalist movements. Anyone with a basic understanding of fascism, xenophobia and white supremacy would have probably seen this coming in the last few years.

When politicians across the spectrum use migrants as a basketball ball to score points, when challenging racism becomes a bore-some activity for so called progressive/liberals, when dealing with inequality and xenophobia is seen as a matter of “overrated identity politics, when people pretend only white people are working class and suffering since the financial crisis of 2008, when the media is still unable to check their biased language, and when all of the sudden everyone wants to pretend we are all equal as if a few decades of brown and black people seen as human (debatable) erases the effects of centuries of genocide, slavery and colonisation, well…. You get this. A region in which racial supremacy and discrimination are okayed again (to be honest, were they ever not okayed?) in the name of freedom of speech.

At the same time, everyone willing to challenge this bigotry is called a “regressive leftist” by people who genuinely believe they are progressive leftists, while being moderate centrists, if anything. Neo-Nazis and conservatives might refer to them as “easily triggered snowflakes”, which is ironic since they turn purple and angry whenever you call their statements ‘racist’. “Clueless social justice warriors” is another label used often by people who still don’t know their right to freedom of speech can only be violated by governments and their agencies/bodies, not by fellow citizens counterarguing what they say.

And lastly, my personal favourite one: “entitled millennials”, a tone-deaf term used by adults who believe young people under 30 years old are all middle-class babies who had everything handed to them (working/lower class young people don’t exist anymore), were rewarded for mediocrity (seriously, where are all these awards? I didn’t get mine) and can’t live outside safe spaces (apparently young people live in protective bubbles away from the cruel real world, I can’t believe I didn’t get one!).

I’m not going to go any deeper into the political situation in the West, I’m still on an indefinite break from writing about social issues at a non-personal level. I just wanted to give a brief look at the context in which this personal article is set. The ongoing discussions about nationalism, patriotism, culture and ethnicity have made me think deeply about my own identity. How I identify and how I am identified. I struggle to determine to where I belong and to which countries/regions I should be loyal too. My national, ethnic and cultural identities are complicated to the point in which I’m uncertain I have any of these.

I was born in the Basque Country, an autonomous region in Spain. I lived there till 2012, the year I moved to England, where I currently reside. My nationality is Spanish and despite living in Britain for over four years, I still have a strong (Northern) Spanish accent. At the same time, I have adopted various British customs, such as saying “sorry” non-stop without an actual reason, eating roast on Sundays, being passive aggressive and drinking a lot of tea throughout the day (just joking!). Despite all this, I was born (and I live) in a different place to where my parents and grandparents were born. Hence, my nationality and place of residence say little to nothing about my ethnicity and heritage.

My mother was born in Equatorial Guinea, located in Central/Middle Africa. Her mother (my grandmother) is from there too, while her father (my grandfather) was originally from a West African country, either Cape Verde or São Tomé and Príncipe (I can’t confirm which one it is since I have been told different things). As you can see, simply in my mother’s side there is already a mixture of ethnicities, which would be even bigger if specific ethnic groups/tribes would be considered (which I won’t do because I don’t want to overcomplicate this article).

Although it might seem confusing, describing my maternal heritage is easy compared to my paternal heritage: my biological father  (from whom I inherited my genetic traits) differs from my legal father (who legally recognises me as his daughter). I have never met my biological father and I know little about him. Meanwhile, I was raised by my legal father and he is the only person I consider a “father” in my life. I was told that my biological father is Senegalese and Bissau-Guinean (both West African countries). My legal father is from DR Congo and his parents (my grandparents) migrated there from Angola. Both countries are in Central/Middle Africa.

I learnt most of this information about my family during the last couple of years. Growing up, I was never curious about my ethnicity and heritage. I never even tried to define them. The only things I was sure about were my race (black) and my nationality (Spanish). While I grew up immersed in Spanish culture, I never felt part of it: it wasn’t something I could claim as my heritage. While Spain is a “colourblind” country in many aspects (when I lived there, race and ethnicity were not officially recorded as in UK), racism and xenophobia are common. People always give you subtle and not-so-subtle reminders about you not being “originally” from Spain.

