I have been away from home for a while now but this week, home feels a little further away.
For those who have managed to miss it or who aren’t from Singapore, here’s the gist of it. Local actor Shrey Bhargava wrote in a Facebook post how he was asked to exaggerate an Indian accent when auditioning for a role in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 4, which is a local film about army life for male Singaporeans. He was offended, but he did it, and felt disgusted after.
Side note: I’ve been asked to ‘perform’ a Singlish accent among foreign friends before. I did it once, everyone laughed in delight, and I felt that same disgust immediately after. My ethnicity, my nationality, the way I speak in the company of friends and family, is not a party trick. An exaggeration of your identity is not for anyone else’s amusement. Even among foreign friends I sometimes spontaneously break out the Singlish but here’s the difference: doing it because you want to and doing it on request are worlds apart.
Shrey subsequently wrote this post. Many fellow minorities have come out to share similar experiences. Many Chinese Singaporeans have expressed regret, shame, anger. But so many people. SO many people. Have now come out of the woodwork waving a “LOL guess what everyone I’m kinda racist” flag, previously hidden under their beds, previously only taken out in the company of like-minded friends.
I write this as a minority. I write this as someone who has only ever known what it is to be a minority. I have written about racism in Singapore before, and like any minority, I have a lifetime of experiences and examples I could share.
But this week, my heart hangs heavier than it ever has before. For the first time, people I’ve known for years have come out to rant about the validity of Shrey’s experience. “It’s just comedy,” they say.
And you know what? It’s fine if you, as someone who has enjoyed the privilege of being the majority, don’t know what it’s like, or if you can’t imagine why it hurts. But no one who has decided to join the angry mob dedicated to the very public lowering of our flag has stopped to first ask – “Is that how it feels? I had no idea.” And I really wish they had asked; I still hope some will.
You don’t get to decide that just because you don’t know how it feels, the rejection, shame, fear and occasional self-loathing that often comes with being a minority is invalid or should be invisible. Make an effort to understand instead of denying the deep-rooted racism our allegedly racially harmonious country has.
Today, I am especially grateful for my Chinese friends who have stood up tall against other members of the majority race who demean and invalidate the experiences they will never have the misfortune of knowing. In the same way I believe men are a key part of feminism and equality, the ethnic majority has a voice they can use for good. Not like xiaxue. Please don’t be like xiaxue.
But we need to look at the fact that it took one Facebook post to tear a nation in two. It took one man saying, “This is what happened. This is how I feel and it sucks,” before thousands jumped on his words to loudly invalidate them. I get it. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the discomfort of others. But if for the sake of our continued comfort we disallow room for honesty, for discussion, for understanding, then our racial harmony is a sham, and a shallow one too.
It feels like this week we, as a country, have failed to live by what we recite in our pledge, what we claim to celebrate as a multi-ethnic nation.
Think of it this way: If it’s uncomfortable for someone in the majority to acknowledge that our country
is racist AF has a long way to go, imagine how it feels for the those who have lived it their whole lives. It isn’t just national pride or illusions of harmony at stake. It’s the dull thud that comes with realisation that in your home country, your identity has been deemed worth less than the entertainment of others, that your real experiences have been voted unfavourable, unworthy of further discussion and understanding. We’ll be ok just don’t talk about it shhhhhh.
I don’t write this in anger, or in hatred. I write this as a member of the minority whose heart hurts this week because the spotlight has at last been shone on the deep-rooted racism many of us tried to pretend wasn’t there, and now there’ s no denying it.
The part that hurts the most is this: Even after all this time and all my own experiences, part of me still desperately wanted to believe in Singapore’s racial harmony, too.
I’m getting married this July, and like any woman I’m getting increasingly excited and somewhat nervous about this. My fiancé is American, I’m from Singapore, we met in China and we live in Russia. It’s hard to plan two weddings from a country that neither wedding is taking place in (shoutout to our families who are doing so much!), and I’ve already started having dreams about everything going wrong.
But as someone who is all about equality, feminism, self-acceptance and patriarchy smashing, there are a couple of things that my impending wedding will not be about. Some things are easy decisions like not having a bouquet toss, not changing my name, or having gender neutral terms like ‘people of honour’ (instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen), and Most Honourable People (instead of a best man or maid of honour). Trust me, even I roll my eyes at myself every time I explain this one – but I wanted to make a point about equal opportunities and hey, it’s my wedding.
