On Hospitality: We Are Still Who We Are

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The first two words might be familiar to the older amongst us. Yes, it is the title of the talk that Dr. Fernando used to give near the end of Tembusu Welcome Week (TWW) every year. In the year that I organised TWW, and the years prior, we used this talk to cement the Year 1’s feeling of home in the College. This is where you belong. This is the place of hospitality. This is where you will carry on. This is where you will find friendship. This is where you will be safe. It used to be a segment of TWW that I always looked forward to. Even as the Project Director, I excitedly sat in for the talk—three times I heard him talk about “hospitality”. Now when I think of it, all I can think about is that my first impressions were right: the man is full of hot air. We were just too charmed to see it.

But lamenting is not why I write this. I write this in an attempt to reclaim Tembusu’s hospitality. Hospitality, which comes from the Latin hospes (as though I knew this before Googling), is formed from hostis—which means “stranger”, or “enemy”. Derrida said that hospitality and being hospitable, if it means inclusion, must also mean there is exclusion. Hospitality has never been about caring about all—it has always meant choosing. When you come into TWW, your Welcome Group Leaders (WGLs), the College Fellows, the Office, have always chosen to welcome the Year 1s. Chosen to be hospitable. To try our best to welcome, and include. This is a commitment we all make to our collegiality. To share our home openly. It is now, however, that we must also recognise where the boundaries should be drawn, too—and to take a stand against those who transgress those boundaries. We must choose to protect—and choose to stand firm in our ideals.

In fear of sounding too much like him and droning on as he does—screw etymology, let’s talk some real stuff. I have seen many people ask over the past few days on how we will move forward. On how Tembusu can be Tembusu if we allowed this to happen. Tembusu is not one man alone. You who have been accepted into this College—you are Tembusu. The choice to accept, or to reject is ours. We must choose to love and support one another. Choose harmony and healing. Choose to care for yourselves and for each other. We get to choose. Do not let him take this away from you.

There are so many in this college—you, too, probably, whether you are an alumnus or a current student—who make this College what it is. It might seem rote now, but groups like tFreedom, LoveTembusu, the College Students Committee (CSC), and everything else in this College— these did not exist before you came. These would not continue to exist if you did not believe in what you believe in. It is not his work, it is yours—it is ours. No one can take this away from us, as long as we stand and continue to believe in it. This place is our Home of Possibilities. We have been hurt, but we are the ones who can heal again. Whatever metaphor you choose—a fallen tree, a tree with a foul root, or with cankers in its trunk—nature finds a way to regrow (I am a geographer, trust me). Tembusu is Tembusu when you are here.

To the victims, to the survivors: as a resident of this College and as a former office holder, and as someone who has always loved Tembusu, I am ashamed that this has happened, and I am ashamed that we did not see this coming. I am deeply, deeply sorry that we allowed him to do this. Whether or not you were a student while I was here, whether or not you were from Tembusu at all, I hope that we can offer you hospitality now. I hope that our collegiate can still provide you some solace. To anyone else who feels traumatised, who is hurt and betrayed: I hope you accept our community’s renewed hospitality, and I hope we can heal together.

At the beginning, I said Fernando was full of air. That still remains true. But what he taught us is not useless. It is precisely because it was him who taught us that we must think deeper about it. That we must reclaim its meaning for ourselves and use what knowledge we have for good. This is not to say your anger and your feelings of betrayal are invalid, or that your confusion is weakness. We must allow ourselves to live through and suffer the stages of grief. It is only natural. Move through it bravely. If you keep moving, you are winning.

Before I end this off, I would just like to thank a friend for this idea. In my head, I had locked Fernando and his teachings from my mind since news broke. I had decided to forget his TWW speech, his words, all his lousy etymologies. I wanted to forget that I was inspired, heartened and warmed by his words and his teachings. But what you learn is yours, and how you wield it—it will always be in your hands. We cannot let this break us. We must own it. We must provide hospitality to those affected, and we must choose to do better. Tembusu and NUS must do better. We will do better;

Editor’s Note:

The semicolon [;] at the end of the last sentence is intentionally put there by the author to convey a sense of continuity.

Feature image by Matthew Rader from Unsplash. Header image by the author.