The Race: Australian in Singapore, Part 15

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

I’m Australian. I simultaneously know and can’t really explain what that means. I think it’s something about how we speak or dress, our body language, our sense of humour. It’s funny – I can often pick an Australian (of any ethnicity) from a crowd in a foreign place. Even from a photograph.

Bronwyn2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Singapore (six years now, on and off), have lived in the UK, briefly in China. In China I was generically foreign. In Singapore and particularly the UK, Australians have a more defined role, not the role we play in Australia. In England, for example, I had to be The Straight-Talking Australian, which involved being much more blunt than I would ever have gotten away with back home. People relaxed when I was blunt, as if the world was turning as it should, whereas back home they probably would have felt like punching me in the face. Sometimes being foreign feels like a superpower – you’re allowed to break local etiquette. Of course, all it really means is you’re expected to stick by a different set of rules.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Not all that diverse. Predominantly white, middle-class Australian, second or third generation, which was considered to be about as died-in-the-wool as you could get thirty odd years ago. There were a few people of different ethnicities, but it never seemed to be a big deal. The only time I remember it coming up was when a teacher spoke to some kids who were using a racial epithet as a nickname. All the kids, including the guy who’d acquired the nickname, seemed baffled and amused that anyone would find it insulting. He kept the nickname. “But that’s just my name, Miss,” he said. “It’s what everyone calls me.” And they went back to playing ball.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

When I was around five I asked mum if my cousin was “from another country”. I’d obviously noticed that our cousins didn’t look exactly like the average kid on our street, and someone must have told me people looked different in other countries. That was confusing since I’d played with my cousins all our lives and I was pretty sure they’d been born at the local hospital. My mother gave me a brief introduction to evolution and genetics coupled with a history of human exploration – pausing along the way to point out that our white skin was originally adapted for northern Europe – and then explained that my cousins had got their different skin colour from their Chinese father. Then I think she told me to put on a hat and reapply my suncream. That was pretty much that. As a sort of bonus, it explained why we always ate Chinese food when we were with them.

When I arrived in the UK as an adult, several people asked me if I was “true” Australian. When I said yes, they said they’d asked a lot of Australians and it turned out their grandparents or great grandparents were actually from somewhere else entirely. The first time I heard this I think I burst out laughing, because (remember) second or third generation was died-in-the-wool as far as I was concerned. When I told one person my full pedigree she proclaimed me British, and I replied to the effect that the British passport office saw things differently. But some Aboriginal Australians see things differently again, so I didn’t feel I could press the issue.

When I have to go there, they have to take me in. That’s the bottom line for me personally.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I’m definitely more at home with some people than others, and yes, they are often Australian. My jokes don’t fall flat (as often) and we understand the same cultural references.

That said, it’s not that I’ll automatically get on better with other Australians (or consciously gravitate towards them), it’s more that the probability I’ll feel comfortable with a randomly-chosen Australian seems to be higher than the probability I’ll feel comfortable with a randomly-chosen non-Australian. There’s a greater chance we’ll have an overlapping world view. I like to keep an open mind, though – the people we run into are not usually randomly-chosen in any case. On top of that, there’s a whole list of things some Australians do that make me cringe, from getting obnoxiously drunk (affably drunk is ok) to a certain kind of bonding ritual based mostly on whining.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Yes, pretty much. I met my husband in high school – we were all pretty much from the same suburb, and then there’s my family.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Definitely shared faith or interest is of more importance than race. Class is a big factor, and education. I can relate to veterinary colleagues from other countries better than to people from my own country who live wholly differently. My colleagues and I share more similar day-to-day experiences by virtue of our similar jobs. I’m not sure it’s necessarily better this way, but at least education and class are things that can sometimes be chosen or changed.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

Not consciously. Singapore is a melting pot, and we end up crossing paths with a mixed bag of nationalities.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

Five-year-olds are not colour-blind. Just in the past month, we’ve started having a lot of discussions about this. My eldest has come out with comments like “white kids should play with white kids and brown kids with brown kids” which is hilarious in a way, because ninety percent of the kids he plays with (including his best friends) are “brown”. I pointed this out to him and he had a quiet revelation. Obviously I didn’t immediately think it was hilarious. I had to collect myself, and I probably would have felt differently about it if he was part of the majority racial group where we live. Of course I’ve wondered where he picked up these attitudes, but he’s also come out with a whole slew of sexist comments as well, so I would say five-year-olds are equal-opportunity bigots. I don’t think it’s a coincidence he’s the exact same age I was when I first started asking about our cousins’ ethnicity. It’s as if he’s just starting to think about and figure out his wider community. He’s picking up on obvious differences, drawing conclusions and testing them against my reactions, and then throwing them out and starting again with new ones next week. It seems like a really important and delicate phase when it comes to his ideas about race, class, sex, etc, and I’ve been reading a lot of articles on the internet about it, which is no doubt a dubious approach. I vaguely recall my mother saying one of my cousins had some trouble in early primary school with racial slurs as well, although it must be said that I (and others) had our own troubles at that age for reasons entirely unrelated to race. Kids can be mean those first few years of school, and they’ll latch on to any excuse, though race is a particularly obvious one.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I’m not sure I’ve ever got a handle on that. I will adjust my accent and word choices, but that’s more aimed at being plain understood.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

Our brains seem wired to make snap judgements on some basis. If it wasn’t race it would be dress or accent. I’m not sure it’s possible to entirely stop the profiling – it’s probably more realistic to cultivate a habit of friendliness no matter what and to continually check our first impressions.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

As time goes by, I think my identity as an Australian is weakening. I relate less to people back in the “old country” and more to those who share similar life experiences. To the extent that people stereotype me based on my race or ethnicity the conclusion they usually jump to is that I’m in some way privileged. This can be a bit frustrating if they’re trying to overcharge me or if they’re having trouble with what I’ve asked for instead of Stuff White People Like (ordering tea in Singapore can be a two-step process, where I have to first place my order, then affirm that I realise it’s “local” tea). But for the most part I get to make my own choices in peace. It’s easier not to focus on racial issues when this is the box you get put in.

Bronwyn at Journeys of the Fabulist