Durand and Wallace drew the map of modern Asia. They know the place. Gibson’s along for the ride.

In this episode of The Line, they talk about a topic that we’re all thinking about right now: immigration, diversity and what it means for the levels of social capital in a society. 

Get your subaltern take on the issues of the day, while you do your ironing or whatever.



Here’s an excerpt:


So I spoke to some Karen refugees in upstate New York, to understand what the immigrant experience is for people who are not highly-educated professionals.

But just to give a little background to those listeners who may not be familiar, the Karens are an ethnic hilltribe group whose population is spread out in the border areas of Thailand, Myanmar, and China. Most of the Karen refugees coming to the US are from refugee camps in Thailand on the border with Myanmar. The Karen people in Myanmar have been in conflict with the Burmese military for decades and these camps are more like permanent settlements.

A refugee I spoke to recently — we can call her, “Jane” — has been in the US for almost ten years.  She was born and has lived her whole life in camps. To give you a better picture of how long these camps have been there, she told me most of the refugees her age in the camp were also born there. By the time she came to the US, she was already married with one child and another on the way, whom she gave birth to within weeks of arriving here. Processing her refugee claim from beginning to end took around fifteen months. Refugees are not really given much of a choice of where in the US they would like to go. There are certain designated locations around the US for refugees from various countries of origin. They can give some preference from this limited list of locations and most will pick a place where they might already have family or friends who have come here earlier.  So for some reason the US refugee program made Syracuse, NY, one of the locations to send Karen refugees. (Yes, let’s send people who are use to living in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia to one of the coldest places in the country! Fantastic idea!)  Since her sister was already living in Syracuse, this is where her family ended up.

Upon arrival, refugees are given limited assistance and resources to get started in their new life. Some of it they are expected to pay back over time, even the plane tickets they’re flown over on!  Things like a temporary place to live, a small stipend, and some assistance to find work and a more permanent place to live. They are put on Medicaid until they are able to find jobs and earn enough to not have to be on Medicaid.  

This is not a lot of assistance if you think of all the things someone who has lived in a refugee camp their entire lives would need to learn to do that most of us take for granted.

It’s so much more than just learning to speak English–which, by the way, is not easy when you’re already an adult.

Yes, it includes things such as learning how to work a washing machine or dishwasher, stove oven, microwave, using public transportation, driving a car, dealing with bureaucracy (forms, forms, forms!), getting a driver’s license, using a computer/the internet (phishing scams, internet predators, trolls, oh my!), cell phones, paying taxes, opening a bank account, using a credit card, car loans, predatory loan sharks, mortgage (yikes, debt!), going to the post office to mail something, and more.  Some of this stuff is hard enough just for regular Americans with limited education. The scope of the culture shock is immense.


Yes, we talk so much about culture shock in the context of expatriate families or tourists, and that’s for people already integrated into the modern world. How come nobody’s talking about culture shock for refugees? The general attitude seems to be deal with it.


“Jane” tells me that because Syracuse is a small rural town, the locals are pretty clueless about the newcomers (probably similar to the Hmongs from Laos), and she and her fellow Karens experience a lot of racism. This has been happening pretty much since the beginning when she first arrived in early 2008, not just in this current political climate. Consequently, most of them stick to each other. She herself declares that she has not really made any local American friends and only socializes with other Karens. When she first arrived there were around fifteen Karen families. Today there are around 5,000 Karens (individuals). Which is a sizable community, if you think about it.  The pro is that there are enough of them where they can help support each other. But the downside is that then they are less likely to go out and integrate with the locals. And why would they, when they don’t feel welcome, right?

The elder generations are the ones who have the hardest time adapting. Many actually would like to return to their refugee camp. They rarely go outside because it’s so stressful for them.

Also those with little education and/or the language barrier have a hard time. Some try to replicate their old ways here such as fishing in the local lakes and rivers and foraging for edible plants. However, they run into issues like a ban on fishing from a very polluted lake and just gathering plants that may or may not be edible or safe to consume. A comedy of cultural misunderstandings, but also somewhat sad.

Meanwhile the younger generations have a different set of issues. Their culture shock is going from having nothing to being in a capitalist culture of excessive consumption. There is so much cheap food and clothes to be had. Buy, buy, buy! They get lost in the temptation.  Their own parents lack the capability to guide them being new to this way of life themselves.


It’s really challenging, I agree. And even in a place like Singapore–which is closer culturally, migrant workers still have a hard time, isn’t that right Gibson?


