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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 09:13 GMT
Belfast: visit but don't stay
Moving to a new area can be a lonely experience, but surely in the welcoming city of Belfast it would be easier for a foreigner to build a life - especially if she was married to a local.

But for one Asian woman living in Northern Ireland's capital really became a love and hate relationship with the city.

Here she tells her story, but wishes to remain anonymous.

"I remember the many people that, once I had told them that I was getting married to a Northern Irish guy from Belfast, were quick to say "Irish people are the friendliest people in the world".

I took their word for it, but that was four years ago.

Now if I met those same people again I would ask them from which perspective are they saying that.

If you're a pub/club-loving person you might see it that way.

Married couple
The woman and her husband came to Belfast as newlyweds

But if you're not, and you're not white, or are from a foreign country, living in Belfast can have a whole new meaning.

I am in the grouping that some people here would label me as "them lot", or "those foreigners", and this is a snapshot of what it's like for me living in Belfast.

My experience up until I got married had been from a tourist/visitor position.

I had found it exciting, welcoming, and found myself loving the places I visited at various times.

Since I wasn't consciously, at that point, seeking any type of friendship, or relationship with the people I met, I had found most quite friendly.

The normal first few questions following my name would be if I go to church and if so which one.

I really did think then that they were genuinely interested about where I came from and that they wanted to get to know me better.

It didn't even twig with me that it was a strange set of starter questions from a stranger to a stranger, perhaps if it was anywhere else the first question would have been, where do you come from.

After our wedding in November 2003 I headed with my new husband for my new home in Belfast, with new hope, excitement and expectations, all things expected with being newlyweds!

Since my husband was already working, I had time alone during my first few weeks to explore, and look for a job.

Naturally, as I love to explore new places, I spent days wandering and driving around Belfast and surrounding areas.

I got lost a few times into areas that I can only describe as a bomb-site.

Rows of vacant, bricked up houses that are left to rot and crumble and piles of wooden craters, half burnt tyres and broken glasses littered children's playgrounds.

Some garden walls had sharp broken glasses or barbed wire as deterrent, a bit like some places I saw in South Africa.

I certainly did not expect suchlike here. There were also flags and bunting of all kinds, more than I've ever seen in a typical suburban American town.

Challenges I faced involved finding where I could buy some Asian food, I knew that my living here would be more difficult than I've ever lived anywhere else before.

I found myself one Saturday traipsing from shop to shop after a bunch of coriander.

Thai refugee camp
The young woman found it less intimidating as a refugee

Having exhausted the local corner shops, Mace, Spar, and even the big Tesco's and Sainsbury's, my husband and I gave up the chase.

I knew then that it would be very hard to find comfort in the things that help me feel more at home and being able buy Asian food would have been a great help.

The Asian Supermarket which I later discovered is as close as I could get for buying my type of ingredients, but the fresh Asian vegetables are almost always gone as soon as they are restocked on the shelves.

Belfast is really proud of cultural diversity, but I'm not quite sure that in comparison to other cities I have lived in it's that diverse.

The Asian food is scarce (unless you want a takeaway), and there are not many diversity events with the exception of the Chinese New Year, Chinese boat festival, and the Inidian Mela festival.

Although I was told that it's much better than 10 years ago.

The next challenge was to find a job! Which thankfully was not too much of an ordeal.

My first job was working in a florist in Ballyhackamore. This was a really great way of interacting with the locals.

Fast talk

After a few days at work I finally had to admit that I could hardly understand anyone when they spoke.

Between the accent, the lingo, and the speed at which everyone spoke, I was left flabbergasted.

I would answer calls and understand one of every five words.

Because of this I found it hard to keep up with the bantering amongst potential friends.

In fact it was very hard for me altogether to make friends. Everybody seemed to know everybody, and it was very hard to break into a circle.

Unless you're able to rattle your brain, pick out someone you know, and hope that someone also knows that person too through a friend of friend of their cousin's that went to the same school as their brother.

I soon learnt to adopt this technique in the hope of making some friends while I was on a management course.

The accent is enough to leave anyone puzzled, but the Northern Irish also have their own vocabulary of words and phrases.

Two of my favourites include "so it is" which was strange when every sentence seemed to ended with it, so it is.

The other is "raging" which at first I thought was rather drastic that everybody was always "raging" about everything and anything.

But then again, this nation has much to be in a rage about.

While I initially struggled with the accents, I also found it hard to handle the rain and the all-year round chill in the air.

Belfast is not as welcoming to strangers as it thinks

Economy 7, what is all that about! I was totally shocked at how not so economical the Economy 7 was.

Again I could only put it down to the Irish sense of humour. The culture shock was also intense from the political perspective.

As a foreigner people often let me ask questions and challenge ideas without judgment, but the longer I live here the less I want to be involved with this much talked about topic.

Everyone talks, then talks some more, and once an agreement is reached through all the talking, they then talk about how they can action the agreed agreement.

The interesting thing is that while the world news makes Belfast look like Beirut, I have only ever seen one troubled incident first-hand during the 2005, 12 July.

Then I admit, parts of Belfast did look like Beirut.

However, the majority of the time the biggest trouble during the much famed 12th of July is trying to drive my car to work through the many bands that parade during the "marching season".

Belfast is a normal city buzzing with life, business people, trendy stores and sidewalk cafes.

The city is nestled between the Irish Sea and surrounding hills, allowing for spectacular views and daily excursions.

Of course the views for me also included the infamous murals, one of which exclaims: 'We Don't Want No Asylum Seekers, Ethnic Minorities or Illegal Immigrants, we Have Enough Of Our Own Problems Here.'

