“You look Chinese, but you’re not local!” and other problems of being a foreigner

globalcitizen

“I saw your name and thought you were local!”

My latest addiction, to my bank balance’s immense displeasure, has been the tag-team of Grab and Uber which has not only made me steadily poorer but also increased my level of laziness by a good tenfold. It’s the lifesaver to any working person – it not only lets you sleep in that precious half an hour more but you could perhaps even delude yourself into thinking you’ve gotten a good deal through the absolute lie known as Uber Pool.

By the way, Grab Hitch does work. Sometimes. If your luck was very much so in your favour.

The most consistent greeting I have gotten over my carpooling adventures is not the expected Good Morning! or Where is this Heng Mui Keng Terrace ah? but the now familiar line of questioning about my supposedly dubious ethnicity. It’s something I’ve still not gotten used to, which is surprising considering the number of times I must have cabbed since the start of the internship. Yet it’s not something I’ve given too much thought to, not until I’ve faced the exact same question at my workplace. The question had almost been accusatory, as if to blame me for deceiving them that I had been “one of them” before revealing myself to be a foreigner.

I have to admit, my name does have the deceptive quality of being suspiciously Chinese. It’s something that has been made known to me since the very first time I’ve said my name in this country, till this day when I introduce myself to anyone who is vaguely local. At this point, it’s become a routine in my conversation starters at this point. It’s perhaps just one of the many changes I’ve integrated into my life as a Singaporean.

The problem isn’t exactly that I’m constantly questioned about my identity – which should be a problem – but it is that explaining the origins behind my name and my identity usually garners a thousand added on questions. It starts with so what does your name mean? Another question I will hesitate slightly before answering. But out of the plethora of questions I am bound to face, the best one would be the one where they take on the daunting task of deciding my identity for me.

“But you don’t look very local.”

It’s a problem I realise many of my first generation migrant acquaintances face because to a lot of us, the term local is a confusing and a deeply personal term that we struggle to put into words. It’s the struggle to explain that yes we do consider ourselves local because so much of our identity is constructed through the sights and sounds we have collected through experiences garnered in this land – but we are also made up of the sights and sounds from another land, another place, another childhood that we can’t simply explain through the chasm between local and foreigner. A lot of us still have one foot stuck in one world and another stepping out into a brand new one; identity remains a confusing mess that we still have yet to work out ourselves, much less explain to someone else. But are we local? Do I consider myself a local? Of course I do, in many aspects. My food cravings are local, from the carrot cake I buy regularly to the chicken rice I can’t seem to live long without. My slang is local, with words like rabak and string of Chinese phrases now strongly integrated into my ever expanding vocabulary. My repertoire of national day songs is, quite frankly, unchallenged so far and that’s an important aspect that makes me local.

I could explain all these to my dear cab driver but then there will the next interesting question of ”but you don’t sound local.” This has always bemused me simply because it alienates an entire section of the country. Based on the accent that you have. Race has always been a distinct way to segregate who we consider local – three clear (yet inaccurate) categories of Chinese, Indian, Tamil and then a much more questioned category known as Eurasians. And then there is the all-encompassing Others which a lot of my friends and I belong to. It’s always been a cold cut way of amalgamating different life stories and cultural identities into five very cold-cut, pre-constructed racial profiles.

As we continuously discuss the need for a minority President and begin constructive discussion on Chinese privilege, it’s become even more important to acknowledge that the definition of who we consider as local must constantly shift as well. Local isn’t simply a term for cold-cut segregation but it should begin to include these diverse personalities and differing backstories who make up the fabric of society and are continuously defining it as well. In the age of the global citizen and the refugee crisis, it’s become almost impossible for anyone of us to self-assuredly claim ourselves to be one static identity. All of us are a mess of places and we should take pride in the fact that years later, we have still preserved the vision of our ancestors – of a port city so diverse in its cultural diversity and yet with the ability to live so harmoniously amongst each other.

The chasm between local and foreigner should not exist at all, especially not when we as a country present athletes at the Olympics games who can hardly be considered local according to the current stringent definitions. Our fight for minority representation seems almost ironic when we so casually ignore a huge section of society that do identify themselves as Singaporean and may be more of a minority than the designated minorities themselves.

My name shouldn’t encompass my entire identity and neither should my race. My name shouldn’t be a tell-all book either which you simply judge from its often inaccurate cover. And my name definitely shouldn’t give way to assumptions about who I should be or what I should look like. Local shouldn’t just be you waving your Pink IC in the air with misguided pride. Local should apply to every person who has made the Singapore narrative possible and feature as a part of our life. Perhaps it’s high time we revisited our own pledge and critically analyse whether we have held up the “regardless of race, language or religion” clause as well as we think we have.

To end off the never ending debate on identity, I’ll leave you with a quote that a friend of mine phrased so succinctly: “If they’re not Orang Laut, they can’t be considered local either.”

 

 

The Kent Ridge Common is an independent news publication run by students and alumni of The National University of Singapore. Since Jan 2009, we have been consistently a source of independent news coverage, commentaries and opinion on current affairs both local and international, and also as a fresh guide to the Arts and Culture, style, living and entertainment in Singapore. The Kent Ridge Common ranks as one of the most read student-based publication on the internet.

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