It was also hard for me to feel attached to my African background because I didn’t grow up with my family (except my siblings). Now and then, I did have access to my parents’ cultures, mainly during family celebrations and spiritual rituals, but these were limited. I can name some basic Congolese food dishes, some basic Equatorial Guinean food dishes. I can understand some words of Lingala (Congolese language) and Pichinglish (Creole language in Equatorial Guinea). I’m aware of some rituals and customs. But my position regarding these cultures is the one of an outsider, rather than someone actively involved in them. In addition, till no long ago, I silently rejected my African background because of the gender roles that were being forced on me in the name of it.

Moving to England and becoming a young adult triggered in me an interest to know more about my roots to define my ethnicity better. In England I saw how most black people, even if British, embraced their ethnicity a lot, not just as “African”, but as Nigerian, Ghanaian, Jamaican… Or even specific subgroups, such as Yoruba. I felt a lot of envy about this, I wished that was me. Meanwhile I realised that I would never be considered Spanish and I wondered if I wanted to live in this continent forever. In addition, when deciding what to study at university, I remember how my dad pushed me to go for something that could help people “back at home”, meaning DR Congo for him.

All this inspired me to learn more about my roots. I asked questions to my family, and I did an Ancestry DNA test to proof-check their answers. While Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, it is an indicator, and I’m hoping to do a 23andMe check soon, since it is considered more reliable. Here are my Ancestry DNA results:

(*Trace regions are regions/countries which are only possibilities and might appear in the results by chance.)

My reaction to this data was a mixture of confirmation and surprise. I suspected most of my ethnicity would be African. I knew I had some European ancestry because my maternal grandfather was creole/mulatto. I thought I would get a small percentage for Native American (defined by Ancestry as indigenous groups from North to South America) because I was told my maternal great-grandmother has an Indigenous Cuban ancestor (the ancestor might be too distant to appear). I definitely have Afro-Cuban ancestry, something common in my mother’s home country, yet it isn’t reflected on the test since Afro-Cubans, as other Afro-Latinos, are direct descendants of black African slaves sent to the Americas.

I was surprised by the percentage for the Middle East, and although it is just a chance, it might be true due to extensive presence of Middle-Easterns in Africa, particularly in countries that make up my ethnicity. Regardless of this, I’m happy with being just black African, that’s how I have always identified. (Black) Afro-Hispanic is a label that wouldn’t bother me either, since linguistically speaking, I’m indeed Hispanic, which is not the same as Latino by the way (though I do have Latino [and Caribbean] heritage since I have Cuban ancestry and I grew up quite influenced by it).

When comes to individual countries, I already knew I had Senegalese roots, though I didn’t think it would be my biggest percentage. Conversely, I knew I had Bantu background, since my maternal grandmother’s ethnic group is Bubi, a Bantu subgroup, but I didn’t think the percentage would be so small. I was dazed by the rest of African countries and for the lack of mention of Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde or/and São Tomé and Príncipe, in the list. However, a small look at African history helped me to make sense of this.

Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe were supposedly uninhabited islands when the Portuguese arrived to colonise them. They were populated mainly through European settlers and slaves from continental Africa. That’s probably why countries like Congo and Benin appear in my Ancestry DNA: many slaves were taken from there. A similar logic can apply to Equatorial Guinea: that country was inhabited prior to Portuguese and Spanish colonisation (by ethnic groups like the Bubis), but there was a lot of migration from neighbouring areas afterwards.

Except for two, all the African countries/regions in my results are in West & Central Africa. Considering how European-made national borders in Africa don’t respect ethnic groups and tribes, the variety in my ethnicity makes more sense: the ethnic groups I belong to could be found in various countries in the area. Nationality might not be the greatest indicator for ethnicity in Africa. It is also important to keep in mind I don’t have full access to knowledge about my biological father’s family background. And, as I mentioned earlier, Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, although my results look more right than wrong.

As you can see, my ethnicity and heritage are heterogeneous. My mother, my legal father and my biological father are all from separate places, even different to their own parents. It is important to mention that while I didn’t inherit genetic traits from my legal father, his heritage and ethnicity still influence my cultural identity. Now, add my nationality (Spanish) and my place of residence (England). To which country in the world am I supposed to be loyal? To which country in the world am I supposed to show patriotism? I identify as black African normally, but I’m aware I’m legally Spanish and I’m a citizen of England.

