The small things

I watched Crash (Matt Dillon, not James Spader) for the first time the other day. It’s a film about racial tensions in LA, and was touching, poignant, subtle and sweet; one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. It made me think of the small things that affect foreigners and immigrants. You see, people don’t need the word ‘Paki’ blared at them to make them feel bad; it’s the smaller, subtler things that can make them feel like crap.

I remember being on the DLR a few years ago and this Bengali man was asking the DLR officer for some help with directions. The DLR guy couldn’t understand the man’s accent. After a few seconds, he huffed and said impatiently, “I don’t understand what you’re saying – sorry,” and just turned away. The Bengali man, chastened, simply stood there with downcast eyes, saying nothing further. I couldn’t quite believe it. I stood and, in Bengali, asked him where he wanted to go. Now, I admit that even I had trouble understanding him but the point is, I persevered. I figured out that he wanted to go to Morden. As we were on the DLR headed from Bank towards Limehouse (lovely Limehouse where I used to live… sob), I told him he needed to get off now (at Shadwell) and take the train in the opposite direction. I told him the train goes no further than the next stop where he needs to get off and catch the Northern Line. I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to find his way to the right platform so I told him to ask another person to point him in the right direction when he got to Bank.

After he left, I realised that I should have written down ‘Morden’ for him on a piece of paper because, most likely, the person he asks at the other end would just shrug and say, “I don’t understand what you’re saying – sorry”. It mays sound strange, but over the past few years, I’ve often thought about that man and felt really sad.

There are people who struggle with language and life every single day. Yes, people should make an effort to learn the language of their land (that should apply as much to British ex-pats in, say, Dubai as to Bengali immigrants in the UK) but in the interim, imagine the sense of disorientation, embarrassment and even fear they feel on a daily basis. When they can’t get from A to B without having to ask for assistance, and consequently feeling ridiculed for the way they speak, well, that’s pretty sad, right?

Anyway, sorry – that’s enough melancholy for one day. I don’t know why I’m thinking sad thoughts when the sun is so bright outside. Until next time.

6 thoughts on “The small things”

  1. It’s one of my favourite films.

    As a dad of a young one (or as my daughter tells anyone who asks, “4 and three quarters”), that scene where the mid-eastern guy going to kill the Latino security guy really gets me. The first time I watched it, my daughter was about the same age as the little girl who comes running out of the house to greet her dad.

  2. > Pras
    Thanks for the link. It's strange because even though I generally agree that everyone who settles in England should try and learn English, when people (like Danny Harvey) voice their criticisms, it immediately puts me on the back foot and makes me want to defend those who cannot speak English.

    > Muhamad
    That scene you mentioned is heart-stopping. I just froze as it unfolded. I guess it must be even worse for a parent. The way the threads of the story weave together is simply beautiful.

  3. “Crash” is one of my favourite movies. I believe we are all guilty of being implicitly racist. “The Bengali man” story made me very sad.

    I remember reading a Toni Morrison’s inverview in which she mentioned something along the lines of: How in America only whites are truly Americans, everyone else is hyphenated. For instance, we have African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and so on. This made me question the political correctness of the term “African-American” over “Black”.

  4. > Zany
    I never managed to catch the film despite the Oscar hype etc. I'm really glad I finally did.

    I agree that we all harbour some form of racism. I remember reading the 'racism diary' of that journalist(?) you linked to. It was a really interesting read.

  5. i want to digress here a little, if thats ok, because your story reminded me of a tube experience that i too, think about now many years later.

    being born and raised in and around london, the anonymous, cold and disconnected nature of the underground is something that i'm used to. its second nature, i know no different. so it came as a shock when, a number of years ago, i was on the met line into the city for another all night bender a young eastern european woman sat opposite me offered me a cracker. a wonderfully kind gesture, but one which was met with a shocked, almost disgusted look from me. it was a reflex reaction which i quickly rectified in time to say 'no thank you', and put my headphones back in. no harm, no foul. but she then started with the small talk, and this time i was a bit more obvious with my reactions. looking out of the window, placing my headphones back in after she spoke, generally trying to give the impression that i couldn't give a fuck – which i didn't. but still, the one way conversation moved on, and it was only until the tears started streaming down her face did i stop and pay attention.

    i was stuck, i didn't know what to do or how to react. crying women are hard work for me at the best of times, so when its a complete stranger in a public place i was half considering jumping off the moving train to get away from her.

    it turned out she was having problems with her flatmates, who were trying to force her to move out by being mean to her and overcharging her for bills. not particularly tragic in the grand scheme of things. she told me her story and sobbed into a tired old kleenex, whilst i sat there gormless without a single thing to say back to her. being a man, its in my nature to want to fix any problems i come across, so when there is no obvious solution – i'm stuck. soon after, her station came and she got off, apologising for her display of emotion. at the time i breathed a sigh of relief and got back to my jungle mixtape. but its an experience which has stuck with me for years.

    i realise now that she must have felt so alone, so isolated and scared, to have felt the need to unload this all onto a completely stranger on the train. years later, having myself experienced such helplessness, i now find empathy for her.

    we live in such a fragmented world that even the smallest of encounters, the tiniest show of emotion, can touch us inside and make us feel a part of it. next time i'll accept the offer of a cracker, and be the shoulder to cry on. i'll be a better person for this experience, i promise.

    either that, or i'll just leave my headphones on and pretend i never heard anything. i mean, come on – this is london after all.


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