white-washing

by rachel

Recently I’ve gotten to thinking how much I used to white-wash what I wrote. The characters I created, the worlds I created. Whether these characters were created as part of a narrative piece or as a game. When my sister and I used to play The Sims, I never thought to give my families Chinese surnames. They were never the Lim family, the Tan family or the Ng family. It was always McStar or Green or Armstrong. I created worlds for the characters I created in my head to live although in reality I had no way of piecing together those worlds.

I was born and bred in Singapore. By nationality, I am Singaporean. By ethnicity, I am Chinese. Singapore is known to be a highly globalised, cosmopolitan city. My classmates in film class and I laugh at how film productions tend to come to Singapore when they’re looking to shoot in a city of the future. Here, although the majority of the population has Asian ethnic roots, our lingua franca is English. English is the language that is taught in all government schools as a first language. In the schools I have grown up in, most of my peers rarely speak their Mother Tongue at home – English is our go-to language for any form of conversation. Yet, despite our very much globalised city, our whitewashed buildings and education system, our skyscrapers of metal and glass, at the bottom of it all there is still something markedly different about our culture that means the lifeworlds I tried to imagine for the McStar, Green and Armstrong family I created were lifeworlds I had never been a part of.

Yes, the language our entire education system is based on might be English. Yes, the lifestyle that the affluent enjoy in Singapore might be very similar to the ideal of an affluent lifestyle as propagated by the western media. However, our roots are not something so easily shaken off, thank goodness. We are known for our use of Singlish which is a pidgin form of English created by including phrases that are unique to the various ethnic groups that exist in Singapore – the Chinese, the Malay and the Indian. Adding lah and leh to the end of our sentences, describing an experience as shiok or a dish as sedap can only be understood properly in the context of Singapore, and possibly with our Malaysian neighbours.

While I am definitely more comfortable expressing myself in English than I am in Mandarin, my Mother Tongue, there are some words that simply come more naturally to me in Mandarin. Take 阿嬷 (ah ma) for example – the Mandarin term for Grandmother. I will never feel the same sense of intimacy and kinship that I feel when I say 阿嬷 if I were to replace it simply with Grandmother. I have come to realize that, to some extent, the language that reminds me of family, of kinship is still ultimately my Mother Tongue. With it comes a more relaxed, laid-back version of myself that is harder to locate outside of the house, harder to locate when I am pushing myself to be seen in the most presentable, put together manner possible.

Language is a key medium through which we locate our identity. For years I understood this but refused to represent myself honestly. Whenever I wrote on a public platform as a child, my characters kept (what I believed were) All-American names, living in the quintessential American family, of which I had absolutely no real knowledge about. Perhaps I did not know it at the time but I was subconsciously locating my identity in a world I had never been a part of.

Alas, many years have passed and in the past year or so, I have learnt to be a lot comfortable in presenting myself honestly through what I write. This doesn’t mean pushing myself to constantly take reference from my Chinese roots in my writing – it doesn’t mean I have to use a Chinese character in ever piece, doesn’t mean I have to employ Singlish in every other sentence. Because that’s not who I really am and because some pieces simply don’t need that. However, when pieces require that element to be real, I no longer deny them it. When writing about my grandmother, I cannot avoid referring to her as 阿嬷 at least once throughout the whole piece, if in the title. I cannot avoid describing the dishes she cooks with their actual terms of Sambal KangkongSoon Hock. I cannot, and will no longer whitewash them again to be a bowl of salad or baked fish on a platter.

I have come to acknowledge the fact that I feel a need to write because of who I am as a person and hence I cannot truly write without acknowledging who that person is and how she has come about. I cannot write without acknowledging the pieces of my ethnicity and my culture that have shaped me into who I am today. If there comes a day where I find myself writing from a different place, writing not from a tiny island at the tip of Malaysia, then perhaps the way I write and what I write will change again. But if that is to happen, it is to happen naturally. It is to happen because a new facet of myself is being built by the changing environments that I am in and now because I have falsely created a new environment for myself out of failure to recognise and be proud of the one that I exist in.

When I write, I write about emotions and snippets in time, many of these things I hope are universal to people living across the globe and are relatable across different cultural contexts. I am humbled whenever anyone tells me that what I write struck a chord to them, meant something to them, whether or not they live a thousand miles away or are right here at my doorstep. I will continue to write to address these universal emotions and universal snippets in time but when I cannot fully address what I am feeling or what I seek to invoke without placing into context who I am and where I come from, I refuse to deny it anymore.

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