Monday, April 09, 2012

Who am I?

Thanks to the influx of foreign residents in the last eight-years, Singapore has been going through something of an emotional crisis. Singaporeans of all races and religions have found themselves feeling rather crowded out by people from elsewhere and as far as most of us are concerned, home isn’t feeling like home anymore.

This is particularly true for the Indian and Chinese communities. The local Singaporean Indians are complaining that the Indians from India who are coming to Singapore are a snooty bunch who doesn’t appreciate the local Indian community for its achievements. The Singaporean Chinese complain that the Mainland Chinese are a bunch of ruffians or whores who should be left in the dustbin.

It seems that the people who pledged to become “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion,” have started expressing sentiments that are what you can only politely describe as being a little chauvinistic.

Ironically, the obvious sentiments of xenophobia have produced something that years of government indoctrination failed to do – it’s produced a natural sense of “Singaporeanism.” Local Indians and Chinese have discovered that they have more in common with each other than with the chaps coming out of Mainland China and India. I’ve had local Indians think nothing of complaining to me about how “snooty” Indian Expats are and I’ve had Singaporean Chinese think nothing about cooking pots of curry to show solidarity with their fellow Singaporeans of Indian decent when Mainland Chinese complain about the smell of curry.

Even my mother who has since become German and not lived in Singapore for a good two-decades now, has gotten into the game. We had a major fight where we didn’t speak to each other for a month because she got upset with me because I told her that I had referred to myself as a “Chinaman” on a Facebook thread. She was very upset and told me, “You are SINGAPOREAN of Chinese decent, NOT a Chinaman.”

She also made the point that our family is “Ang Moh [for readers outside Singapore, this is a Hokkien word that means “red beard” and used to refer to ethnic Caucasians] and your great-great-great-grandfather came off the boat and realized that English was the way of the future.” I could actually feel the disappointment every time I make some remark that does not show solidarity with the Western world in terms of my social life or my political views. As my sister once said, “She feels sad that you see yourself as a Chinaman and forgot that you grew up in the West.”

I don’t see what the fuss is all about. What’s the big deal about being a Chinaman rather than a Singaporean of Chinese decent? I also don’t see what the big deal about being “Western” is all about.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t see the difficulty in being many things all at once. Why must I be “one” thing or why do I need to owe allegiance to anyone particular culture.” Perhaps it’s my astrological make up (Sagittarius Tiger) but I have a natural aversion to things that demand my exclusive heart and mind – hence one of the reasons why I never turned to fundamentalist Christianity despite the very best efforts of an ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend. The idea of taking spiritual guidance from some White American or someone who took spiritual guidance from a White American is repulsive. Much to the distress of the ex-girlfriend, I found more God in hanging out with her 5-year old son and chatting to him about silly names he had for himself, me and his mother than I did in the service.

When it comes to religion, I am Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sheikh etc all rolled into one. What logical person would believe that God is bothered by the crappy labels that we place on ourselves?

So, if that’s my view of God, what do people imagine my views of human culture to be like? Why do I have to Western or Eastern? Why can’t I be both? Look, I speak English and I operate in English. I grew up in the Western Education system (England and Singapore has an English-based system). So, I guess you could say I am very “western” in my outlook on life.

You could say that this blog is the least “Asian” thing about me. I don’t see myself as particularly outspoken. I have been known to use tact and diplomacy to get things done. However, I don’t believe in being shy about expressing my opinions for the sake of being shy. There are times when you need to say something so you should say it.

Another “Westernised” or “Buddhist” side of me is that I don’t easily except things because that’s supposed to be the way things are. Asians or at least the East Asians (South Asians are different in this respect. Let’s not forget that the Buddha was a Nepali Prince) tend to accept things as they are because that’s the way things having been. Questioning is not looked upon favourably. You have Confucius to blame for this – he drummed it into the East Asian psyche that life was best when there was order under the benevolent heavenly king, which needless to say, never existed, except in his imagination.

Yet, at the same time, I do not see myself as a Westerner. Even when I lived in England, I never wanted to become an ‘Englishman.’ It was always clear to me that while I lived in England, I would one day leave and be back in Asia, particularly Singapore.

Singapore remains the place where my blood ties are, though these are admittedly thinning out as old relatives die out and younger ones move elsewhere. For all that I’ve complained about Singapore, this remains the only country I have an obligation to defend. My closest friends come from Singapore, namely during my National Service days. These are ties that you don’t ignore easily.

It’s also helped that my professional life has been formed in Singapore. My professional life or at least my value add to the people pay me is the fact that I know Singapore as it is, which means I know the nitty-gritty of how to get things done. Yes, I do have skills. The principles of pitching a story are the same wherever you are. However, the business I’m in requires me to have a network and the network I’ve built up is here. Yes, my clients come from elsewhere but they want to operate here and that’s why I get hired.

I am Singaporean in that I hold a Singapore passport. I function in Singapore and I have family in Singapore. This is the country that I am obliged to defend in a time of war and at the same time this is a country that has given me a rather pleasant home, even if I do spend a lot of time being critical of certain things about this home.

I don’t need the Chinaman or the Englishman to tell me that I am Singaporean. This is the place that I have become most familiar with for better or for worse.

Yet, at the same time, I don’t have a problem being Chinese. I don’t operate in Mandarin or Cantonese as well as I do in English. I’ve never been in China and I do not exactly have a cultural and emotional link with the average Chinaman – that was even when I had a mainland Chinese girlfriend.

Having said that, I’ve always felt most at home whenever I’ve been in a Chinese community. My favourite parts of Western cities happen to be the Chinatowns. There’s a familiarity of things like food, language and a shared sense of being within a larger global community.

I don’t indulge in many of the Chinese cultural symbols. I don’t gamble nor do I listen to Chinese music (I listen to Hindi music and I don’t listen to music in Mandarin). However, I do watch Chinese fighting movies and I do identify with the heroes in Chinese Gung Fu movies, who for the most part are outsiders fighting against something or other. I am attached to Chinese New Year. I don’t have a problem with Mainland China taking over the world.

I am an ethnic Chinese with a Singapore passport, who has made his life in Singapore. I happen to think and express myself in English. I don’t have a problem being of many cultures. I think this is something that people will need to be comfortable with.

I am Tang Li

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