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.