The murals spoke more hatred to me than actual words.

One particularly chilling picture was that of a man wearing a balaclava, with bright blue piercing eyes, holding a gun and a slogan that says "get out of our land".

I used to think people with blue eyes were like angels, but this was no angel.

There is a take-no-prisoners, talk no rubbish, black sense of humour here, and there are also people that stare at anything they don't like the looks of.

I know, I've been on the receiving end of one of those stares.

I've also been on the receiving end of someone's spittle.

I have lived in refugee camps in Thailand as a child, and have never felt as unsafe and verbally abused as living here

One time at a bus stop (the first bus I caught on my own in Belfast) not knowing which one to get I tried to read the information at the bus stand.

One woman looked at me with one of those stares, harshly grabbed my arm and said in a very unfriendly manner, "the back of the queue is that way" and proceeded to tug me out of her way in the direction of the back of the queue.

Needless to say I was shocked, firstly at the heavy handedness, and secondly that everyone else in the queue just looked at me.

I have a real problem here about people just standing by and not saying anything when someone is in need of help.

I would not go as far as to say Belfast is one of the worst regions in the UK for racism toward non-indigenous folk because I've not lived in all the regions.

Verbal abuse

Belfast is like anywhere else, there are bad areas, some beautiful places, very bad people, very good people, and ones that just sit on both sides of the fence.

However, I would say it is the worst place out of all the areas I have lived in the 20 years I've lived in the UK.

I have lived in refugee camps in Thailand as a child, and have never felt as unsafe and verbally abused as living here, especially after one particular incident.

Although it was not as violent as some ethnic people here have faced, it was nevertheless a traumatic one for me.

For a good two months I was hounded and verbally abused every day as I walked to and from my workplace by a group of children perhaps between six to 14 years old.

The first few days I was able to cast it aside, as I assumed the children didn't know any better.

Dog attack

The next few times they did this in the presence of adults, perhaps their parents or neighbours, and yet again none of them made any effort to discipline these children, even joining in with the laughter when one of the children goaded their dog to run up and bite me.

The dog missed me by a few inches.

The final straw was when this same group of children followed me to my car one evening and surrounded me, stopping me in my tracks.

I tried to chat in a friendly fashion to them, before noticing in time that one of them was slowly making his way into my bag to steal from me.

I then had enough and started to walk on, before the bigger one tried to stop me again.

When I threatened to call the police, I was surprised when he started to dial for the police himself on his mobile, handed it to me and said, "ai, what y'gonna do about it, ai?".

At this point I wasn't going to hang around and wait for the police.

These kids had no fear in them, I started to run to my car, they chased me to it and I got into my car and locked it and they were still kicking and punching the windows.

I couldn't drive away without knocking them down.

Racist graffiti
Graffiti also intimidates ethnic minorities

These kids are not kids, as a group they would frighten any adult twice my size.

A man taking his dog for a walk stood and watched them making these attacks on me, again saying nothing.

This time I was really raging! I got out with my metal car lock and told them to scram, and it was only then that they stopped and scattered.

It is sad that there is a growing number of children here that can only understand the language of violence, sadder still for me that I felt that I had to threaten them.

Months after this I still frequently turn to watch my back, even when the roads are busy with people.

Black humour

I slept very badly for a while, and I do not to this day walk after dark unless with friends or my husband, and I have changed my entire way of getting to and back from work.

I am totally disgusted by this type of behaviour and the disregard for people that are different looking.

I am very sad that if there are groups of people here raising their younger generation with violent habits - then all the peace talks in the world will not change this place.

So, are the Irish the friendliest people in the world?

As a generalisation I would have to say no they are not. Not in Belfast, and not in my experience anyway.

The bad has unfortunately outweighed the good.

I could never grasp the sadistic sense of humour where folk enjoy laughing at each other's expense, and putting each other down, 'for a laugh'.

Because we've been woken up on numerous occasions during the wee hours with full-scale, foul-mouthed haranguing matches between neighbours, if I were to buy a house here I made a mental note to buy a house in an area where there is both a low level of racism, and where I can get some sleep.

Unfortunately however, Belfast has become one of the last places that I would choose to live if I was not obligated by marriage.

I will leave this place with the knowledge of what it is to be an outcast.

There are actually people here who think that the "outsiders are stealing our good jobs and big houses".

Belfast tour bus
Come as a tourist is her advice to people from abroad, not to live

Despite that foreigners make up the biggest workforce in jobs that no one here really likes to do, such as in chicken factories.

I think the bitterness has less to do with jobs, and more to do with skin and eye colour.

As an ethnic other, it's also a false hope to think that by marrying an Irish person, you get fast-tracked into being accepted by the community.

It would also be a false assumption that if you talk the lingo with the right lilt that you will be seen as the same.

No matter how hard you try to "fit in", there will always be a situation where you will face some form of racial hardship, not for who you are as a person but simply because you look different.

If I could leave here tomorrow I would.

Don't get me wrong, I would miss the people that I've bonded with here, but I would not miss this nation as a whole, and I'm sure that there are people here that would love to see one less ethnic face.

By all means come and be a tourist - just don't hang around.

If you do - grow a thick skin, fast! And it helps if you can break into a circle of friends that will support you on off days.

As a counterpoint, I'm married to one of the kindest and most wonderful men I've known, and he's Irish.

I have been accepted with love and kindness among his family and circle of friends.

I hope that when we have children they will know Ireland as part of who they are, and that they will grow into people who appreciate everyone regardless of what they look like, or where they come from."

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