My 84-year-old grandmother was rescued by the Big Society. Or was it the big state? Or was it the doctrine of state multiculturalism?Blimey, I don't know, Ben, she's your grandmother. Make up your mind!
Chau Yuk Sim arrived in Britain from Hong Kong in 1960 with two young boys (one of them my father). Along with my grandfather, who had arrived in the UK a few years before, they set up a laundry in Sheffield and worked long hours doing tedious manual work. When the Chinese laundry industry collapsed, thanks to the arrival of domestic washing machines, the family moved into the restaurant trade. But in the mid-1990s, after a life of hard work, things went wrong for Chau Yuk Sim. She separated from my grandfather and found herself living in a grim Sheffield council estate. Speaking only limited English, she felt unsafe, isolated and unhappy.Yup, that'll do it, every time...
Salvation came in the form of an organisation called Tung Sing in Manchester that houses elderly members of the Chinese community.So, more separatism is the answer?
She values the weekly contact with her Cantonese-speaking support worker, Christine Sin. My grandmother also benefits from the services of a Manchester charity called Wai Yin that works closely with Tung Sing in providing help for the elderly Chinese.It sounds like she's determined to avoid actually living in England...
Some have a different objection to organisations such as Tung Sing and Wai Yin. By providing translators for people whose grasp of English is shaky, the argument goes, these bodies promote cultural segregation.They're certainly doing a bang-up job with your grandmother, aren't they?
But translation is not a straightforward business. My grandmother has been in Britain for six decades. Many other elderly Chinese Tung Sing residents have been here just as long. I agree that she, and they, ought to have developed a surer grasp of English when younger. But we are where we are.What happened to 'you're never too old to learn'?
You could cut funding for organisations that provide translation services, but then you would merely have confused old people unable to communicate properly with doctors, council workers and utility companies. That would not encourage integration, only misery.In other words, Ben, they're hostages. We go on funding these services, or old people suffer.
What was it that rescued my grandmother? The Big Society, the big state, or multiculturalism? My answer would be: all three.Would it? Would it really? And just what would they have 'rescued' her from, exactly?