The Chinese are a proud people. Engage them in a conversation about Chinese identity and they’ll invariably point out a 5,000-year-old civilisation that is the only one to have survived the test of time. They’ll cite a long list of Chinese traditions and ancient arts as proof of this: tea ceremonies, calligraphy, penzai, silk embroidery, etc. They’ll tell you about family and roots, and the traditional values and morals that still influence much of Chinese behaviour and thought.
Yet in the same breath, they’ll also boast about the futuristic skyline of Shanghai and glorify the metropolises that house megamalls and other ambitious developments. They’re eager—almost desperate—for you to see how much China has progressed in the last few decades. “Many laowais (foreigners) are shocked when they see China for the first time,” sniffed one of my Chinese friends rather dismissively. She added: “But what did they think China was? Old farming villages? We have as many tall buildings as they do.”
The irony is that while the Chinese take their identity from old traditions and cultures, they seem to take greater pride in being viewed as modern and cosmopolitan. And at huge odds against what they perceive as being essential to their Chinese identity, the Chinese often covet what is foreign, from cars to electronics, imported foods and even people.
On Taobao, a popular online shopping website, you can rent a foreigner for various purposes, whether it’s to model at a company event or simply to turn up at a nightclub. A business is more successful and a bar or club is cooler when there is a large proportion of foreign patrons. In this context, however, “foreign” is code for “only white people,” and it’s racist, of course. But the intention is less malicious than pragmatic and the rationale is simple: white people are easily identified as being foreign, and foreign anything makes everything better.
Despite their “5,000 years of civilisation,” the Chinese remain terribly insecure about their identity, which a Chinese friend describes as a constant struggle between tradition and progress. This is made worse by the sting felt by many Chinese when their country and culture are misunderstood by the rest of the world. It’s something that Singapore experiences as well, and China’s insecurities mirror those felt by Singapore.
I’ve never been a particularly patriotic Singaporean. I was never someone who’d display the flag when August drew near, or join the ballot for tickets to the National Day Parade. I never took much interest in the celebrations and rituals associated with nation building and national pride. Superficial and meaningless, I thought.
To be honest, Singapore was like a pair of old jeans I’d worn all my life. It was the only pair I owned, and thus the only pair that knew me well enough to fit the expanding curves of my hips. Oh sure, it was grubby and a bit boring, and occasionally I lusted for fancier foreign brands. But this pair of jeans was the only one I had, and stylish or not, it was the only pair I put on every time.
Like this old pair of jeans, I never gave Singapore much thought. I never had much urge to search for a deeper interpretation of what it meant to be Singaporean. Singapore was Singapore. It happened to be where I was born and nothing more.
But then two years ago, I moved to China—Suzhou to be specific—and for the first time, had to live in a place I didn’t belong. Even on the surface, there were things I had to get used to, such as having to communicate in Chinese, a language I learnt in school but in which I was only vaguely conversant. On a deeper level, the Chinese people behaved in ways that I sometimes found quite hard to fathom. Their aspirations may have been familiar, but their means and motivations were quite different.
Yet I am ethnic Chinese, and look and speak the part. Locals assumed I was one of them, and unlike my German husband who is clearly foreign, I was never treated with the same kids’ gloves. Taxi drivers chuckled at my husband’s attempts to speak in Mandarin, but they barked impatiently at me when I mispronounced the name of my destination. Store vendors flashed toothy grins at my husband and offered free samplings of seasonal local produce. I, of course, was summarily dismissed and ignored.
Within the expat community, the same confusion produced similar results. People would nod and smile at me, but they pointedly avoided making conversation because they assumed I didn’t speak English. A work contact concluded that I was mainland Chinese from the surname on my email address. He replied: “Your English is very, very good. Well done!” As a mainland Chinese person who’d learnt English as a second language, I might have taken this as a compliment. However, as a Singaporean whose first language was English, and who made a living writing and editing in this language, it was painfully patronising.
There were other things that annoyed me. People assumed I knew China intimately by sheer virtue of our shared ethnicity. I was often asked to explain China’s idiosyncrasies; sometimes, I was even consulted for road directions. It seemed as if no one truly believed that China was as foreign to me as it was to them. I don’t think it was accurate to say they didn’t know that Singapore and China were separate either. They knew, but on a subconscious level, they simply couldn’t process and understand it.
My move to China had rendered me a non-entity; I was neither Chinese nor foreign, and for that fact, I’d simply failed to exist. And all of a sudden, my Singaporean identity became more important to me than it had ever been before.
It made me terribly insecure. Because as much as I wanted to shout it out to the people around, it was hard to explain the idea of a Singaporean. Only 50 years young, we have no obvious cultural symbols. We are a diverse people crammed into a small space. There is no homogeneity and no long history. We are Asian, yet our thinking and perspectives are arguably more “Western” than the rest of our neighbours.
It frustrated me that I couldn’t articulate succinctly enough what it meant to be Singaporean. A simple question on whether we ate with chopsticks back home in Singapore sent me into a long spiel about our cuisines, our mix of cultures, and our colourful and varied cooking methods. I saw my friend’s eyes glaze over. He’d expected no more than a one-sentence answer, yet I’d turned it into a minor thesis of sorts.
But the Singapore identity is so multilayered and complex that it is virtually impossible to explain in a few words. This complexity makes it hard to understand, and being hard to understand makes us insecure. Why else would we react to Anton Casey and Ello Ed Mundsel Bello the way we did? Our screaming fits and tantrums say much more about us than a few unpleasant comments made by a couple of disgruntled foreigners.
It took moving away from Singapore to get me thinking about identity issues and how my country of birth has shaped the person that I am. In trying to explain who we are, I still feel the sting of insecurity and the frustration of being misunderstood. The Americans have “freedom,” the British have Shakespeare. The French and the Germans have croissants and brotchen, but the world has yet to discover kaya toast and eggs. And even if they did, I’m willing to bet our neighbours are likely to contest the claims that these belong to us alone.
One can argue that we now have the Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay as famous landmarks to call our own. But my heart tells me that this is not authentic. Because the Singapore I know is about the kopitiamauntie who slops soup into my noodle bowl and says, “careful ah very hot later you burn yourself.” It’s about the taxi uncle who’ll shoo me into his air-conditioned taxi when I try to help him heave my luggage into the boot because “outside very hot. You now sweat already go inside the plane very jialat one.”
Happy Birthday, Singapore. On your 50th anniversary, I wish you courage and confidence. Our search for a strong identity is one that will inevitably be fraught with insecurity and frustration. And our attempt to find ourselves will result in the shiny artefacts that now claim our city centre. But what makes you so much a part of me, Singapore, are the smaller, intangible things that make me think of home. And until I left, Singapore, I never realised how much you meant to me.
The writer is a freelance writer and editor based in Suzhou, China. (Editor’s note: Apologies! We said wrongly at first that the writer was based in Shenzhen. She is based in Suzhou)