Being racially ambiguous in Singapore
Here's what it's like being alienated in your own country.
I am a Singaporean. I was born and raised here.
But unfortunately, I fall into the category of “Others” because I am not Chinese, Malay, or Indian. I am 20, but I still find myself struggling to explain my ethnicity to other people.
My NRIC states that I am a Ceylonese. I come from a family with diverse backgrounds. My father is of Egyptian and Sri Lankan descent, while my mother is part Japanese, Algerian, and Sri Lankan.
Growing up, race was never a concern. My parents never forced my siblings and I to abide by cultural, or even religious norms. For example, dressing conservatively and arranged marriages.
They always reminded us that our values and experiences make us who we are. That we are defined by our principles and what we stand for. So, I never distinguished people by colour, and I never identified myself by race.
Race was never a concept to me until I enrolled into primary school. I was dumbfounded when people started asking me what I was.
What I was? The only thing I knew I was, was me.
It never occurred to me that I looked different from other children around me. But the uncomfortable questions from my peers got me pondering.
Before I could even conceptualise the whole idea of race, my classmates came to the conclusion that I was Malay. And they shoved their logic down my throat.
They told me that only Malays were Muslims and since I am a Muslim, I had to be a Malay. As a 7-year-old, I accepted that.
Malay was my second language in school. Plus, I did celebrate festivities like Hari Raya, just like my Malay classmates.
Even though a huge part of me knew I wasn’t a Malay, I forced myself to believe it because I didn’t want to be alienated. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t run away from the fact that I wasn’t one of my friends.
There were times when I was completely ostracised from a group of girl “friends” because I wasn’t one of them. I found myself eating alone during recess because of the way I looked and where my ancestors were from.
It was hard hitting and emotional because all I wanted was to feel like I was a part of something, as if I belonged.
It was only when I went to secondary school did I realise the importance of embracing myself for who I was. There were many international students in my school, and being around them made me realise there is nothing wrong in being different.
And more importantly, there is nothing wrong with being yourself.
Being exposed to different cultures also made me realise that I did not have to be defined by my ethnicity. I am shaped by my values and experiences and do not have to meet anyone else’s expectations of who and what I am racially.
The good thing is, over the years, I’ve come to accept that I am racially ambiguous. I am a minority among minorities, and I love it. I love that I’m exotic and different from everyone else. I love being me, and I now appreciate my ethnicity.
I remember the pain of being ostracised, even though only faced a small portion of the struggles that many minorities face. I cannot imagine the pain felt by those who have borne the full brunt of racist attacks.
Still, it is great that people in power are starting to speak up about the difficulties of being from a minority race in this country.
But until the day we stop seeing colour, I don’t think there will be much change yet.