Having a transnational, multicultural and mixed background is supposed to make me richer in knowledge and experiences, which is not untrue. Yet, it doesn’t make you richer in company. It can be very isolating. You belong to so many places that you end up belonging to nowhere. And more nowadays, when nationalism and ethno-supremacy are such a trend worldwide. It is easy to force nationalism upon people when you haven’t been rejected by your country of birth, when the country where you live doesn’t hate you and when you don’t have a transnational family.

My nationality is culturally and ethnically meaningless. Living in England matters to me, but the current war on immigrants and Brexit make things harder. While I’m trying to learn more about the countries that compose my African background, I still don’t feel attached to them. That’s the main reason why I can’t get behind any person or idea that doesn’t consider that who I am comes from more than one country or region, and tries to shame me for not being nationalistic. I simply have a borderless identity not confined to a single culture or place. And I wish people understood this, just as I respect their right to be patriotic. Hopefully one day, people like me will be considered during political discussions about culture, ethnicity and nationalism. Hopefully.


Poem / Song Lyrics: Nowhere



That’s how

I see who I am

My humanity

Is questionable



Where am I from?


Where do I belong?



Worthless document

They think it is fake

My nationality

Defies fascism



Where am I from?


Where do I belong?



Just pigment

Yet, key in my life

My race

A construct



Where am I from?


Where do I belong?



The truth

Although, recovering it, is painful

My ethnicity

Most important



Where am I from?


Where do I belong?



African heritage

Stolen, erased, trashed and enslaved

My soul

Invisible essence



Where am I from?


Where do I belong?”


By Emilie F. Yaakaar

All Rights Reserved © 2017



BZU Work Camp in Palestine: Part 3. Lectures, NGOs & Volunteering

One of the main reasons I liked the BZU work camp was that it was not just about sightseeing: it was about understanding the Palestinian situation better. There were aspects of the Israeli occupation you could see (checkpoints, The Wall, destroyed infrastructure) but others required explanation because they weren’t visible enough. When applying to the program, I was hoping to learn more about the politics and social aspects of the issue. Fortunately, my desire was fulfilled. We had lectures from first aiders, an activist, a politician and an academic. We had presentations about different community groups. And we carried out experiential learning by volunteering with those groups. It was an enriching educational experience I want to share with you.

Palestinian Red Crescent Society

Representatives from the organisation gave us a small lesson on first aid the day after we arrived. The topics were heat related emergencies and bites, oriented towards real issues we could have during the camp. The West Bank is a hot and dry place full of nature. Although we normally had a first aider with us during the camp, it was good to be made aware of simple things that could be lifesaving. In addition, while I have attended various first aid courses before, I never went through those topics: it was a new knowledge for me.

Right 2 Edu (Right to Education)

Right 2 Edu is self-funded grassroots student campaign that began in BZU in the 1970s, with the objective of providing legal assistance to staff and students incarcerated by Israel. At present, other aims include: documenting, researching and raising awareness about the occupation; building an international campaign; advocating for a proper Palestinian curriculum; connecting with supporters from the international community; and opposing illegal violations by the Israeli state. At heart of the campaign is the desire of securing full access to quality education for Palestinians, covering from political to economic aspects. Currently there are around 80 students from BZU detained in Israeli prisons and the campaign offers them legal representation. The Right 2 Edu has carried out two tours in USA universities, visiting 40 institutions in the first one and 37 in the second one, with the purpose of explaining their ambitions and creating alliances.

Campaign presentation.

Education is a very important element of the Palestinian cause. When the 1st Intifada happened, education was made illegal in Palestine by the Israeli government: educational institutions were shut down for 4 years. To keep educating themselves, Palestinians created circle study groups in their homes, were teachers taught them. After picking up on this, the Israel government introduced a ban than prohibited more than 10 people to gather, trying to prevent these study groups. Nevertheless, Palestinians kept circulating knowledge in smaller groups till the ban ended.

Another reason why education is significant is because of the role the curriculum plays. A Palestinian curriculum didn’t use to exist before, the alternatives being the Jordanian or Israeli one. Then, aid was given to Palestinians so they could create their own one, but conditions were applied: they weren’t allowed to mention “anti-Israeli bias”, such as the Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus after Israel was created), they had to study it as a war, not a catastrophe in which thousands of Palestinians had to leave their homes and became refugees. Another example is that instead of teaching about “resistance”, they had to learn about negotiations and deals.

