Stop asking me ‘Where are you from?’

I grew up completely race-blind before moving to Singapore. It seems a bit funny, in retrospect, since I went to an international school until I was thirteen, but the concept of different races was never something that occurred to me. It didn’t matter to me where someone was from or what they looked like, and the patterns that made a certain person belong to a certain group. To me, I was only aware of nationalities, and that was simply because that was how new students introduced themselves: ‘Hi I’m _____, I’m from ______.’ Where someone was from never influenced how I saw them; it had about as much influence as learning their birthday: good to know but not crucial in building my impression of them.

When I moved to Singapore, I learned about the Chinese/Malay/Indian categories. I picked up the instinct of trying to box and categorise people into the three majority races. I learned to pick up name patterns and slight variations in accents, I started to learn about the stereotypes associated with each race. The bureaucracy’s convenience became an inflexible system that my mind started to operate under and I became extra-sensitive to differences. I started learning to pigeon-hole, and I too was getting pigeon-holed.

As early as my second day of school here, one of my teachers said to me, ‘You’re from Myanmar, right? I have a Burmese maid, she’s very gentle, a lot like you.’ I was stunned and completely didn’t know how to reply so I just ended up nodding mutely, but I remember that I was very uncomfortable with what she’d said. Maybe she meant no harm, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. Was she condemning me to a future as a domestic helper, or was she just articulating her limited experience with people of a certain nationality? Was that the system’s tendency to pigeon-hole races, taken outside the context of the CMIO structure? Was that very structure what conditioned her into thinking it was okay to pack me in with her limited experience of people coming from the same country as me? The thing was, she wasn’t the only one. I had my own schoolmates say that, and in one case, I knew it was to spite me.

I think part of why I try so hard to fight against and reject my nationality isn’t as simple as having never properly lived there; I didn’t have that problem in Cambodia. I was very happy to tell people where I came from because I felt kind of special; my sister and I were the only students from our country in the entire student body. But in Singapore, people I met had these preconceived notions, from past experience, of what people ‘like me’ are like, and their comments can be quite damning.

I’ve grown very averse to being asked where I come from, unless I’m being asked by a friend, unless it’s something I’m telling people as a ‘fun fact’. If, in cosmopolitan places like the States, people frown upon asking someone where they’re from – because it implies the assumption that the person being asked is an immigrant when they might not be, based purely on their minority status – then why should Singapore be any different? Yes, categorise for the sake of statistics, but stop letting it go beyond that. After ten years, I’m tired of being asked where I’m from if it’s just for the sake of boxing me in with a ‘Burmese maid’ you know, or to tell me I look like a certain famous figurehead from my own country (news flash: it’s not a compliment, and it’s not funny at all). It’s a microaggression, and it’s racist.

Racism doesn’t have to be restricted to telling me to go back to my own country because you don’t like my presence. It doesn’t have to be speaking in Chinese in my company and probably being amused at my confusion and hidden rage. It’s as harmless as a backhanded compliment along the lines of ‘If you’re from Burma, why’s your English so good?’ (not a compliment, by the way). It’s as simple as asking me where I’m from, because I don’t fit your C/M/I boxes, because I’m that unboxable Other – you’re Othering me, and it’s not fun being confined to this side of different.

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Playlist

‘Madly’: That’s how desperately I’m trying
To transcend time and distance,
To transport myself through associative memory:
An autumn song for autumn memories,
I’d forgotten that autumn is about the approaching end
And colours that don’t last.
‘Madly,’ I’m missing the experience
And illusion of re-experience.

‘I Can’t Have You’: Not mine to belong to
But I thought, perhaps,
I could carry this topia within me
Until the end,
Even if it’s only in this extended play.

‘The Way Into You’: The bridge
To that magical year, to the frozen past.
With each re-visit, do I tinker with this place?
It starts to come back in fragments.
As I try to string them together,
Further cracks appear from my effort
To intervene.

‘Siren’: The end.
The closure I hadn’t anticipated;
The alarm bells when I realise
I’m not reliving that place,
But playing a Sims game in my head.
The bridge to That Time
Is gone.


#NowPlaying: The Mood – EP

Winter Has Ended

Trying to prolong your winter was like
Trying to stop a snowflake from melting
In the heat of our hands
By staying out in the cold, risking ourselves.

It was selfish of us to keep you here,
When all you wanted was to walk into
A spring where we can’t follow.

Frail, failing body and fading consciousness,
You were a winter prisoner craving freedom,
That sweet release – relief – from the pain and weight
Of living.

Is it warmer where you are?
Do they have seasons there too,
Or do you exist in a blissful beginning,
An eternity outside of time?

We just wanted you to stay with us
A little longer.
Linger,
Here with us.
Winters aren’t the same without you.

############

#NowPlaying – Goodbye Winter

“I knew that her little wave was not going to last and soon she would join the sea again, and even though I know you can’t hold on to water, I still gripped her fingers a little more tightly to keep her from leaking away.” – Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

We Were Friends

Opposite ends of the bridge:
That flash of recognition, connection,
Immediate, willed disconnection.
The roaring traffic is at once
Amplified and muffled.

