Is this "home truly"?

I’m not in the habit of calling myself a TCK (third culture kid). I don’t meet the definition criteria. Technically, I did not grow up in a place whose culture was different from that of my parents. In fact, I grew up in the same city that my mother grew up in – Singapore. So, I’m technically not a TCK at all. Until I went to college, I had never lived anywhere but Singapore.

But two things set me apart from the culture of the country in which I grew up: going to an international school and being biracial. And it was only when I left for college and returned home that I realized how much those two things isolated me from the culture of the country in which I grew up. So, maybe I am a TCK after all...

I grew up accompanying my mom to the wet market on Saturday mornings to do the week’s marketing and was always rewarded with fishball noodle for breakfast (made my favorite way – with mee pok). I know the national pledge. I can sing the national anthem. When I was really young, I sang along to “We are Singapore” when it played on TV each night before the channels ended their broadcasts for the day…because that chorus is actually pretty catchy.

I never questioned my Singaporean identity or thought of myself as an outsider in Singapore.

As a child, it didn't seem strange to me that people constantly asked where my dad was from.

“Must be Europe or America because you don’t look like a Singaporean.”

I didn't wonder why people assumed I knew no Singlish words, even the most common ones. I certainly never questioned how well I fit the label “Singaporean” or how well that label fit me.

Perhaps in my childish obliviousness I just missed it - because I thought I was just like everyone else, just as Singaporean as all the other Singaporeans.

When the taxi uncle asked me where I was really from, assuming my initial reply (Singapore) had been a lie, I laughed it off as an absurd misunderstanding. When people told me that my accent was weird (read: American) or that I sounded “atas,” I didn’t take offense. When I went to the wet market with my mom and people complimented me on my long, thick eyelashes, which I must have gotten from my father’s side, I didn’t think twice.

But something seems different now. Maybe it was simply growing up that changed my view, or going to a liberal arts college where race and culture are hot topics, but in retrospect perhaps I should have been a little offended…

Not taking offense was the easy route and required no contemplation or serious consideration. To be clear, I believe that the encounters and interactions I’ve described were not intended to be malicious or at all hurtful - if anything, the opposite was probably the intended effect. But that doesn’t mean that these alienating exchanges didn’t have an effect on me.

Sure, I don’t necessarily fit the profile of a “typical” Singaporean. But then again, what does a typical Singaporean look like?

“We, the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion”

We have four official languages and a rather diverse population. We pride ourselves on living in racial harmony, yet somehow I was treated like a novelty item. I speak one (one and a half if you count my poor Mandarin) of those languages, but was made to feel unaccepted because I don’t speak it the way many others here do.

I am in no way saying I am not proud to be Singaporean. I am so proud of this little island, which has developed so quickly and continues to exist and thrive, despite having extremely limited natural resources and other challenges. I am so proud to go out into the world and call this home, and to hear others marvel at the accomplishments of my birthplace.

But I am starting to wonder if Singapore is proud to have me.

So much changed in the four years I spent overseas in college. Although I visited Singapore at least once a year, I still feel like the country changed right before my eyes – and without me.

Every time I go home shiny, new buildings have replaced what were formerly vast expanses of green. The MRT has never before been so tightly packed. Orchard Road has never been quite this bustling. Something new is always in the process of being built; something old is always in the process of disappearing.

I had always thought the things that set me apart from the culture and people of my homeland were trivial and inconsequential. But when I came home after graduation, I started to notice that these things not only set me apart, but kept me apart from them, and them from me.

I feel disconnected.

I know that the circumstances under which I grew up in Singapore were unusual. Most born and bred Singaporeans went to local schools, not international schools and many of their school friends probably still live in Singapore, not in various locations around the world. My beliefs might be more liberal than most, my college experience “wilder”. I understand that. To me, these are individual differences. But even if I can accept these differences, I can’t shake the feeling that I still wouldn't be wholly accepted or included.

I say this not because I believe that other Singaporeans are unwilling to accept me, but there seems – at least for now – an unbridgeable gap. I can't help but think this has something to do with the fact that others are generally quick to label me an "ang moh" in a way that reminds me of the "one drop rule." By the mere fact of being any part "ang moh," I am an "ang moh" and therefore, excluded from the Singaporean identity. In fact, my national identity card simply lists my race as Caucasian.

Most Singaporean citizens are not Caucasian. For the most part, Caucasians are seen as something other than Singaporeans. And so, despite actually being Singaporean, I have been relegated to the "other" category based on race and individual differences, which I thought were trivial. I believe it is people's perception of me as something "other" than Singaporean that creates this unbridgeable gap. 

And it’s this gap that makes me think my love for Singapore is unrequited.

More recently, I found myself at a hawker centre, my gaze directed down to avoid eye contact with strangers. I was certain that if I looked up I would meet the prying eyes of someone trying to determine where I’m really from. And that’s when I noticed a couple of kids running back to their table and parents, one Chinese Singaporean parent and one “ang moh” parent. The fact that this was something noteworthy tells me that these children will likely experience some of what I have experienced. But I've noticed this sight is becoming less unusual and will eventually be less noteworthy.

