Being Singaporean and Chinese.

This is a difficult and sensitive blog post to write. I hope I will be honest, yet not stepping on toes.  This is really a personal opinion.

Ok, we are done with the disclaimers…:)

I find the term Asian that Americans use when describing people from Asia a little inaccurate. There is a difference between a Singaporean, Chinese, Japanese or a Taiwanese, although we all come from Asia. Put it another way, in American terms, It’s like saying Texans and Californians are of the same mould. And I’m pretty sure any sane American/Hawaiian would distinguish between each other, even though, technically, Hawaii is part of the USA. Yeah, it’s the “we are the world, one people, we are one” unity chorus, but seriously, if you can’t distinguish between a Chinese that comes from in China versus a Korean or Japanese, you need help. Notwithstanding this fact, how about the Indonesians, Malaysians or Indians? Are they not Asian too?

Likewise, when people refer to me as Chinese, I would rather they call me Singaporean. I think the term “Chinese” should not be tied to a nationality, rather maybe it should be more associated with race. Often than not, people cannot seem to differentiate between the two. Maybe it is more correct to say I’m Oriental rather than Chinese.  But again, that may again open up another can of worms.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Chinese (as in people of China) do have their proud heritage as a race, as a nation. What I find uncomfortable is when people try to associate nationality with race. And then a whole lot of complications start occurring. The Chinese race has since traveled far, settled in different countries, evolved and set up another culture of its own. Naturally, in the course of time, the migrants become proud inheritors of their own evolved culture and influences, creating an identity as their own.  No matter how I change the color of my hair, I will still have slightly brown almond shaped eyes, yellow skin, thick bushy eyebrows. No matter how much plastic surgery I can go through, I cannot alter the fact that I was made or born this way. But I’m different from Chinese from China, Taiwan or even Malaysia. I’m not the same. I don’t look at life, do things, embrace a culture that is totally identical to them. There may be some similarities, but there are also stark differences.

The fact is, I’m Singaporean.

When I was in Japan a few years back, something very interesting and perhaps not quite pleasant took place which I remember till today. My missus and I were in a restaurant and we were served by a Chinese waitress. Obviously, from her accent, she was from China. Both my missus and I aren’t particularly strong in Mandarin  as English would be our first language. This is not an intentional result, but circumstantial one. When some of the words that the waitress said were not particularly understood by us, we apologized to her saying with some regret that our Mandarin is not that very good and asked if she could explain in more simple terms. What we did not expect was her reaction (speaking to herself): “Oh, I didn’t know there were Chinese who don’t understand Mandarin” in a sarcastic tone. We were quite taken aback. If it were a Japanese serving us, it would have been very different. Frankly, we did not have much appetite to eat thereafter.

That said, the statement that was made shows the narrow mindedness some people have on race, language and nationality. Yes, there are people who are Chinese but may not necessary know Mandarin at the level that people in China do or that which is “acceptable” to society. Most of these probably will be born out of China, but are classified as “Chinese” because the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. The very fact that Mandarin is referred to as ?? in Mandarin, literally speaking, this means, the “language of the country”. But we are NOT from China. Our country is Singapore. Perhaps our ?? is Singlish. Though, politically, that may not be quite correct. I’ve heard some Singaporeans tell foreigners that while in Singapore, although the majority of us are of the Chinese race, Mandarin is not a requisite to get by, but if your English is not fluent, it will be difficult to live here.

I couldn’t help but agree on how true the above statement is. Although my missus and I are considered “Chinese” (as a race), the chances that we would take a tour, engage the services of others or take a recommendation from someone will be if that person spoke English. Yes, we do understand Mandarin, but we understand English better. While some people will start slamming us as “ang mo pai” (a derogatory term in Hokkien dialect describing a Chinese abandoning its “cultural” roots in favor of a Western ideology), we can’t help it. Maybe I’m just not so pro Chinese. For example, I look forward to going to Geylang during Hari Raya but not to Chinatown during the Chinese New Year. I like Malay/English/Japanese music, but not really into Chinese ones. Personally, although I admire Chinese history and culture then, I find it difficult to accept the way of thinking of current Chinese. At the same time, I know many people who do and are trying to do though, and whose Mandarin are probably so good that if you pluck them out of their country and put them in Taiwan, Hong Kong or China, they would fit in almost immediately. But I can’t. In fact, when I finally passed my Mandarin in school (I failed in quite a number of attempts), my Mandarin teacher actually wept, because it really took a lot for me just to PASS Mandarin.

In that light, I would say that I’m not proud of being my race. In fact, in purist terms, I’m probably considered a failure or traitor because I’m a Chinese that does not speak/understand its “native language” well.

But I’m proud of where I come from, not the government, nor the descendants before that, but where I was born in.  While I may or may not take another citizenship in the future, even if I may then be a Canadian, English, French, American in terms of citizenship, I was still born and bred in Singapore.

Yes, that, in itself, can never change.

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