This is an issue because in Palestine, there are two main types of violations: the visible ones and the invisible ones. The visible ones are for example the checkpoints, the settlements, the soldiers, and the Wall. The invisible ones apply to things like the curriculum: not being allowed to learn about their history and heritage correctly. This is a problem because Palestinians feel like if it makes them normalise their situation and it reduces chances for real resistance against the occupation. It can also make some feel a desire of leaving their country, linked also to a lack of opportunities in the region because of the occupation.

Campaign presentation.

Although education is no longer banned in Palestine, quality and access are still an issue as well. Certain materials are not allowed to enter the region, such as some chemicals (under the excuse that they might be used inappropriately) and books, especially philosophical books and books about revolution. In addition, in some primary schools, Palestinian children are taught with books that show Israelis as progressive saviours who brought things like light to their country, while Arab-Palestinians are depicted as backward societies incapable of such. When comes to access, there are various restrictions that don’t allow Palestinians to build schools easily and location can become a big problem for children to attend school (the issue of construction in the West Bank is explained better below).

To learn more about the Right 2 Edu campaign, visit this webpage: right2edu.birzeit.edu

Lecture on Jerusalem: Planning, Siege, Segregation, Colonisation &Apartheid

A professor of Urban Planning in BZU gave us a lecture about the geographical issues surrounding the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire till 1917. Then, the British Mandate took over. Afterwards, the Balfour declaration was passed by Britain, in which it was articulated how a Jewish homeland would be established in Palestine (important to point out that a minority of Jews already lived in Palestine, alongside a minority of Christians and a majority of Muslims). This lead to an increase in Jewish migration to Palestine and to growing tensions between the populations in the region. In 1947, the UN created a partition plan, leading to the end of the Palestine mandate, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent 1948 Arab-Israeli war.


At present, Palestine is often described as being comprised by Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem as capital (this view is disputed for a variety for reasons, some will be explained in the next blog post). The West Bank is geopolitically divided in three areas: A, B & C. This was as part of a temporary agreement that came after the 1st Intifada, which was extended after the 2nd Intifada. Area A is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority, most urban communities are located there. Area B has shared control between Israel and Palestine. And Area C, which comprises 60% of the West Bank, is controlled by Israel, and Palestinians have a very restricted allowance for construction (from schools to agricultural infrastructure). This pushes many of them to construct illegally and risk demolition. Overall, not being allowed to manage 60% of their land has a negative impact for Palestinians, due to limitations to enhance their economy and promote the development of their region.

When comes to Jerusalem, the creation of the Wall on the Palestinian side led to a decrease in Palestinian land. Palestinian villages and refugee camps were demolished and partitioned. It is important to note that East Jerusalem is an economic, social & cultural heart for Palestinian communities. It was separated from West Bank cities like Bethlehem by Israeli settlements, a division more empathised by the Wall. The expanding settlements are negatively affecting the lives of the Bedouin, an Arab semi-nomadic ethnic group who live there: they have severe restrictions to construct and rebuild, which is considered a strategy by Israel to kick them out. Another believed purpose of these settlements is connecting East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem. Their existence also makes it harder to cross from the North of the West Bank to the South of the West Bank.


Many Israeli settlements in the West Bank were constructed on bought state land (e.g. natural reserve), even though the Geneva Conventions say that state land is for indigenous communities. Several of these settlements are illegal, but no solutions have been found in the International Court of Justice. They contribute to the fracturing of the West Bank, not only because of their existence, but because of the creation of highways by the Israeli government to connect them with Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem.

Meeting with Minister of Culture

On the 4th of August we had a meeting with Dr. Ehab Bseiso, the Minister of Culture of the Palestinian National Authority, who received us on behalf of the president, Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke to us about a variety of things and answered some of your questions. I took some notes, below are some highlights.

The Israeli occupation in Palestine makes it challenging to run a system and administrate it, especially the settlements, which are illegal according to international law. When a country occupies another, it is a war crime, according also to international law. The settlements are expanding and not randomly: it is systematic policy to diffuse the chance for Palestinians to have an independent state. Currently, it is illegal for Palestinians to buy products made in Israeli settlements. Not long ago, the EU decided to label settlement products, which is a step forward for Palestine. The settlements don’t only create economic issues, but also threat the political stability and security of the region. Settlers attack Palestinian families, like when the house of a family in Nablus was burned down and only a 5-years-old survived.