So many people are coming together in Singapore for so many different reasons. They’re being born here under different circumstances, and choosing to be here, proud to be Singaporean – whatever that may mean to them.

Singapore’s culture and population has evolved and changed so much within my short lifetime, and it will continue to change. With so many children now growing up culturally confused, the way I did, the culture around them will have to adapt and respond to these changes.

I hope it will come to embrace them. Rather than having their belongingness questioned and being inadvertently pushed away,  I hope that they will be allowed to define and claim their identities with certainty.

For now, I find myself watching and waiting for inevitable changes to happen. Singapore and I both have a little growing to do. Perhaps someday I'll finally feel completely at home in my homeland.

And if instead we grow further apart, “there’s a place that will stay within me, wherever I may choose to go."

* this post was originally published on on September 10 & 11, 2014

© 2016 Daniele Selby

There is Nothing to Buy on International Women's Day

I always thought that International Women’s Day was a day of celebration that, like so many others, was arbitrarily selected to be the one day that we officially appreciate a certain subset of the human population so that we can neglect to do so every other day of the year. I lumped it together with Teacher Appreciation Day, Father’s Day, Children’s Day, Second Cousin Twice Removed Day – all of the days that come pre-marked on calendars, so we won’t forget to celebrate the people who have been important influences in our lives.

But this year’s International Women’s Day feels different. Perhaps it’s the sudden prevalence of empowering quotes on social media, the trending International Women’s Day hashtag on Twitter, the video on Google’s landing page celebrating “Doodle-worthy women of the future,” or this year’s gender parity theme, but International Women’s Day seems newly important to me. It’s not really a commercial holiday like Valentine’s Day or Father’s Day. There isn’t a lot of merchandise that says “thank you for being a woman, I appreciate your contributions to my life as well as the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of those who similarly identify with your sex.” There are no products to promote – only the contributions and achievements of women that are often overlooked.

For me, it presents an opportunity to recognize the women who overcame challenges in order to be where they are now – and to be honest, that’s most women in some small way or another. It’s an opportunity to consciously seek out the voices of women who have been silenced. Your social media platforms may be inundated with Maya Angelou quotes, images of Malala Yousafzai, and clips from Emma Watson’s HeforShe speech today. Still, remember that these are the voices of women who struggled to be heard, but who now command the world stage and who have won the freedom to hold and express an opinion.

If this day was intended to celebrate and appreciate the achievements of women as we don’t normally, then let’s indeed recognize and amplify the voices of women who continue to be largely unheard in the international arena. Listen for voices you’ve never heard before, voices that have been stifled but have much to contribute.

Azerbaijan is one of many nations that not only celebrates International Women’s Day, but also has declared it a non-working holiday.

Yet Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning Azerbaijani investigative journalist, will not be celebrated.

Her many achievements will not be recognized because she remains unjustly imprisoned precisely speaking out about the abuses and corruption in Azerbaijan. Her right to hold and express her opinions will not be honoured.

A woman in a male-dominated field and a journalist in an increasingly oppressive state, Khadija is one of Azerbaijan’s most well-known journalists and government critics. Her commitment to exposing corruption and publicizing the truth was unrelenting – at the cost of her freedom. Khadija reported on politically motivated prosecutions and state-level corruption. This included investigations of the business dealings of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev as well as his those of his family members, and friends. In the wake of Azerbaijan’s crackdown on criticism of its governance, Khadija became particularly vulnerable.

Throughout her career, Khadija faced the same choices many other working women face, but her work also forced her to deal with issues most people never have to think about. Despite recent books like Lean In and Unfinished Business telling us we can have it all, Khadija certainly couldn’t. She actively chose not to have a family because of the unique dangers associated with her work. She was blackmailed and then targeted in a smear campaign with illegally obtained, intimate images and videos in an effort to convince her to cease working. As an unmarried woman in a culturally conservative, Muslim-majority country the impact of these images going public was particularly damaging to her reputation and personal relationships.

Despite this, she refused to give up her work and cause. Even knowing she would likely be arrested, Khadija continued on, never letting her voice be muted. She recorded a video prior to her December 2014 arrest explaining why she thought she would be arrested.

She was sentenced to seven and half years in prison in September 2015.

Khadija’s was a prominent voice in a country where few voices are free to be heard. She and at least fifty other journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers are currently being wrongfully detained in Azerbaijan. When celebrating women and their achievements today, think about giving a voice to the silenced. Celebrate Khadija’s achievements. Before you hit re-share on Hillary’s “Women’s rights are human rights” sound-bite, think about using this day to elevate lesser known achievements of women to the same status.

Since Khadija cannot speak for herself now and cannot assume her place on the world stage, consider sharing her story.

Next International Women’s Day, Khadija Ismayilova should be among the women who command the stage and are free to exercise their rights. 

