Recently, a little bird told me a story about a little Singaporean Chinese boy. I’m not too sure how old this boy is, but it’s quite certain that he’s below seven. Anyway, he was out walking with his mum one day and they came across someone walking his dog. That dog happened to have white fur.
The little boy turned to his mum and asked,
Mummy, is that a Chinese dog?
The first thought that sprang to my mind was that this boy must have had scant contact with people of other races. I’m not too sure how I jumped to that particular conclusion, but I did.
Maybe it was the fact that all through my school life, I’ve been surrounded by people who are of a different race than me, and so questions along those lines just never surfaced. Animals are animals, you know. Sure, you notice that a Labrador Retriever looks different from a Samoyed, but like us, there are also differences among the same species. I accepted the outward differences in much the same way that a fish takes to water.
My primary school, now defunct, was as great a melting pot as a school with about five hundred students in total in any given year could be. My class consisted of the standard majority of Chinese, a significant number of Malays, a handful of Indians, a couple of Nepalis, and a single Eurasian. Heck, even my neighbour for ten years was a nice Malay family who shared their meals with us when it was Hari Raya.
I spent my secondary school days hanging out with a group of Indian friends. It was not really a conscious choice; we were pulled together through common interests and necessity (it’s hard to ignore someone when she sits next to you in class for five days a week). For the record, only half of my classmates in a class of about forty students were Chinese anyway. Being touted as one of the top classes in one of the better than average all-girls schools, the non-Chinese girls in my class broke the stereotypes that people of other races often have about them.
During my two years in junior college, many of my classmates were Malays and Indians again. Even without a raging urge to renew our acquaintance, I remember our shared memories fondly. Greeting one another in the mornings by touching our hands briefly and putting our hands to our hearts. Attending a celebration performance for Deepavali held in our school after school hours when invited by an Indian friend. The few Malays and Chinese who turned up didn’t understand a single word that flew around the school hall that evening, but we clapped when the rest of the audience did, and we obligingly cheered when our classmates appeared for their dance. Being girls, we also admired their lovely saris.
I envied my Indian friends for their big eyes, never-ending eyelashes, aristocratic noses, and the ability to come back with a quick retort all the time. Admiration bloomed in my heart when the Nepalis joined my class with sweet smiles, beautiful caramel skin, polite manners, and superb athletic prowess. My Malay friends with their sinuous bodies, flair for music and rhythm, and easygoing nature gave me pause in a good way.
The people I liked, admired, played with, and exchanged heart-to-hearts were all different. They liked different things, listened to different genres of music, were attracted to different types of boys, had different body shapes, dressed differently, belonged to families of different demographics and different dynamics, had different talents, and cherished different dreams.
The point was and still is, skin colour was not their defining feature, although I definitely noticed that they were Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian or whatever. Try speaking to your Malay friend in Mandarin in a slip of the tongue, have her stare uncomprehendingly at you, then pat you on the back and try to smooth your embarrassment as both of you realise what happened…well, you do tend to notice these things.
However, getting to know someone is so much more than noticing that they look different from you, right? I choose not to hang out with certain people because they’re unkind, keep whining, are narrow-minded, or sometimes just for the unfortunate fact that I have as much chemistry with them as a hammer has with tea leaves, and not because their genetic make-up programs them to have dark skin, curly hair, and sharp noses.
Singapore is lucky in many ways; being able to live in peace and prosperity without racial riots is one of the things we should be thankful about. I’ve heard from friends about how their friends spent their growing up years insulated from the other races, maybe not so much by conscious choice but by a lack of consideration of certain factors when making decisions.
For instance, if you wanted to enrol yourself or your child in a secondary school, many of the deciding factors would be something that looks like the following list, which incidentally, is non-exhaustive. In no order of preference or rank, they are:
- Academic performance of the candidate school
- Co-curricular activities offered by the candidate school
- Distance of candidate school from home
- Teacher-to-student ratio
- Uniform of the candidate school
- Presence of older sibling(s) in the candidate school
Assuming all other factors constant and that getting into your first choice is not a problem, the consequence may be that you or your child may end up in a school with more than 90% intake of the majority race. Not a conscious choice, definitely, but it happens, and is I believe, seldom considered a problem by the applicants.
People are motivated by different needs and wants. However, I bet many Singaporean parents (or their children for that matter) would not include ‘A good mix of the different races in class’ to that list. I know I wouldn’t have, before I heard the story mentioned in the beginning of this article. After ascending to the ranks of the labour force, I have lost touch with much that goes on in schools. I took it for granted that any children that I may have would be automatically exposed to the different races and their accompanying cultures in school. Now I know better, and will be sure to keep that in mind should I have to make such a choice in future.
Why am I so insistent that our children are exposed to the different races and cultures? Stereotypes are learnt, that’s why. Rather than us planting our ideas and perhaps misconceptions into their little minds, let them forge friendships with children of other races, and subsequently make their own decisions about issues such as…which race is the most penny-pinching. I’ve met misers of all races, and still can’t decide who gets the gold medal.
Sensitivity to cultural differences is also learnt. If they’re exposed at an early age, it makes it so much easier to integrate into any environment when they’re adults. I’ve worked with people from mono-cultural societies, and many times, I find that it’s easier for me to accommodate them than the other way round. I’m faster in adopting their manners, and I don’t experience culture shock at every little difference.
I’m not proposing that we ignore cultural and racial differences. Our race and the culture that comes with it play important roles in shaping us the way we are. A lot of people just ascribe differences to culture because that’s convenient. To really understand why and how we come to be what we are today, it goes so much deeper than just saying some things are done because it’s the culture. Yes, it’s the culture, the way of life a particular group of people has, but how and why have they come to do it that particular way?
Understanding doesn’t guarantee acceptance, but it’s way better than not even trying to understand, and then mistrusting and rejecting something because it’s beyond what we have learnt so far.
Many people have always thought that Singaporeans have an edge over others because we’re bilingual. More than that, I believe it is our flexibility and ease in handling other cultures that gives us a greater advantage than language does.
I had a discussion about this with an Indian national I know. Maybe it’s flattery, but he told me that in the many cross-cultural groups that he has worked with, many times it was the Singaporean who was elected the team leader. It could be a coincidence that the Singaporeans he mentioned all just happened to have leadership qualities, it could be that we’re comfortable in English, but it could also be that we don’t have a lot of difficulty getting our heads around the little ‘quirks and eccentricities’ of the different cultures. Something worth pondering about, perhaps?
When I walk in the streets of Singapore, I’m grateful and happy to see people other than Chinese. Having been to predominantly mono-racial places such as parts of Japan, Seoul, and parts of Taiwan, I found the human landscape a tad boring, if you want the truth. Just as my Taiwanese friends have voiced out the novelty of seeing Malays and Indians in our streets, I found their ‘sea of yellow’ lacking in diversity and colour.
Our children are fortunate that they can grow up in the midst of racial diversity and peace. They’re never too young to understand prejudice, so discourage that human propensity to classify and label by educating them about the various races. If not, we’ll find ourselves united by a single race.
That of ‘Little Minds & Big Misconceptions’.