The Wall and the checkpoints are another significant part of the occupation. The Wall is 8 metres high, and it imprisoned Palestinians in their own land, apart from taking land from them. Not just empty land was separated, but also schools, farms, houses, etc. The Wall is controlled by electric gates that open three times a day. This is a problem for the daily life of Palestinians, to go to school, to see their family… In addition, confrontations happen, and there are attacks, arrests and deaths. When comes to the checkpoints, there are 550 in the West Bank. Some are fixed (always there) while others are mobile (appear and disappear). In some way, it could be said that time in Palestine is measured by checkpoints and not minutes! These are not only time-consuming, but also humiliating.

Israelis complain about Palestinian violence, which is taken out of context and ignores the Palestinian suffering. The occupation is violence and to the end cycle of violence you need to end the occupation. In addition, a good question is: can victims of colonisation be a real threat to colonisers? Waiting in checkpoints for hours, the need for permits, house raids, house demolitions, street raids, and arrests without reasons: that’s the occupation. It is violence, thousands of daily crimes. However, it is not true that there is no hope for a Palestinian state: international solidarity and community support are important for the political struggle. Some examples are boycotting settlement products and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). There is also the academic and cultural boycott, through which academics and intellectuals in Israel and abroad are encouraged to support Palestinian human rights. Boycotting is a form of resistance and it is not about individuals: it is about policies and systems.

When comes to Hamas, the international community needs to respect political leaders and the choice of Palestinians. The elections were democratic and transparent, Israel didn’t accept them and there was a siege. There are radical parties in Israel, some Israeli ministers come from them. Hamas is part of the political system, democracy and elections. Diplomacy wise, it is not easy. Some Israeli ministers live in settlements. The Palestinian president created a committee to engage in conversations with Israeli civil societies. But the president of the committee got his permit removed as a punishment and the committee was accused of “diplomatic terrorism”. Negotiations can be a waste of time and there is a need of international involvement since it is not sure if the Israeli offer for peace is genuine.

Group picture with the Minister of Culture.

Armaa’ Organisation

This is a Palestinian educational and cultural NGO based in Jerusalem. They specialise in Palestinian kids between 6 and 18 years old. They run different activities and workshops, from learning to write & read to leadership training. They have a partnership with the British Council to be sent an English teacher. They also do after-school activities, Ramadan celebrations like iftar and summer camps! We visited them during our trip to Jerusalem and volunteered with them on the morning. I did some play work with toddlers around 3-5 years old. My Arabic is very broken so communicating with them was hard at times, but it was a nice experience. Afterwards, we were invited to have breakfast with them. The organisation was very welcoming.

Palestinian Circus School

The institution started in 2013 and it has hundreds of students. Its aim is to create behavioural and social change among Palestinians by trying to build trust, respect, cooperation, self-esteem and confidence. Their circus shows have a variety of messages: fight for power, refugees, water, recycling…

Youth Village

This is a project run by the Sharek Forum, a youth organisation that runs a variety of activities for young people. They decided to create a village for outdoor meetings and activities because young people got bored with only being indoors. The Youth Village is located in Area C, where it is not allowed to build full buildings or buildings with constant ceiling. There is a small area of the Youth Village in Area B as well. Weekly groups of young people participate and volunteer to build in the area. They also organise camping activities while being there for 2-3 days. After learning about the project, we divided ourselves in groups and helped to move around construction materials, work on a ceiling and pick up rubbish in the surroundings.

Shoruq Organisation

NGO based in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. Their main focus is advocating for refugee rights. Shoruq means “sunrise”, symbolising a new beginning. The organisation was established in 2012 by residents. Their aim is to empower children and youth, so they aware of their rights. They run activities for girls, summer camps, dance activities, music activities… It works a safe space where children and young people are given opportunities, such as media programming and professional training, to express themselves. They also offer psychosocial support. And they advocate for their “right to return” and their right to life and human dignity. “Right to return” refers to the right of Palestinians evicted from villages, which are at present in the state of Israel, to return to them. Israel expected younger generations to not remember their villages of origin, but children and young people are taught about their heritage and ancestors. Following a presentation about the NGO, we did some voluntary work painting around the refugee camp.