Ten feet;
Of the hundreds of countries,
Of the thousands of cities in all the world,
What are you doing in mine?
A chance encounter
Both dreamed of and dreaded.

Eight feet;
Eyes averted? Or perhaps not.
You don’t deliberately avoid
A stranger’s eyes like that.
Just a stranger, I remind myself.

Six feet;
The empty seat on the bus
That I’d claimed as mine,
Next to the curly-haired boy.

Four feet;
Two of the shortest in class,
We used to compare heights.
Basketball matches, friendly rivalry.

Two feet;
Moving in amber,
Memories bleeding sepia.

Parallel lines:
Opposite directions.
Passing by without indication
Of disturbance.

##

A/N: I’ve been having a writer’s block for the longest time, it was getting really frustrating because I was both afraid of coming up with something that didn’t meet my expectations, and of actually starting. So this is going to be the start of my writing project. I’ll call it #NowPlaying. I’m not sure how regularly I can commit to this, but basically, I’ll try to write a response piece regarding a film/show/episode/song/music video I watch.

‘We Were Friends’ was inspired by the music video for the song ‘If ~ また逢えたら.’ I really liked the scene at end in which one of the members of the band and the girl walk right past each other on the bridge, so I wanted to write on that.

Another December

I had a conversation with my childhood best friend (let’s call her E) a week ago, and at one point she started talking about the things we take for granted. And because we were both feeling vulnerable at that point, because I’d been keeping it to myself for half a year, having her at the other end of the line at that time, both of us being on the topic of taking simple things for granted because they’re so simple, had me spilling everything I’d bottled up since June.

I lost my then-remaining grandparents in June, just three weeks from each other. I know these things happen, they’re not that unexpected, that they would happen sooner or later, but it was just like E had said, they’re part of the many normal, everyday things we take for granted. Family dinners, being fussed over, silly squabbles over the dining table, seeing my grandparents every year when I go back, they’re all things I take for granted because there’s nothing particularly novel about them.

Last year, because I was on exchange, because I was in England for the first time, I told my parents I’d give the annual return to Burma a miss. I’d thought, I go back every year anyway, and I’m not missing much. I see my relatives every year. I’m not missing much. I’ll see my grandparents again next December. It’s just one time. It’s just one more year. I was too busy immersing myself in the freedom and novelty of this new country, this new environment, of travelling solo, of seeing new places, that I took taking the ordinary for granted to new extremes. I’d forgotten that the reason we visit every year is for my grandparents, because we don’t know when the last time will be. I didn’t think December 2015 would be my last time.

The whole of last semester (Year 3 Sem 2), I didn’t see my mum much; not because I was always at school (I wasn’t) but because she had to keep going back to look after her ailing mother. It was a period when I was feeling particularly stressed, having just got back from England and missing it there, not being able to fully enjoy being with my whole family again after 3 months away because one of us was missing, having to come home to a bunch of chores that I had to split with my sister, having to figure out what to cook for the family almost every night when I had been so looking forward to my mum’s cooked dinners whenever I thought about my return to Singapore. Then I thought about the fact that I’d be in Year 4 in August, and how I don’t think I could handle this if my mum is still missing from home, juggling school work and chores and my part-time job. I think I must have grudged my grandmother at that point. I wondered why she couldn’t get better. I wondered why my mum had to keep going back if it didn’t make my grandmother get any better. I resented everything. I wondered if I could last the rest of my time as an undergraduate this way.

Over my year-end break, my parents brought my youngest sister to Burma with them. Very unexpectedly, our cousin dropped the news that our grandfather had passed away, after just a few days of falling ill. He was 94.

Towards the end of June, when our whole family was finally back under the same roof, my mum received a call from our aunt. She had to go back to Burma yet again. After less than a week of being back in Singapore. Of course I was displeased. I wondered again how much longer this would have to go on. My mum said our grandmother’s condition was worsening, but I asked aloud wasn’t it always fluctuating between getting worse and getting better.

The next morning, I woke up to my mum crying. At 7 o’clock, the call came that my grandmother, too, had passed away. I know it’s ridiculous and illogical, but a part of me felt like it was my sentiment the previous night that killed her. I wanted to call someone but I didn’t want to bring in people outside my family. It was 7 o’clock; too early for my friends to be awake during the vacation. I wanted to just cry my heart out, but I didn’t want to, in front of my mum, who’d just lost her own mother. I felt so helpless and useless, that all I could do was accompany my mum to the airport as she went to send her own mother off. More than that, I felt guilty. I’d taken for granted both time and grandparents. They’d been around for so long, a part of me simply assumed they’d always be around. I’d thought I could catch them one last time. I thought those extra two weeks in England couldn’t hurt, because there was always next year. ‘Next year’ didn’t come the way I’d assumed it would.

