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 fritzandmash.com on September 10 & 11, 2014
© 2016 Daniele Selby