I was in a cab alone to go get vaccinated at my nearest community centre. The driver, let’s call him Uncle Lim. Uncle Lim immediately started chatting with me, asking if I was going to go get my jab and did his best to reassure me that all will be well, “not pain one”, he said.
My conversation with Uncle Lim went on, and race eventually came into the picture. He talked about how “Maybe he’s just racist”, laughed it off, then talked about how he wouldn’t accept his kids marrying someone of another race. Just some context before we delve deeper into this; I am Chinese, happily married to an Indian man.
A few weeks ago my husband and I discussed what had recently happened with the Polytechnic lecturer who had made some remarks towards a inter-racial couple, as well as Sarah Bagharib’s wedding photo situation (which we both felt was stupid, wasn’t racist, and definitely blown out of proportion).
It’s really hard to be a minority in Singapore, or to be one half of an inter-racial couple; constantly having to explain things that otherwise would be completely alien to our chinese friends. Even within family, this remains a constant, because there is just so much to culture and race that cannot be shared in a single sitting.
When my husband and I met, we knew within weeks of spending a ridiculous time with each other that we had met ‘The One’. It was precisely because we came from such different backgrounds, and had such different cultures, that made it even more exciting and refreshing.
A few months into dating, he had just moved to a new place, (which we viewed and picked together as I pretty much was 50% living there) and it was custom to get blessings from the Hindu temple. I checked if there was any dress code, put on long flowy pants and a t-shirt, and we headed to the temple where he introduced me to all the different gods and their stories.
Thankfully, our first Chinese New Year together was pre-Covid, so he got the full works for his first experience. To his complete shock, I brought him to what looked like an illegal gambling den involving minors, and copious amounts of snacks and food. He was also briefed beforehand to present a pair of oranges to my senior family members in order of seniority, where he nailed the common phrases like “Gong Xi Fa Cai”. He loved it. He also walked away as the biggest winner on Day 1 of Chinese New Year, and was also the loudest participant at our family Loh Hei.
Not everything was rainbows and butterflies. Of course, we had that one insensitive and perhaps, slightly racist uncle. Our worst fears came to life when we went for a family dinner on one occasion, where he made comments which involved phrases like “ah pu nehneh” or “yandepunana”. On an occasion where we were celebrating my grandma’s birthday, we sang the birthday song in English, and then in Chinese. He thought it would be funny to make up an “Indian Birthday Song”. It wasn’t funny.
Here’s what happens in situations like that; He felt insulted, mocked, and that his culture and language was completely bastardised. I felt extremely hurt, and embarrassed that someone from my family was exhibiting such uncultured behavior, and grappled with the guilt of not speaking up when it happened. Out of respect to that uncle, a senior, we kept mum to save him ‘face’.
We drew the line when he made a comment in our extended family chat that ‘the vaccine only works on yellow and light skinned people’. I was livid. There were many ways to handle the situation that would’ve led to a better understanding on both sides, but in that moment, I let my emotions dictate how I would react to this. Which was getting my husband out of that group chat.
Coming back to my experience with Uncle Lim, the way I dealt with it was very different from how I dealt with previous experiences with my own family members. I acknowledged that maybe Uncle Lim still has very strong ties to his Chinese culture, and that perhaps it was harder for him to see any possibility of having someone of a different culture acclimatise into his family. I also explained that in my generation, we don’t really see race when we look at our friends and potential partners — this is because we mostly identify as ‘Singaporeans’.
Uncle Lim mostly nodded, as I went further to explain how it’s the same way as how no one race is a certain way, and another race is another. No superiority exists with any race. There are good and bad people in the world. Period. If a person had done something really bad, it is only reflective of how that person is bad — that person is not representative of his/her entire race or religion.
While I was left feeling unsure if Uncle Lim took anything I said in consideration, I’d like to think that it was a baby step in the right direction. To present him with a different perspective without first getting angry. To help him understand without putting him in a spot and sharing that I in fact, have an Indian husband. From one Chinese person to another, I’d like to think he was able to listen objectively to what I had shared.
In hindsight, there were many other ways we could’ve dealt with the situation. More education, less avoidance. We’re seeing more and more of how a lack of education and knowledge of the cultures of our friends, neighbours, and sometimes new family members, can be more detrimental in the long term than we think.
We as people of the majority race in Singapore have a responsibility to make an extra effort to learn, educate, and accommodate our friends of minority races. For every easy and normal experience we’ve had in our lives here, they’ve had to deal with racial stereotypes, sometimes discrimination, amongst many other struggles.
We live in 2021. Ignorance and tolerance are no longer acceptable. It’s time we make it a priority to educate ourselves and learn from our friends. If it means something to them, then it should matter to us too. Let’s work towards a Singapore for all Singaporeans, regardless of race or religion.