There are a couple of things that are more important still, and for the sake of any other bride or groom or person who needs a reminder that you’re gonna do just fine, here it is:
- It doesn’t need to be the best day of my life
I want this day to be really special, and I know that it will be. I’m marrying my partner and my best friend, and it’s a big deal. A huge deal. Families are coming together and it’s the official start of a new chapter. That’s the important bit. But the rest of it is just a day – a highly symbolic and important one, true – but it doesn’t need to be the best day of my life. It is something I will cherish forever I’m sure, and it is something that holds a great amount of importance and significance to me, my fiancé, our parents, our families and friends. But it isn’t an accomplishment, nor is it the most important thing I will ever do.
I want my wedding day to be special; I don’t need it to be perfect.
- I won’t diet for it
Some things just annoy me – like being asked if my fitness goals are all for my wedding. Hint: they aren’t. Some things just about break my heart – like being asked what my wedding diet goals are. I have friends who have dieted hard for their weddings, and more power to them; they have all looked amazing. But calorie counting for a single event is something I had already decided I wouldn’t do anymore – it just doesn’t work for me, and my wedding is no exception.
I love working out and getting fit, but clichéd as it sounds fitness to me is a journey rather than a destination. Asking someone how hard or how well they are dieting implies that you think they need to diet or change their bodies. Outside of the context of a wedding, a random “So, how’s the diet going?” would be harsh – I can’t see how weddings are any different.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to fit into a body type that will never be mine, buying clothes a size too small to ‘work into it’ and trying to get skinny for Christmas, for someone else’s wedding, for some big event or other.
Not for my wedding. I want everyone, myself included, to be happy and comfortable. My fitness plan (less beer, more kettlebell swings because never mind skinny but dammit I will be strong) will stay in place, as it did before and as it will after the wedding. And if for just one day I get to make the rules, let it be this: Easy on the body shaming; we’re here to have fun and celebrate.
- I won’t wear makeup
This seems almost easy after I spent months considering continuing my anti-shaving agenda – my legs are currently hairier than my fair-haired fiancé’s. I don’t think I will, though. The world just isn’t ready.
But what I will do is rock up with a bare face because 1. I know I will cry and make a mess anyway 2. With the exception of eyeliner, I hate having makeup on and 3. Remember the whole patriarchy smashing thing.
Makeup can be a lot of fun, and it is to many people I know and love. It’s also a choice, and if it isn’t you, like it isn’t me, don’t do it.
Just like I won’t be in heels because I hate wearing them, and I don’t need my dress to be a surprise for my fiancé because I am not a gift to be presented, and no woman (or man) who’s getting married needs to fix themselves to qualify for the role.
It’s your wedding. You do you.
Having come back to school at 29, many of my classmates are in their late teens and early 20s. Can you believe it, I’m in a class with kids born in 1999? In 1999 I was busy choosing the coolest 2000 party glasses. Just sayin’.
photo from here
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll call the Middle Millennial, let’s say those in neither the oldest nor the youngest side of the scale. Born somewhere between 1986 and 1989 (though I imagine those +/- 2 or 3 years can relate to a lot of this).
Technically a child of the 80s, a decade you unfortunately have no personal experience in but can swear you were technically there, dammit. You were a kid in the 90s so you know VHS and cassettes and how to fix the latter with a pencil. You made mixtapes recorded from the radio; you’d wait all day to hear your song.
This should be a case for Mulder and Scully
You spent your time mucking about exploring drains, breaking into abandoned houses for no reason other than to explore and hunt ghosts. There you were, riding bikes with your neighbours, living a free, tie-dye, neon life. So many neon tights.
You were a teenager in the 00s so you’re a digital native who documented your angst on LiveJournal and hosted various IRC channels like a boss, you knew how to send alphanumeric texts to a pager and you had a mobile phone before they were smart. But the dialup song was the anthem of our time, and speaking of songs, what the hell was that whole Napster saga about?!
**SpaceGirl14 slaps you around with a large trout
But now you’re on all these same digital platforms as people not much younger than you and you feel like you’ve got this magical backstory to the Internet and life before. You know the secrets of a forgotten time. You caught the tail end of an era and were there for the bold new arrival of a new one, and you know both sides, but you were never really 100% in either.
That’s how you can feel a million years older than someone four of five years younger than you, and yet you still feel like a kid when your older friends mock your overuse of hashtags #amirite. You fit into both and you fit into neither.
You’re a bit of a nowhere person who just has to be cool with this generational limbo, and figure out how to respond (or not respond) when teenagers ask you what the 20th century was like the way you ask your parents about the 60s. You have to grudgingly share Harry Potter with today’s children and be content in your smugness because you can appreciate Stranger Things on a deeper level #fact.
