It was my first week at university, and I was sitting with people I’d only just met, cringing at a joke someone made about ‘those Asians who are always wearing the same damn University of Melbourne jumper everyday’. At this point, I felt compelled to interject, ‘Hey! I’m Asian too!’ They turned towards me appraisingly. The hazel-eyed girl to my right grabbed my shoulder, in what I believe was meant to be a comforting gesture, with an incredulous snort. ‘No way, you’re not, like, Asian Asian at all!’
I don’t know what response I was expecting. Maybe an awkward laugh, maybe I was fishing for compliments for my carefully-put-together outfit, maybe I wanted to test the waters to see how my ethnic status would fit in with the new cultural climate. But I did not expect to be told that I was actually not Asian.
A few days later, I met two Sri-Lankan girls. Hoping for some kind of camaraderie, I recounted this bizarre incident. After all, bitching always breaks the ice, right? To my surprise, they shared a knowing smirk and nonchalantly revealed, ‘In Melbourne, they won’t classify you as Asian.’ To be Asian was, apparently, to have ‘yellow-er’ skin. This ruled out Indians, Malays, and every other vaguely dark-skinned Asian, including myself. Relentless, I insisted, ‘Singapore is in Asia, India is in Asia, and so is Sri-Lanka. That’s just basic geography. I mean, where do they think India is? In Europe?’ Laughing, the taller one casually informed me, without any trace of sarcasm, that here, my racial identifier was ‘curries’. I instantly regretted undertaking this ice-breaking endeavour. Absolutely nothing could make this moment more awkward for me.
The incident reminded me a lot of my first year of primary school in Singapore. I was often told by fellow Chinese classmates that I was not Chinese, and simultaneously told by fellow Indian classmates that I was not Indian. ‘You’re Rojak!’ (a name for a local delicacy that features a mix of ethnic cuisines) someone joked. It was funny, so I laughed along. It didn’t help that I wasn’t all that good at either being Indian or Chinese. I didn’t understand the jokes in dialect, and I hadn’t tried famous ethnic delicacies like Roti Canai or Kway Chap. I didn’t fit in, and I had no chance of faking it.
As I grew up, however, I became less concerned with fitting in. When faced again with this awkward question about my ethnicity, humour would be the first card I played. ‘I’m Rojak,’ I’d smirk.
It was funny, so they would laugh.
I couldn’t have plagiarised that joke in Melbourne. I doubt Rojak even existed here. So forced by circumstances to come up with an identifier, I told people ‘I’m from Singapore’. Then, playing the humour card once again, ‘Oh my god, you don’t even know where that is, do you?’
In the event that I did relate the little I know of my convoluted ethnic background to strangers, it would often illicit interesting responses. Most of the time, I was left mildly amused by the furrowed brows of bewilderment and confusion on their faces, often followed by a thoughtful, ‘That’s so interesting…’
Once, a grown woman actually asked me, ‘Why would your parents want to marry each other?’ Then, upon discovering that my grandparents also had a cross-ethnic marriage decades ago, exclaimed, ‘They are crazy!’
A year into being away from Singapore, when I thought all my awkwardness surrounding my ethnicity had been properly pacified, it came back to haunt me in a completely different form. This was the moment that made me realise that all those little things I had experienced as a child in school and on that first week in Melbourne were all a part of this big and complicated problem: racism, a problem I had somehow deluded myself to believe I had sneakily averted by virtue of my elusive racial orientation.
I met Ariel* at a Japanese sushi restaurant, celebrating a birthday for a mutual friend. We had been introduced before. She’s ‘half-white’, she said: Australian born and bred, with her dad is Malaysian. Intrigued, I enquired about which part of Malaysia they were from, but she corrected me, ‘No, no, we’ve never actually lived in Malaysia.’
Biting back a snarky response about how Malaysian is a nationality, not a race, I entertained the standard questions about how clean Singapore is and about the amazing food. I was happy, for a moment, to meet someone curious about the country I know and love. Then she started encouraging me to say something in Chinese.
First of all, my Mandarin is terrible. It was the one dreaded compulsory subject I struggled even to pass, all the way until I was finished with school. Secondly, darling, Chinese isn’t a language. Mandarin is. I disappointed her with my miserable failure at Mandarin, feeling a bit unworthy of her prior enthusiasm, and also a little un-Singaporean, like I did way back in primary one. She looked confused, ‘But everyone in Singapore speaks Chinese! You’d have to, it’s your national language.’
As the conversation progressed, I don’t know which of us was more confused. Ariel, relentlessly insisting that Singapore was a Chinese-speaking Asian country, with Chinese natives, and that ‘even all the parliamentary documents are in Chinese!’ or me, in the peculiar position of being told that I was wrong about everything. Because she was ‘pretty sure’ about this, I decided it might be helpful to reiterate that I am, in fact, Singaporean, and had lived there for most of my life. We don’t all speak Mandarin, we are a multi-racial country, and the official national language of Singapore is Malay, although we use English in the parliamentary documents.
‘Are you really sure, though? Because I’m pretty sure.’
And there, once again, I was robbed of my identifier. No. I guess I’m not that sure after all. Am I still Singaporean if I don’t conform to someone’s expectations of what it means to be Singaporean? Am I still Asian? Am I just meant to accept these absurd new labels, just to adapt to a culture that is ignorant about mine? Could I still call myself Chinese or Indian if those genes only contributed to approximately a quarter or half, respectively, of my existence? The way I, or my cultural heritage, looks to someone else shouldn’t matter to anyone but myself, so why does it still make me so uncomfortable? And most importantly, why does it matter what race I am anyway?
Well-worn out of ways of turning the situation into a clever joke, I turned back to the sushi belt, wielding my chopstick swords and hoping to quell my emotions with food. This was when I noticed a large deep red bottle labelled ‘Heinz Tomato Ketchup’, between the salmon sashimi and a pot of wasabi. No way, I thought, now that’s definitely not Asian. But would you believe it? A quick Google search later told me that, actually, ketchup is Asian.
*Ariel is not her real name.