Naim Khader Community Training & Development Centre in Cooperation with Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung / Centre of Education for Renewable Energy

One of the biggest NGOs in Palestine. We did some gardening voluntary work with them and then we had a presentation about the institution. It is funded by the EU and aiming to have local support. The idea for the organisation came from volunteering and camps. It started as a small tiny idea, then became very large. The NGO works in many fields: youth, women, engineering, development… It is the 1st organisation that worked in lands threatened by Israel control, trying to develop agriculture and water sources. New technologies for agriculture were introduced. They also established the Palestinian Women Association, one of the biggest in Palestine. They help farmers to harvest olives and others products around Israeli settlements, which is not an easy task.

It is first organisation that works training agricultural engineers since 1992. 20 engineers from Gaza and 20 engineers from the West Bank stay in a centre to train for nine months. There are three centres: one in Jenin, another one in Gaza and another one in Jericho. During the training programme, engineers are taught computer skills, language skills, managerial skills, marketing… They focus on practical skills to enrich theoretical learning. At the end of program, the engineers are given lands and supervised practical work to see how the training went. In addition, they offer scholarships for creative engineers, so they can fund their own projects

The NGO has divisions for voluntary, social, water and organic agricultural work. They also try to use solar cells as electricity source since the Israeli occupation doesn’t give electricity sometimes. In Jenin, there can be 2-4 hours of no electricity a day. Another problem is the use of water. Waterlines were opened and people awaited till the water reached them, yet the IDF destroyed them. There are also issues with farming. Sometimes Palestinians aren’t allowed to farm, others time they are. Israeli planes survey the area for buildings and give warnings if they see something they don’t like.

(P.S: Sorry if the writing in this post seems poor. I’m currently not feeling physically well and I’m trying my best to end the blog series while being as informative as possible.)


GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU: Part 2. Cultural Intelligence, Welcome Party, Group Day Out and Heritage Centres

Welcome to the second part of my blog series “GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU”! If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/07/09/gem-trailblazer-summer-in-singapores-ntu-part-1-preparation-flight-orientation-and-city-tour/.

In this post I will talk about the start of my short academic course, the Summer Bonanza organised by the university as a welcome party, a group trip to Kampong Glam/Arab Street, Little India and Bugis, and my visits to the Malay Heritage Centre and the Indian Heritage Centre in Singapore. This post will be a mixture of educational, celebratory, social and cultural occurrences. Hope you enjoy it!

First week of lessons: An Introduction to Cultural Intelligence

On Monday the 4th I woke up ready to begin my short academic course in NTU. As shared in the previous post, I chose to study a module titled “Cultural Intelligence: How to be an Explorer for the World”. To be honest, I had never heard about the concept of cultural intelligence before. That’s why the first session I had on the subject was quite eye-opening. The lesson began with our teacher introducing herself and asking what were we curious about, followed by an interesting cards game: each table of the room got a pack of cards and a set of rules to play two against two. We played in our individual tables for a few minutes to practice, and then a competition between the whole class began. If your pair lost, you had to move to another table and compete against another pair.

During the competition we couldn’t speak at all (not with our competitors, not with our partners) and things got confusing in my table when a new pair came to compete with us and played differently to how my partner and I played. When the competition was over, we shared our confusion with the teacher and that’s when we realised all the tables were given different rules to follow! The purpose of the activity was showing how difficult is to interact and work with others when they have different rules and can’t communicate verbally due to language barriers. That’s how we learnt the first important thing about our course: culture is hidden.

Cultural intelligence is defined as the “capability to function effectively across national, ethnic and organizational cultures”. The purpose of the module is to “generate awareness of challenges inherent in cross-cultural interactions”, “create awareness of personal cultural values and beliefs, attitudes toward, as well as strengths and weaknesses in managing cross-cultural interactions”, and “enhance self-efficacy in interacting with people from different cultures”. I believe I made the right choice when choosing this course, it goes well with my International Development degree and my aspirations to travel and work abroad. In addition, NTU hosts the World’s First Cultural Intelligence Center: I’m gaining a skill in an institution with strong reputation and research on it.