Maybe this is relevant to me especially because I haven’t hung out with anyone over 30 for a long time now, and it
sort of really gets to you. So for now I’ll just chill here with my part-80s-kid-part-90s-kid-part-00s-kid self, reliving the salad days of our youth: a confusing coming-of-age tale that was splashed out across three decades, two centuries and endless days of in between.
Only at her insistence they shook her hand too, and with an overcompensating firmness.
Soft, smooth brown met weathered white leather
The sparkle in her eyes outshining their cataracts
Their waistlines rivalled only by the vastness of her imagination.
Isn’t she fascinating, they mused, with wandering eyes.
Isn’t she young, and isn’t she interesting, and my god, isn’t she feisty! But, what an awful lot she has to say, and I do wish she wouldn’t say it
To her, a young woman, a feminist, a fighter, with something important to say.
To them, a curly-haired gypsy girl dancing for her masters as they wined and dined on themselves and on each other, tapping her tambourine to the tune of their ego-stroking circle-jerk, twirling between the social orgy of their septuagenarian self-importance.
When will you have babies, their voices boomed like their generation once had, grinning and nudging each other like schoolboys who’d only just learned where babies come from.
It was just a joke, they sighed as deeply as their dwindling lungs would allow.
But as much as she tried, she couldn’t tear herself away from the battle for which all were present but only one fought.
And so she stayed, till every last one of these centenarians ran out of things to say, and they were wheeled off to the young wives who’d made them dinner, to the daughters who deserved so much more.
So for the past few years, I’ve been living the mostly blissful life of a young woman who magically got rid of some of the sexual harassment, street-side annoyances and catcalling that women often face. The difference: I quite often had a man by my side. Martin and I do most things together.
This weekend he ended up in France and I ended up travelling solo in Russia. Note: I love travelling on my own. I do it every time Martin and I happen to be apart because as much as I love travelling with him, I love x10 travelling on my own.
Fast forward to two nights ago, where I’m doing exactly what I’m doing now: hanging out with my laptop in a hostel, tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing, thinking patriarchy-smashing thoughts and such. I’ve already spied two middle aged gents who are slightly drunk and keep looking my way. I’m already annoyed, and I’m not giving up my spot.
And before I know it Dude 1 is next to me, saying (in Russian) “hey girl, where you from, can we talk?” and so on. Tired from the travels of the day I pull the easiest one there is: I don’t understand any Russian. But suddenly there he is up in my face, poking at my laptop screen saying (in Russian) “she speaks English, where are you from, India, Pakistan? Maybe England?” at which point I blast music and put headphones on tight. then Dude 1 shouts to his friend, “Ask her in English!” and Dude 2 begin shouting exactly what D1 just said to me in English. It can’t possibly be that I’m not interested. I just don’t understand, poor me.
Last Night: After an amazing day out seeing sights in countryside Russia, I come back to a bar near my hostel for a meal and a beer. There I am engrossed in my book and a man comes up and says, “Can I share your table?” and without looking up I’m like yeah, yeah sure. Whatever, right? Common space.
And then he starts talking. And then he doesn’t stop. I don’t feel particularly threatened (and in fact am broadcasting live on Twitter and to my fiancé, who’s in France_) and it’s all only slightly annoying because it’s less reading and more conversation until he says he’s paid the bill. Both our bills, including whatever I’d ordered long before he came. Oh boy.
You shouldn’t have, I say, trying to grab the receipt. Like, really really shouldn’t have.
I’ll take care of you, he says, trying to grab my hand.
I’m leaving, I say.
So I leave, and he walks out after me. Note: We are right next to my hostel but he doesn’t know that.
So where are we going?
I don’t know where you’re going, I’m going home.
Can I come?
No, no you can’t.
Can we *something in Russian*
I don’t know what that means.
Oh yes you do, he says, and leans in to kiss me.
*pushes him away*
Please? I really like you.
Dude, you don’t know me.
Fine, I don’t know where you’re from. You’re not really from Singapore, Singapore people look like this
AND NOW HE PULLS HIS EYELIDS INTO SLITS
And I say, oh come on. Fuck off.
And he says, did you tell me to fuck off?! Don’t say that.
I will say that, look at what you just said.
Please stop, can I be just with you.. he tries one last time
No. Seriously. Fuck off.
And now this butthurt dude storms off into the night without looking back and I’m standing there like:
Now this whole time I wasn’t threatened at all, being on a well lit and busy street and with my hostel and its friendly staff next to me, unbeknownst to him. In a situation where safety is a concern, I never (rarely) aggravate (as frustrating as this often is).
