Tuesday, 25 November 2014

You're from Singapore? But...

'Where are you from?'
'Hmm. I don't know.'
'If you can't get it right, I get this coffee, free!'

He laughed nervously and refused to hazard three guesses I so generously gave him. When I eventually told him where I was from, his eyes remained fixed on me in disbelief. It can't be, he said, you don't look Chinese. Your eyes, your skin..

Initially I used to be amused, but it's since given way to an indifference masked by an attempt to explain the makeup of Singapore. Still, it would draw confused looks. My recent favourite exchange was as follows:

'Where are you from?'
'Oh!' (interest piqued) 'How are things there now?'
'Erm..the way they've been. Nothing extraordinary.'
'But what about the protests?' (he was referring to Hong Kong)

Such follow-up comments and questions unfortunately point to one thing: ignorance. But I can't expect people to know where I'm from, particularly since my country of origin is a blip on the world map. At times they think I'm from all sorts of other places -- some of which I've never been to (the UK, some parts of the Middle East). The closest they've ever gotten to nailing my background is when I'm asked if I'm from India. Well, my grandparents were, so I tell them they're right -- to some extent.

But not everyone from Singapore takes too kindly to such labels, only because they want to distance themselves from the lands of their ancestors. This is especially the case among the Chinese and to some degree, Indian Singaporeans. So many times I've heard Chinese friends express their annoyance at being associated with mainland China. You could say the Singapore government has done a good job in forging national identity (a topic for another day).

On one hand, I can't blame them. Chinese tourists are gaining notoriety (if they haven't already) for being rude and loud. I personally experienced this on at least two occasions in Croatia and Greece. But having said that, I've also seen well-behaved Chinese tourists. The problem is that the majority etch themselves in people's memory much more easily than the quieter ones.

On the other hand, people will always make assumptions. Stereotyping happens all the time, all over the world. People will base their ideas of you on what they know. Chinese people come from China, etc. An Australian Chinese friend of mine received puzzled looks in Singapore when he said he couldn't speak any Mandarin -- the assumption being that if you grew up in Singapore, you'd have learned your mother tongue in school at the very least (that is, if you come from an English speaking family).

So the bottomline is this: you can huff and puff the whole world down for not knowing where you're from, but it's not going to change anything. Instead, try educating the people you meet. Laugh with them when they realise their mistake. They don't really mean it as an insult.

The only person who thinks of it that way, is you.