* this op-ed was written for the Media, Campaigning and Social Change course at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (Spring '16)

© 2016 Daniele Selby

Challenges to International Cooperation: Theoretical Perspectives of International Relations

The main challenge to international cooperation is that “identities are the basis of interests” and that actors have disparate identities and interests (Wendt, 398). Their differing identities and interests inform their actions, which can result in conflict. I contend that constructivism is the paradigm that best explains this challenge and the accompanying obstacles, but that it also best explains how this and other related impediments can be overcome.

Constructivist theory suggests, “people act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them.” (Wendt, 396-397). It is the meaning that one attributes to another actor’s actions that informs how one acts, and because meaning and identities are relational, this will then inform how that actor interprets one’s actions and responds. One interprets the world through frames that have been shaped by experience, history, culture, and interactions. Frames themselves shape the meanings and identities one ascribes to other actors. One understands one’s own role and influences through frames and determines what actions are appropriate through frames (“Hobbes and the Congo,” 251). When actors’ identities and frames contradict or misunderstand one another, international cooperation is strained because actors will behave in a manner that is consistent with those conflicting frames.

Constructivism provides the best explanation for the difficulties international cooperation faces when trying to initiate cooperative efforts. It adeptly explains the evolving challenges to international cooperation, while also accounting for change. Wendt argues that the process of interactions influences the structure of identity one holds, meaning that one’s interests can change as a result of interactions. Changing interests and identities produce changes in behaviour, which can affect international affairs (Walt, 44). The chain reaction caused by shifting identities poses challenges to international affairs too as it means the issues and problems hindering cooperation are constantly evolving. In this regard, constructivism provides a strong, nuanced explanation of the challenges where other theories fail to do so.

Realist theory purports that actors/states are self-interested and exist in a state of anarchy, in which there is no central governance or unified power over all states. States’ behaviour is defined by their self-interest and their existence in an anarchic system, and realism argues that this is the main obstacle to international cooperation. But this does not take into consideration that “anarchy is what states make of it,” meaning that states interpret the system in which they function through their frames and identities which inform their interests and influence their behaviour (Wendt, 395). Realism’s explanation of changes in state behaviour is simplified in that it can explain changes in behaviour but only does so in the context of reacting to security concerns. Realists argue that self-interested states are primarily concerned with their security; however, they fail to consider that “threats [are] socially constructed” (396). Realist theories also do not account for the influence of non-state actors and so do not address movements that “have transnational structures and principled motivations that challenge the traditional supremacy of self-interested states” (Snyder, 61). Yet movements of this kind clearly impact the international system whether they are movements supporting violent extremism or human rights. These are movements whose influence is derived from share the understanding, beliefs, and identities of the actors involved, and realist theory does not produce a satisfactory explanation for them.

Liberalism does not sufficiently explain the challenges to international cooperation either. Liberals believe that liberal democracies will not fight each other, and that actors will pursue actions that either maximize their gain or minimize their loss (Jervis, 5). In order to maximize gain, states will tend to become more interdependent, increasing the cost of conflict and so reducing the likelihood of it (6). It explains obstacles to international cooperation in terms of clashes between liberal democratic states and non-liberal democratic states, especially as democratic states tend to feel the need to bring democracy to non-liberal democratic states (Snyder, 58)...

Complete paper available upon request.

Works Cited


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Autesserre, Séverine. “The Everyday Politics of International Intervention,” The Washington Post. 27 June 2014.

Betts, Richard K. “The Realist Persuasion,” The National Interest (September/October 2015). 

Finnemore, Martha. “Constructing Norms of Humanitarian Intervention,” in Peter J. Katzenstein, ed., The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press 1996) pp.153-185.

Gowrinathan, Nimmi.“The Women of Isis,” Foreign Affairs (August 2014).

Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993).

Jervis, Robert. “Theories of War in an Era of Great Power Peace:  Presidential Address, American Political Science Association 2001,” American Political Science Review Volume 96, Issue 1 (March 2002).

Schmidt, Michael, and Yasir Ghazi. "Iraqi Women Feel Shunted Despite Election Quota." The New York Times, 12 March 2011. Web. 21 October 2015.

Snyder, Jack. "One World, Rival Theories." Foreign Policy (November/December 2004).

Tickner, Ann. “Man, the State and War.” in eds., Karen Mingst and Jack Snyder, Essential Readings in World Politics (New York: WW Norton 2001) pp.60-67.

Walsh, Declan, and Rod Nordland. "Jolting Some, Afghan Leader Brings Wife Into the Picture." The New York Times, 14 October 2014. Web. 20 October 2015.

Walt, Stephen. “International Theories:  One World, Many Theories." Foreign Policy (Spring 1998).

Wendt, Alex. “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization Volume 46, Issue 2 (Spring 1992).


*this paper was written for Conceptual Foundations of International Relations course at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (Fall' 15)

© 2016 Daniele Selby