Although I was scared about the module being hard and requiring a lot of learning, lessons turned out to be very interactive and out-of-class work was limited to optional readings, curiosity conversations, an e-learning module and a class group experience. Curiosity conversations are one of the main approaches and ways to improve cultural intelligence: it is about asking people from different backgrounds about their countries and cultures, learning new things, challenging assumptions, trying new behaviour, and analysing situations and thoughts. The teacher created the course in a way in which learning is an active experience, and not just memorising information. I really like her approach and I enjoyed greatly the first week of lessons we had.

Classroom during lessons.


Welcome Party: Summer Bonanza in the Auditorium

NTU organised a Welcome Party as part of the introductory activities for the summer programme students, which was a Summer Bonanza. It took place on the afternoon/evening of the 4th of July in the auditorium on campus and I went with the pals I met over the weekend. The first part of the afternoon was dedicated to listening to a speech on NTU, its achievements and its global outlook. NTU is ranked 13th globally, 4th of Asia, and 1st amongst universities below the age of 50! And more than 20% of its students are from abroad, from countries like China, Indonesia, India and Vietnam. I wasn’t aware of this when I applied to the summer school and it felt good to know I was studying in an international and highly ranked university.

Following the introductory speech, there was a brief performance by Malaysian dancers, and then the Bonanza began. Buffet dinner was served and recreational activities across the room were set. The only activities I took part in were getting a temporary tattoo and completing a bingo board to get a gift. Nevertheless, it was a delightful and entertaining afternoon, I had a lot of fun with my mates. Although we natively speak different languages and have different accents, we can communicate with each other easily and we get along very well. For some strange reason, I find easy talking to people here, even for small conversations. Maybe it is because I’m aware that I’m not the only person whose first language isn’t English and I’m not the only one who is coming from abroad. I don’t know, I feel more confident than usual. But I don’t complain because I’m being able to enjoy nice moments and make friends.

Group pictures from the Welcome Party

Group trip: Out in Kampong Glam/Arab Street, Little India and Bugis

Wednesday the 6th was a public holiday in Singapore, Hari Raya Puasa, also known as Eid al-Fitr, a festivity celebrated by Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan. Together with my pals and others, I went out to spend the day exploring. On the morning we took the bus from campus and then the MRT from Boon Lay to get to Bugis, and from there we walked to Kampong Glam. Kampong Glam is known as the Malay neighbourhood in Singapore, the Malay Heritage Centre is located there, together with various mosques, such as Sultan Mosque (one of the most important in Singapore) and Hajjah Fatimah Mosque. Arab Street is also located in this area: Kampong Glam is a significant place for Muslim communities in general.

Our plan was to visit Sultan Mosque, but it was closed to the public (probably because of Eid!). Instead, we did some gift shopping and then had lunch. We ate in a Turkish-Lebanese restaurant close to the mosque. When I entered the place I was impressed by the detailed architecture and decoration the building had inside, it was a beautiful and relaxing environment. For lunch, I ordered a shared platter with the rest of people in my table and a doner sandwich kebab just for me. I tried the famous dip hummus for the first time, though I didn’t like it much since I don’t like chickpeas. On the other hand, I loved the kebab, it was the nicest I had ever eaten. During the meal, I spoke with people I had never met before hence kept up socialising and making new acquaintances!

Lunch time!

Following the meal, we headed back to Bugis and went shopping to Bugis Village and Bugis+ Mall. Bugis Village is an indoors flea market where you can buy many products, from clothes to souvenirs, at a low price. It is composed of many stalls, you can walk around and look at what you like. Sometimes you can find good bargains, I bought a nice dress there. Meanwhile, I didn’t buy anything in Bugis+ Mall, I didn’t even look around. I just sat down with one of my friends and had a drink. I was too tired and my feet hurt terribly. I think that because in England I always take the bus everywhere and barely go out, it is hard for me to adapt to walking around cities again.

After the rest of my group finished shopping, we headed to Little India, the Indian zone of Singapore. There you can find traditional Indian food, clothes, jewellery… It is also the neighbourhood where the Indian Heritage Centre and various Hindu temples are located. By the time we got there it was 7pm, and the area was quite crowded: it was dinner time and many of the restaurants were full. Some of my friends went inside the Little India Arcade, a small shopping mall, because they wanted to get henna tattoos. Although I wasn’t very interested in getting one, I went with them and I ended up getting a simple $5 one (the lady who did them insisted). It was the first time I got a henna tattoo and didn’t know very well how they worked: I was scared I would spoil it. However, with time, it ended up drying up and peeling itself off.