But what really gets me is the next day, when I wake up to find a Facebook request from him. Note: the ) is a Russian text smiley.
Now I’m just annoyed. Because of this entitlement, this sense of a right to talk to women a certain way. The fact that as a seemingly single woman you can’t always hang out in an open space without men seeing you as an opportunity. The fact that after all last night’s drama he’s still trying.
I won’t and have never let this hinder me from doing things on my own. But it sure is a reminder that just because my personal situation has changed significantly and I see less of this, it hasn’t really changed at all. So thanks, ‘Tom’ and the two dudes, for reminding me that we’ve got a lot of work to get done. I dedicate this week’s patriarchal takedowns (and gym aggression) to the three of you.
All over my various social timelines I see outrage over swastika graffiti, terror over Hail Trump nazi salutes, sadness over the hate being spat out against people of colour.
But a lot of what I’m seeing is also people urging everyone else to not talk about it. Let’s stop talking politics, let’s stop bringing up racism, let’s not look for fault in everything, let’s move on. Well, let’s not. The thing is, for people of colour, and I say this as a WOC internationally and a minority in Singapore which has a majority Chinese population, racism has been loud and clear through most of our lives.
When an unwoke Chinese friend tells you Singapore is free from racism and you’re all like
Racism is here in abundance, and it comes in many forms.
When I was little, a group of older girls went around the school bus classifying our skin tones to Singapore’s various forms of coffee. I was classified as kopi (coffee with milk). A girl further down the line was kopi-O – black coffee. Howls of (derisive) laughter ensued. It wasn’t hateful, but from a young age you’re made very aware of being different from most of the rest. Your skin colour is your whole identity whether or not you want it to be.
When I was about 10, I was casually sitting on a bench, minding my own damn business when a grandmother pulled her grandson, quite innocently sitting next to me away saying (in Chinese, which I understood jussst enough of), “Don’t sit there, she’s smelly.” A favourite among Singapore-level racist remarks reserved for darker people. Ouch, but sure. Okay. Don’t let the other kids near me, my pigmentation smells. Never mind that he was a pre-teen boy after school, and anyone who has ridden the bus knows that those are the stinkiest children of all.
A few years later I was in secondary school. For language classes, the majority of the class learns Chinese and stays in the classroom. Those of us who learn Malay would move to another classroom, along with girls from other classes. One day a relief teacher came in and said something I didn’t understand while we were on our way out. I later asked a friend and found out she said something like, “Still so many black faces!” referring to the group of us who came to school in our various shades of brown. And I hated that she had invaded our safe space and tried to separate us from the rest of our friends. We were in our own multicultural space, and we were of different colours and backgrounds. And a stranger came in and tried to us-and-them the class, and I hated her for it.
At sixteen, my best friend and I were seeking part-time work and we saw a sign at a clothing store looking to hire. So we popped in and asked, and we were told they weren’t looking for people at all. So we pushed for more, pointing out the sign outside, and were finally told: They were looking for Chinese people. They weren’t going to hire people like us. Today I would have had a lot to say and do about this. I would have whipped up a name-and-shame frenzy on social media. We would’ve taken them down or we would have at least tried. This was more than 10 years ago, and we left, upset and outraged. And this was the first time an opportunity was made outrightly inaccessible to me because of my colour.
Some years ago my sister, her husband and I were at a party mostly attended by expats in Singapore, my sister and I being the only non-white people there. Somehow we, presumably by existing, pissed off an awful American woman named Alicia, who then began saying all sorts of wonderful things about us (and my sister’s white husband who was guilty by association, naturally). “If we were in my country we’d tie you to the back of a car and drag you till you were dead,” she cried, drunk, angry and full of hate.
This was the most outrightly violent of the incidents that I’ve been thinking about, and the only one, I believe, that was said with directly hateful intentions. But because it was intentional, it is also the incident that has been the least damaging of all of the above. Yes, it was awful. But she couldn’t touch us precisely because she was hateful. She had nothing but her hateful untruths. You brush yourself off and stand up taller. That’s all there was to do. But as we are seeing today, hateful untruths in large numbers are dangerous. This is where it starts.
And this is why it hurts when people tell you that you that racism isn’t as rampant as you’d think, or that you’re being too sensitive, or that these issues don’t need to be addressed. This is dangerous. It’s dangerous when people close an eye to what goes on. It adds to the problem when people blind themselves to what’s been going on to people around them for years.
“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist”.
Whether in Singapore or in the US, minority groups are painfully familiar with racism. And now, people are afraid. Of travel, of existing, of all the Alicias who were there all along but are now acting out in ways once limited to their own communities. Of stupid words from bad people who in large numbers can erupt into violence. Of having once safe spaces taken away from you.