Yes, in Singapore, we’ve also been able to co-opt our Filipino, Indonesian and Bangladeshi fellow Asians into an exploitative second-class service in our homes, construction sites, and workplaces. We tell ourselves that they face the same, or worse, conditions in their own countries. But we don’t give them the rights to live in any degree of comfort in our own.

We haven’t been short of names to define the otherness either — we already had “Ang Mohs” (which is the local equivalent of ‘Gwailos’); add to that “Marias” (Filipinos), “PRCs” (Chinese people from China) and “Banglas” (workers from Bangladesh) — generally derogative terms, definitely “not us.” Which is rather ironic, given we are a nation of immigrants.


It’s clear that most migrants don’t have an easy time of it. But it’s easier to cast the blame on them–you know, it’s their fault for not integrating–than thinking about why it is that it’s so hard for them. And this is where I think all the talk about social capital and how immigrants bring it down has hijacked this debate.

The term social capital was brought to prominence by Harvard professor Robert Putnam around twenty years ago, in his essay “Bowling Alone”—talk about an evocative title!

According to Putnam, a society with high levels of social capital is one that has greater civic engagement, which in turn makes for a stronger democracy. Americans, as even Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 19th century, were once unique in their propensity to form civic associations, and America was once rich in social capital. But, starting in the sixties, the social and economic changes of the past few decades have whittled down this capital. From sociable bowling leagues a few decades ago, Americans are now bowling alone. And that’s why American democracy is in its current state of dysfunction.

So how do you build up that social capital again? That would require doing things like settling down in one place for the rest of your life and investing in that community, by fostering relationships and personal networks through membership in organizations like the Rotary club, your local church, etc. Women, as mothers and caregivers, play an especially important role, through attendance and participation in the PTA, book clubs etc, etc. It’s basically a nostalgic hearkening to the 1950s Eisenhower-era homogenous small town.

But what happens when the immigrant Karen family arrives at this small town? Sure, maybe one or two families are OK, but what happens when you have fifteen? Well, they start hanging out with each other–as you mentioned Wallace–because it’s less frightening than being out there on their own.  But then the other residents of the small town start feeling resentful.

It’s not surprising that immigrants, if they have the choice, prefer to go to big cities where they are less visible. But, according to Putnam, big cities are places with little social capital where nobody knows their neighbour and TV has taken the place of social interaction.

And it’s a similar trajectory in Singapore, isn’t it, Gibson?


One of Singapore’s founding fathers, S. Rajaratnam, said, “Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice.” He said it in the mid-60s in the midst of the fight for independence, but that rings so true now for our restless, postmodern age.

Personally, growing up in Singapore was a shared experience of government campaigns, “study hard for a better life”, National Service, and government policies – in public housing, for example, designed to ensure a harmonious mix of race and religion.

Is shared experience the sum of being Singaporean? From one point of view, these are all constructed experiences – the education, the campaigns, the legendary rules and penalties and the fearsome joy of conforming to them. The tourist T-shirt about Singapore being a ‘fine’ country is not a joke.

But I think it worked. Culturally, being a Singaporean is about mindful co-existence, not challenging the status quo, planning ahead to avoid the unexpected. Efficiency and getting things done productively must have been part of an old public education campaign from the eighties (I can’t get the jingle out of my head), but I can safely say these are shared, Singaporean values.

There’s an innocent, reliable level of integrity and trust amongst the people I’ve grown up with. I think that’s why we’ve come in within the top five most trusting nations, out of the twenty eight surveyed by the PR company Edelman.

But the economic prosperity this formula has brought has led to other issues — about ten years ago, we flung open the doors to a lot of immigration. This “Foreign Talent” was supposed to help Singapore become a global hub. Professional and semi-professional immigrants from China and India made up the bulk of the new arrivals.

The impact on our society has been huge. At the moment, one in five residents of Singapore is some kind of recent arrival. Remember Singaporeans expect efficiency, and when the efficient mass-transit train system started breaking down, it was overcrowding from those unfettered new arrivals that was initially blamed. Mindful co-existence was thrown out of the window with foreigners complaining about the smell of curry and noisy weddings in the void decks of extremely dense public housing (but that’s how 7800 people live per square kilometre of land – about 32 people per acre), and Singaporeans telling them off. It came to a head in 2011, when the ruling party lost a lot of votes, and calls for “Singapore for Singaporeans” were made.

Cue existential short-circuit!