I recently read Oruj Defoite’s complaint on WalesOnline about feeling excluded in Wales because of race and language with disbelief and consternation.
I was puzzled and dismayed because her experiences were in no way related to mine, following my arrival to live in Wales, at the age of 30 in 2006.
Like Oruj, I too am an immigrant with brown skin. I was born in Singapore, to an Indian father and a Malaysian mother. I was raised in Pakistan and then France.
Not a word of Welsh crossed my lips before 2004.
Yet it seemed completely obvious to me to make an effort to learn as much as I could of the Welsh language when living in Wales, in the same way I learned French when living in France.
It seemed clear to me that learning Welsh was the way to truly connect to the culture and history of my adopted country.
After all, Welsh place names from hundreds of years ago were all around me – curiosity and a passion for the land and culture naturally drove me to find out more, and in doing so, I gained so much more than a language.
Rather than exclusion, my first clumsy attempts to converse with native Welsh speakers (including my own husband, a native Welsh-speaker from Wrecsam) were met with nothing but kindness and encouragement.
This gave me the confidence to carry on learning, and to welcome the opportunity to send my children to Welsh medium school.
They are both thriving academically in a truly bilingual environment, slipping seamlessly from one language to the other.
This, I believe should be the future for this country I love and I have chosen.
I’m Singaporean by birth, Welsh by choice. I have never once felt that the requirement to speak Welsh influenced whether or not I was able to gain employment.
As a scientist, linguistic ability has been largely irrelevant to the positions I’ve applied for and obtained in Wales.
I do of course realise that some jobs (translation, government, administration etc) might well require Welsh language skills, or at the very least a willingness to learn.
But there are many jobs I am excluded from because of a lack of basic skills in that field – would I expect to get a long-distance haulier’s job without an HGV license?
The same is true for the small subset of jobs in Wales requiring Welsh language skills.
As we live in Wales, is it not entirely natural to expect Welsh residents in certain public-facing roles to speak a modicum of the language of Wales (even if it’s only a few words)?
A small effort to converse with Welsh speakers in their own language in the public sphere would show respect for their decision to live their lives through the medium of their own native tongue.
To conclude, I feel dismay but also considerable pity when reading Oruj’s opinion piece.
I am sorry she has felt unable to access the language, culture and communities of her adopted land.
If I ever had a chance to meet her, I would hope to show her that another way is possible.
I have found that through respect, cultural appreciation, open-mindedness and a bit of linguistic graft, it’s possible to find a meaningful place in Welsh society even as an immigrant with brown skin.