Racism is at its most dangerous when we fail to see it when it happens, when we avoid calling it out, when we don’t want to be that person who’s always going on about what’s wrong in the world.
When it happens in a big, Nazi salute swastika way, it needs to be addressed in a big way. And when it happens in small, everyday ways over lunch, on the bus, in the classroom or the office, we need to address it in our own small ways, too. The voices of the majority are now more important than ever, and allies are key in this fight.
It’s as simple as calling it out when you see it. Identifying hateful speech and actions in our own communities and making it known that it isn’t okay. Speaking up for someone who’s afraid to. Removing yourself from situations that separate and segregate and choosing to not be part of it. Your presence can be a form of resistance. Your absence can be, too.
Speak up for those who are targeted around you. Get woke. Stay woke. Now is the time.
America has voted, and I am shattered, shaken to my very core. A man so openly misogynistic, racist, hopelessly hateful and ignorant has been selected. Selected. And this hurts.
I am not an American. But I am a feminist, and my heart hurts for and with the women of the world. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how so many of our gender roles are taught to us just by being present in society and consumers of the media. We are taught how we should be by what we see. And it makes me want to scream right out loud to think that a little girl, a six-year-old in a Trump-supporting family in the US, is looking towards her chosen leader and learning that this is how a man behaves; this is how I, as a girl and one day a woman, should expect to be treated.
I am a woman of colour, and seeing the outpouring of responses from Trump’s supporters is terrifying. Online, I saw the N word more than I ever have in my whole life last night. I saw Hillary being called a slut. I saw awful things about Muslims. I saw so much hate against women and people of colour, and I observed as the hate continued to grow with the hateful applauding each other for their words.
The quest to be America’s most hateful! Wait, you have love and respect in your heart? You’re fired.
People have a lot to say about America. We always have and likely always will, as you tend to do with individuals, organisations, and countries in power. But the thing is, the rest of the world makes fun of Americans because we know the power America holds. We know that as far as influential, powerful nations go, America sits right at the top of the charts. Many of us look to America as the world’s example of democracy and how to be free. While complaining about loud American tourists and contemplating the point of football (that’s not a ball that’s an egg amirite?) we admire America’s freedom.
So, while I am not an American who got to vote, this result hurts. I thought the US was going to be the world’s template on how to move forward. I thought Hillary was going to change the world for little girls everywhere (more so than she already has, #stillwithher) If America takes a step backwards, will you take the rest of us with you?
So here’s what we have to do. We have to take the hurting and the pain, the anger and the rage, and push it forward, fuelling what we do and how we love. We, as citizens of the world, have to fight harder than we ever have before. We have to brush away our tears, take a deep breath, and channel this mess the world is in and the confusion we’re all experiencing, and turn it into something constructive.
I sat down to write yesterday and I could not. I felt like my words were inconsequential and I felt insignificant amid all the importance of what the world is going through. Today, this changes. If it is in my heart to write, I must. And if it is in yours to paint, to sing, to create, then you must. Now, more than ever. Right now is the time the world needs our voices.
Now is the time to keep ourselves informed and educated. About the rules of our own countries and how our governments work, about the women and men who have made the freedom each of us enjoys possible, and the things we are still fighting for, about how we can keep our own communities moving forward. We can only change the way things are when we know the good and the bad. #knowyourenemy
Now is the time to donate to organisations that fund the causes you believe in. Now is the time to join networks (or to start one), to become an ally, to volunteer, to speak out. Now is the time to become involved. Now is the time we need to act. And now is also the time when we need to be kindest to each other.
Because maybe the best
revenge response we have will be when we take the blow we have been dealt – the setback women’s equality has already begun to bear, to horrors of hate crimes and xenophobia, the trauma of victims of sexual abuse, and fear that people of colour in America now face – if we take all the emotions that come with this tragedy and use it to connect, to create, to inform.
Start writing your book. Join an open mic night and sing your song or read your poetry. Learn a new language. Talk to people. Make friends outside your demographic. Learn about the cultures around you.
Our resistance, our rebellion, can simply be to love and to learn.
More men than ever before have begun to realise the importance of their role in equality. People who were passive are stating to take action. From this we can only get better, we can only get stronger together, and we can start to heal.
I am a non-American woman of colour. I am a feminist, I am an activist, and today I am heartbroken. But though all of it, I am hopeful. And if there’s one thing America has taught us time and time again, it’s that you’re a great nation of survivors. And even this time, we know you will.
We can survive this, together.
We can do it