‘I did feel offended when I was refused for being a foreigner. I had to get over it’
New to the Parish: Solomon Kong arrived to study accounting and finance in 2015. Settling in Ireland was not straightforward especially when it came to accommodation
Solomon Kong still struggles with the general cost of living in Dublin and was shocked to discover the rate of basic tax when the received his first pay cheque. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
In the mid 1980s Solomon Kong’s mother visited Ireland with some friends. When she returned home to Malaysia, Kong’s mother recorded the memories from her trip in a scrap book which included photos of buskers on Grafton Street, a brochure from the Book of Kells, postcards of Georgian Dublin and receipts from Bray. As a child, Kong would often flick through the book, enthusiastically questioning his mother about the country she had once visited halfway around the world.
“She used to tell me about the people and how beautiful the scenery was. She was inspired by the different colours of the doors in Dublin, she’d never seen anything like that before.”
Kong’s interest in Ireland developed into his teens and he began to rip out education supplements in the national paper calling for young people to study in Ireland. He had already spent time in China as an exchange student during secondary school but became eager to go further afield during his third-level studies. When his older sister moved to Ireland, Kong decided to follow her and arrived in Dublin in September 2015.
He transferred into the second year of an accounting and finance degree at Griffith College and moved into an apartment with his older sister. Accustomed to the “spoon-fed”, rote learning techniques of professors in Malaysian universities, Kong was surprised to find that students in Ireland were expected to actively participate in classes.
“It was a different way of learning and a totally different culture as well. I had to learn that the education system here encouraged more discussion, more thinking and more creativity. I’m not saying they’re not creative back home, people just tend to accept the theories without asking questions.”
A couple of months after his arrival, Kong visited the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) Office on Burgh Quay to apply for his student visa. He was warned that the queue tickets would be long and arrived with friends at 2am to camp overnight. Despite their long wait the group was refused entry that morning and had to return the following night to queue again.
“The first night we missed it by a few numbers so we had to go back again and this time started queuing at midnight. For us it was fun, part of the international student experience. My friends were posting on social media that we were experiencing how it must feel to be homeless for two nights. It was an interesting experience.”
In 2016 the overnight queues outside the immigration office ended after the INIS introduced an online appointment system. However, Kong says the process is still very complicated and frustrating. “You have to keep going online, entering the same information and searching for a date until appointment slots come up. I tried for nearly three weeks recently until I could get an appointment. It’s a pain but it’s something I have to do.”
After graduating from college, Kong was offered a place on a graduate programme with the RSM accounting firm in south Dublin. Soon after his younger sister also moved to Ireland and the pair decided to find a place to live when his other sister moved to Singapore with her boyfriend. Suddenly Kong was faced with the harsh reality of finding an affordable apartment in a city deep in the throes of a housing crisis.
“When I first came it was easier because my sister had found a place. It’s a real challenge finding somewhere. There’s such a huge demand and normally landlords choose working adults over students.”
Kong also encountered landlords who openly said they wanted Irish nationals rather than foreigners living in their apartments. “This is what they told me face to face, they said we’d prefer locals rather than internationals. They were very straightforward about it but never gave a reason.”
Growing up in the ethnically and religiously diverse city of George Town on the island of Penang, a Unesco World Heritage Site off the western coast of Malaysia, Kong says he’s always felt comfortable surrounding himself with people from different races and backgrounds. “The best way of living together is to understand each other and to forgive, forget and move on. If not the hatred will always be there. So even though I did feel offended at first when I was refused for being a foreigner I had to get over it.”
Kong still struggles with the general cost of living in Dublin. He was shocked to discover the rate of basic tax when the received his first pay cheque after joining the accountancy firm. “I’m happy to pay my taxes but when I first came here the tax rate seemed so high. It wasn’t exactly a challenge but it was surprising. Housing can take up half your salary, then there’s bills and obviously the food is expensive compared to back home where eating is so cheap.”
Kong and his younger sister now live together and sometimes attend a local church where they’ve made friends. Asked to describe his religious beliefs, Kong says they are “kind of Christian”. “I wouldn’t call myself Catholic or Protestant, rather I’d say I believe in a relationship with God. The act of going to church doesn’t give me strength but meeting people who have the same faith and mindset as me does. We go to church so we can encourage each other to be motivated.”
Kong is very happy to stay working in Ireland for the foreseeable future but sometimes thinks about moving closer to home. “I think my parents are proud of us but of course they miss us every now and then. I definitely miss the people and the food from home but I don’t focus on that too much. Humans always think the grass is greener on the other side but when they’re standing in that grass they don’t appreciate what they have. So I’m trying my best to appreciate what I have in this moment and to enjoy my time here.”