Here are three stories I’ve never told anyone.
1. The Key Maker
When I was seven or eight years old, my mother needed to get a key duplicated, so she, my sister and I went to Parkway Parade. We sat on high swivel stools as we waited. I watched as the young man behind the counter pressed a new key to the rotating blade. It was fascinating. Mum suddenly remembered another errand she had to run and left me in charge with strict instructions to keep an eye on my four-year-old sister and not to leave those stools. I kept watching the key being made. The man cutting the key kept darting looks at us and his colleague, smiling. They must have been in their early 20s. I can’t remember what race they were. The colleague, who had no task to perform just then, suddenly made eye contact with me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stared back. Then he said, with an exaggerated head jiggle, “Vanakkam“. He and the man cutting my mum’s key dissolved into giggles. They couldn’t stop laughing. I didn’t know what the joke was, but I knew something very rude had just happened. I was embarrassed. Mostly, I was upset they thought my sister and I were Indian.
2. The Classmate
A couple of years after that, my sister and I were in the same school for the first time in our lives. I was in Primary 4, she in Primary 1. While walking along the school courtyard with a Chinese classmate one afternoon, I pointed my sister out to my classmate, who peered at my sister, then at me, then back at my sister and finally back at me. “Hmm,” she said, appraising me. “Your sister looks Indian. But you look Eurasian.” She smiled. She was paying me a compliment, and it made me feel pretty. Mostly, I was happy she didn’t think I looked Indian.
3. The Potential Boyfriend
A decade after that, I was taking French lessons. In our class, I was the only non-Chinese person besides the teacher, a fact I’d never noticed before this incident took place. One of my classmates asked me one evening if I had a boyfriend. I told him that I didn’t. “Oh, good,” he replied. “I want to introduce you to my friend. I think you guys will hit it off. He’s Indian, too.” I was shocked into speechlessness that an adult in the 21st century would think of setting two people up based purely on their ethnicity. Mostly, I was upset he thought I was Indian.
Between my two extended families, I have uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives that are Singaporean, Malaysian, Indian, Sri Lankan, British, Australian, American and Portuguese – there are probably a dozen more nationalities I’ve forgotten or know nothing about. The ethnicities represented include several from India, an assortment of Eurasian and Euro-Asian combinations and Chinese (Hokkien, I think).
My husband is Australian – of British and Norwegian heritage – and my sister’s fiancé is American – of English and German stock.
All this to say that in my family, we are genuinely colourblind. My parents raised my sister and I to understand that race was, at best, a fairly meaningless categorisation of people. No race was better or worse than another. We cooked and ate different cuisines. We spent time among my parents’ friends who ran the gamut of race and religion, connected only by their mission school experience and impeccable English.
And yet somehow, as a young child, I’d learnt that to be Indian was bad. It was the worst thing you could be.
I remember once asking my dad to explain “Sinhalese” to me; I didn’t know any Sinhalese people besides us and was curious about what it meant. He looked proud that I’d taken an interest, and pointed to Sri Lanka on our globe. My heart sank. Sinhalese meant Sri Lanka. And Sri Lanka was south of India.
Everyone knew if you had to be Indian, you should be North Indian. Being South Indian was the worst. And I was from south of that. I was horrified.
These days, when people ask me my ethnic background, they get much more than they bargained for. There’s a history lesson, which is largely about the Dutch, British and Portuguese colonies of South Asia and the different method for tying a sari in Kandy, my paternal grandfather’s hometown. That’s followed by a culinary introduction, in which I explain that Goa was largely Catholic – till it was reclaimed by India in 1961 – which is why Goan pork sausage and beef vindaloo exist; I explain how Sri Lankan food is different from other South Indian cuisine, and what makes pol sambol and string hoppers the best combination in the world.
But in those early years, when I got that dreaded question – “Eh. Noelle. You what race, ah?” – I would mumble something nondescript and walk away.
So when I read Shrey Bhargava’s Facebook post, I got it.
The blatant racism he described is the reason I would walk away from conversations about race in primary school, for fear of having to confess, and describe myself as “mixed” well into early adulthood.
Then I started reading the comments and the posts in response to his. It broke my heart, but I kept reading. And for the first time in my life, I feel Singapore isn’t mine, nor am I hers.
When it’s a Singaporean’s word against a non-Singaporean’s, we tend to believe the Singaporean. We sometimes even believe things that are clearly exaggerated and viciously xenophobic in order to back up our Singaporean brothers and sisters. It’s not right, but I understand where that sentiment comes from, when holding on to our scanty national heritage is increasingly difficult. It’s not right, but I get it.
But among Singaporeans – that’s a different story.
Shrey has not been believed. The people who’ve shared their own stories of casual and systemic racism, both recently and for years before, have not been believed.
Instead, they’ve been accused – largely by members of the Chinese majority – of crying wolf in an attempt to dismantle Singapore’s racial harmony.
To any minority in Singapore, the error is obvious – we would love nothing more than for there to be more racial harmony in Singapore.
Because what currently exists is conditional. There are racial tiers in our country, and – as eight-year-old me knew all too well – those of South Asian heritage are on the lowest one.
As a nation, we would like to believe – and many of us do believe – that racial harmony exists and is more or less perfect. This has been my experience more often than not.
But ask anyone who’s had an empty seat next to them on a packed bus or train, been in a shop or elevator and heard “yin du ren” or “ma lai ren” followed by laughter, or been ignored in a queue for chicken rice or bak chor mee and they will tell you something different.
Ask the little girl who for years was ashamed of her rich, complex, delicious heritage.
They will tell you that Singapore’s racial harmony isn’t ironclad and it doesn’t always extend to everyone.
We do not blame our Chinese friends and neighbours for this state of affairs. We are not making personal attacks. We are not accusing you personally of being racist.
We are not putting the burden on you to fix this.
All we are asking – all I’m asking – is for you to please believe us.
When we tell you an accent – any accent – as the butt of the joke is hurtful, please believe us.
When we tell you negative stereotypes of minority groups cause real damage, please believe us.
When we tell you an Indian couple dancing round a tree is not funny or appropriate, please believe us.
When we tell you that joke makes us uncomfortable, please believe us.
When we tell you we feel excluded when the conversation is in Mandarin, please believe us.
When we tell you a Ramadan bazaar should be completely Halal, please believe us.
When we tell you we’re frustrated that supermarkets decorate for Halloween and not for Deepavali, please believe us.
When we tell you we’re Singaporean, please believe us.
And when we tell you that every once in a while we feel like outsiders in the country we were born in, please believe us.
You can empathise with us. You can say how much that must suck. You can say you had no idea. You can ask us what a better version of Singapore looks like to us. You can ask us what we think needs to change for us to get there. You can ask us what you can do to help.
But mostly, more than anything, please just believe us.