Henna tattoos.

Before heading back to NTU, we went to a vegetarian Indian restaurant for dinner. I had never eaten proper Indian meals before so I didn’t know what to order. I just looked at the pictures and chose what looked the most appetising: a tomato uthappam, a thick pancake made from lentil, rice flour and served with sambar and chutney. I also got a snack known as vadai, a doughnut made from lentil and onion, served with chutney, which I had tried before when doing the City Tour days earlier. One of the best things of Singapore is how you can find food from many places across Asia, hence your palate will never be unsatisfied. The food here is very nice, although I have yet to make riskier choices, I always go for the safest dishes (I’m scared the food will be too spicy for me to eat!).

Cultural learning: Visiting the Indian Heritage Centre and the Malay Heritage Centre

On Sunday the 10th I went out to visit the Indian Heritage Centre and the Malay Heritage Centre, two of the five heritage centres in Singapore (there is also the Chinese Heritage Centre, the Chinatown Heritage Centre and the Eurasian Heritage Centre). The heritage centres are sources of historical and cultural knowledge about the different migrant communities that formed Singapore, an ex-British colony built by immigrants. 76.2% of the citizen population in Singapore is from Chinese descendent, 15% from Malay descendent, 7.4% from Indian descendent and 1.4% from Other (source: http://population.sg/population-in-brief/files/population-in-brief-2015.pdf). Due to this, Singapore recognises four official languages: Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. Another effect of migration on the island-state is the prevalent meritocracy, a system that rewards people depending on their individual talents and abilities.

In my visit to the Indian Heritage Centre I learnt about the history of Indians in South East Asia, mainly Singapore. India has had links with this region of Asia since the Common Era (B.C.). An important religion in South East Asia, Buddhism, has Indian origins. India had trade links with the Middle East and Africa, which helped to introduce religions like Islam to its people. Meanwhile, Christianity was later introduced by missionaries, although it wasn’t as prevalent. Indians migrated to Singapore before, during and after British colonial times, as jobseekers, traders, troops, political prisoners, milkmen, laundrymen…. The Indian community had a significant impact in the making of Singapore and in the spread of anti-colonial ideas that surged in India. In particular, the Tamil community (an ethnic group originally from India and Sri Lanka) carried out various reformist movements, trying to preserve Tamil language and culture.

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Important Indians in Singapore history.

In my visit to the Malay Heritage Centre I learnt about the presence of Malays in Singapore. The Malays are an ethnic group from Asia who can be found at present in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore. Their history in Singapore is complex to explain and understand, since Malays originate from different nations and have different cultures (I wasn’t aware of this, I used to think Malay was just a shortcut for Malaysians). What unites Malay is their similar language, Malay, which has different dialects, and their predominant religion, Islam, introduced to them by Arab traders. In fact, Malay culture has heavy Islamic and Arabic influence. One of the most fascinating things I learnt about while visiting the centre was the old preparations for Malay pilgrims heading to the Mecca, which was a harsh but important journey for them. After coming back, they received the title of “hajji”, symbolising the completion of the Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage). It was also interesting to learn about Malay media and press, from literature and film to newspapers, as well as important figures such as Zahara binte Noor Mohammed, an activist who fought for the rights of Malay women in Singapore and established the first Muslim women’s welfare organisation in Singapore, Malay Women’s Welfare Association.

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Malay Heritage Centre

Getting to know more about Indian and Malay communities in Singapore was an enriching experience, it helped me to understand how the country works. In addition, it made me think about my migrant family’s status in Europe and about how our cultures aren’t as accepted, integrated or even acknowledged in countries like Spain (despite decades of connection). I don’t know if I will ever live to see acceptance or acknowledgement, but given the current growing far-right climate, my hopes for true multiculturalism there are low (I don’t even know if I still have hopes). The visits and my reflections as a migrant also made me wonder if Singapore has as many tensions and religious/racial divisions as Europe, something I have to research. Nevertheless, Singapore seems to be a country proud of its migratory origins and cultural diversity, and in a world in which “the other” still scares people, it gives me faith.

(For more pictures of my time in Singapore, click here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskDGR9BV)