Monday, December 05, 2011

I was born in Canada to Chinese-Singaporean parents and when I was 5, we returned to Singapore and lived as a normal Singaporean family.  I kept my Canadian passport and at the age of 19, returned to Canada for university and law school.  At 21, I was asked by the Singapore government to relinquish Canadian citizenship to take on full Singapore citizenship but failed to do so.  At 22, I gave up Singapore citizenship.  At 26, I found myself no longer wanting to live in Canada (what would I do there, really?) and returned to Singapore to work in a law firm and to live with my family.  I am here in Singapore, my home, on an employment pass with little to no connection with the country of my passport: Canada.  Except, for my French-Canadian boyfriend whom I met in Singapore.  And since he's Quebecois, he's not anything like the Canada that I know. 

So here's the deal: I feel like I don't belong anywhere.  I'm Singaporean at heart and will probably never identify with Canada.  I can't say that I left with a particularly good impression of Canada (oh I had wonderful friends, but they were a handful) and as a Chinese-Canadian, I never felt equal.  It's probably too much to demand complete equality in a country where a particular racial/cultural group dominates (i.e. the anglo-saxons), but having left at the age of 5, I didn't develop the necessary coping mechanisms to survive the experience of being a member of a visible minority group.  I'm used to being the social majority as I was in Singapore ,where I never had to deal with the stereotypes or felt like I needed to behave in a certain way in order to avoid disrupting social norms and to be understood.  In Singapore, I am rich in social currency. 

But this is besides the point.  At some point today, I worried about my future children.  I would have wanted them to have the stable identity that I gave up at 22 -  an unequivocal sense of belonging in an environment where they are empowered, and seen as equal.  Perhaps I should have chosen a Singaporean boy and have Singaporean babies so that, at the very least, I can raise them in a single coherent, un-hyphenated culture.  And since it is the Chinese in Singapore who have the solid grip on being the social majority, I should choose a good Chinese Singaporean Christian boy. I would have enrolled them in local schools, taught them the values that I was raised with and given them a solid core for their identity: That no matter what, THIS is their home. Not some far flung country that they don't understand, or that doesn't recognize them beyond the minority group from which they came from. 

And then I realized that this is all crap.  In this day and age, there is no certainty of identity, there is no permanent sense of home, there is no single, coherent, un-hyphenated culture.  Look at the girls I was raised with in our little local schools with our little local circles: One's married to an Austrian in Germany and speaks fluent German.  One's engaged to a Norwegian in Norway and learning to speak Norwegian.  Another has followed an Australian to England and yet another has left for Canada and returned with her Canadian boyfriend after failing to find a job there.  The only one in our team with a Chinese-Singaporean has a Chinese-Singaporean who spent most of his life in Australia.  Come to think of it, he may not even be Singaporean.

No matter how I try with my children, they will be mixed: Shaken, if not stirred, in this global cultural cocktail of connecting flights and economies.  To attempt to force upon them a dream of something that I thought I lost, which would never have existed anyway, would be to fail them.  Miserably.  I should teach them to survive, to understand their worth in environments that will not spell it out for them on an identity card.  I should remind them that being the social majority (if they ever get the opportunity) is not to be confused for a free ticket to bigotry, and to learn to fight the instinct to categorize people according to our prejudices because, let's face it, they're only going to be human.  I need to teach them to fight the prejudice that they find in others with grace and to forgive the prejudice-holders who cannot be blamed for ignorance and small-mindedness. 

So here I am, wrapped in the same identity crisis that I've had since I discovered that I was Asian, 4 months into university.  I was given an opportunity to learn all this and to exercise this and I feel like I failed.  Not that I should've stuck it out in Vancouver and forced myself into a miserable existence by staying there.  It is true that there's no point expending energy resisting the bamboo ceiling and racial stereotypes for a small time job in a small town (Vancouver is a small town, and I would die if I were forced to go to Chilliwack for articles).  Not when I have bigger better options here in Singapore.  But the fact is, I could've been so much bigger than I am now but instead I left with resentment, insecurity and anger.  The only credit I would give myself is having recognized the issues that were at play, naming them, and somewhat avoiding the social traps that were so easy to fall prey to.  

But I need to do more.  I need to grow out of myself, and learn grace, fortitude, strength and the ability to rise above the social politics of place, race and culture, while understanding that we are all subject to the same.  And I need to be ready to pass this on to my children. 

I don't know when and I don't know how (and on most days I don't even know why), but at some point, I'm going to have to dip my toe into going global again, while maintaining the strength of being completely at home.  But in all this, I feel like I'm attending the funeral of a good old friend: the days of my parents are over, where you know where you belong.  Singapore is too small and too open to maintain a fixed culture in the circles in which I stand and as much as I hate it, if I don't do this for myself, at least for the children.