In December 2016, my grandmother was in Burma, waiting for the granddaughter who never returned. But I don’t want to remember my December of 2017 as the December I don’t have my grandmother waiting for my return. I don’t want to remember her as the fading 82-year-old I never got to say goodbye to, because she didn’t want me to see her in that condition in June, so much that she said she wanted to get better before she saw me again. Even if she never did. And I never got back in time. I never felt sorry in time. Time’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

I don’t want to remember my frustration at my grandmother’s fear of foreigners, because her only experiences with them had been nothing short of unpleasant, having lived through the final years of British colonial rule and the Japanese occupation herself. I don’t want to remember her as ailing, fading, waiting. I want to remember the grandmother who took my cousins in because their parents couldn’t raise them. I want to remember the times when, as a child, I ran into her waiting arms on our annual returns. I want to remember watching Swan Lake with her, because she loved that movie, even if she couldn’t understand English. I want to remember all the things I’d taken for granted about her: I want to remember waking up in the middle of the night to her silhouette as she tried to cover me with an extra blanket, because she didn’t want her granddaughter to be cold, trying hard not to wake me up, I want to remember the times she waited excitedly, counting down the days to my return. I want to remember returning to her waiting for me.

Out of Reach

The familiar slinks, darts, rubs itself
Against my mind’s eye, purrs coyly.
It’s an entire world, living, expanding
Inside me.

I’ve tried time and again to catch it,
To pin down this universe
Onto the blank white before me.
It hisses, swipes at my reaching hands,
Dashes into the dark
Recesses of my mind.

It shows itself, those taunting green eyes glinting,
When I’m least prepared: without pen,
Or in my sleep; slipping through my memory like smoke,
Whenever I can’t pin it down.

I lunge, weapon in hand.
My pen leaves a trail of black,
Glistening like the fur of the creature,
The universe, which I’ve killed into reality:
Broken down into inadequate words.
Disappointing.

Both

I thought I had forever.
I thought you had forever.
Always present, from the beginning of my time,
I’d forgotten your clock was ticking too.

You always appeared timeless that
I’d forgotten you were a Time Being.
I’d dismissed your fear of eternal night:
Knowing you were fading,
Not knowing you were fading away.

Was I wrong in wanting to live,
In seizing what felt like my only chance to
Explore the wider world outside
the bubble of home and Homeland?

The last bond of blood’s been cut:
The only reason for this obligatory pingponging,
Now that the clock – your clock – has stopped ticking.
I’m out of chances, I’m out of time.

If this is what freedom feels like,
Groundless, boundless. Uncertainty.
(Relief? Guilt.)
Then perhaps I don’t want it.
All I want is one more chance,
Or more time. More of your time.
More time for you.
The impossible,
Now that you’re gone.

Unstable

Some say that to come home
You need to take the long route,
Circle the world to realise
Home was the haven of familiarity.
Halfway across the world,
I’d missed home too.

Coming back wasn’t setting down my bag
And blissfully embracing the familiarity
Of ten years in a single place.
It was the realisation that Home
Was no longer where I felt at home.

I thought I’d found it.
I thought I could plant myself
In the soil of spatial stability,
But I was wrong.

What’s it like to have a stable sense of home?
All I want is to uproot myself,
Give myself the illusion of agency
As I set out to look for permanence.

Lost Boys

The call came that fateful day
Which I imagine tugged you miles apart
And pulled you across the sea;
Your duties as mother and daughter in tension.
You became failed mother to us,
But Mother to your nation.
Only half our blood.

Return.
You returned to your motherland,
But couldn’t return as our mother,
The threat of exile looming over your head,
The threat of being a failed daughter.
I guess you were never ours to keep.

Drifting.
Two lost boys with a father fading,
And a mother erased from our family portrait
To emerge the face of her country –
Your face all over the news, on the walls of strangers’ homes,
But missing before the hearth you were needed.

The burden of your family legacy
You chose over the ones left behind –
We couldn’t keep you.
You didn’t belong to us exclusively anymore,
Or perhaps, you never did.

There’s no word to define our state
Of late father and gone mother.
If Peter Pan could whisk us away,
Stop time for us while your life progressed
At the dizzying speed of your kingdom’s,
Perhaps we could return to a faded you,
Your duties done, (you’d wait for us
As we’d waited our youths away)
So we could be your children again.

A/N: I’m not trying to be political here, nor am I passing judgment. This poem was inspired by a conversation my friends and I had with our hosts in Oxford.

Loyalties

This country has claimed me.

When I first arrived, I hated everything:
The misconceptions, the slang
And the struggle of climbing over the barrier
Of the same language distorted, mangled,
Alien and unfamiliar.

I didn’t notice the roots growing,
Borne of memories and the people
Who pulled me over the barrier
I’d built around my heart,
As they wove their way through
Cracks in the concrete soil.

Nine years, and I’ve blended in.
I claim the label that isn’t lawfully mine
According to the rules of legislation.
But the rules of my heart say,
Claim me, as your people did.
Claim me, as I’ve claimed the title
Of one finally settled.

Watch as I put down the home
I’d carried around on my back:
The burden of a child uprooted twice.
My search has ended.