Multiculturalism: All in the Family
Racial harmony: the close-to-home edition
On the occasion of our nation’s 54th birthday, we gather four different young Singaporeans to reflect on one of Singapore’s biggest, and most essential, ideas – a harmonious, multiracial, multicultural society. Here, Kit Chua shares the privileges and pitfalls of keeping the vision of racial harmony extremely close to home.
So, some days ago, I came across an article in Straits Times which reported that in 2018, “some 22.4 per cent of marriages were inter-ethnic unions”. Excuse me if this sounds sua-ku, but, wow! That is almost one in five Singaporean marriages, which, I don’t know… kind of seems like a lot?
Maybe the information shouldn’t surprise me, given that I also happen to be in the midst of planning my very own “inter-ethnic union”. Soon, I’ll be getting married to my partner, who is a Singaporean Permanent Resident, and Indian by citizenship. Which means that, yes, I am the 22.4 percent.
And actually, my entire family is an extreme portrait of our the kind of racial harmony our country is so proud to invoke. Of my four siblings, only one is married to a Chinese person. My other in-law is Australian, and my younger sister is, like me, dating an Indian man. When I show pictures of my family to people, I even like to joke that it looks like a United Colors of Benetton ad.
I know that this makes my family a statistical outlier, and me, pretty damn lucky. I’m certainly aware that not everyone who chooses to be in an interracial relationship has an easy time of it. So, even though my parents are in many ways your archetypal, hyper-critical Chinese parents (complete with their own distinct bunch of weird, unexplainable prejudices), I know that I lucked out because of how open-minded they’ve been towards the whole “mixed marriage” thing.
It’s not like there are no problems at all. Friendly reminder: interracial is still not “post-racial”. There are still issues big and small. Like how when we first started dating, my mom moaned, “Why can’t you find a good Chinese boy?” And similarly, my fiancée’s mom also told him, “I wish you had found an Indian girl.” Okay, maybe that’s par for the course. And how even now, five whole years later, my parents rarely pronounce my husband-to-be’s consonant-heavy first name right. Never mind, let it go.
The bigger “issues” include his citizenship, which my parents (continuously, naggingly, exhaustingly) maintain is problematic because, “What if he loses his PR and you have to go live in INDIA??” Neither me nor my fiancée have ever evidenced a desire to live in India, so don’t ask me why or how they regard India as a threat to my future, rather than simply the place my partner happens to be from. Regardless, it remains a battle that I’m fighting – one that is laden with so many unfounded assumptions and implicit prejudices that… I can’t even.
Other things that I look forward (irony mark) to in the future: “discussing” the subject of which faith we should bring our children up in, languages they should study in school, and the countless other differences that necessarily emerge when two different cultures rub up against each other.
These complaints, though, feel pretty minor when I take stock of my situation. Even my parents’ paranoid disapproval of my fiancée’s Indian passport – when I am inclined to look at it kindly, I see how it’s all rooted in their deep desire to hold on to me, to keep me as close as possible, and to shield me from the unknown. I can’t fault them for the depth of their love, although I reserve the right to roll my eyes at how it expresses itself.
I’m not saying my family doesn’t still have work to do. There is a lot of room for improvement in the way we see each other, in the things that we allow ourselves to say to each other. But ultimately, the joys considerably outweigh the frustrations. There have been so many moments to cherish – like my mother marveling at the varied flavours and spices in the curries and chutneys we tried when we went to India for the first time. (She still doesn’t want me to live there, though.) Like the time my fiancée teared (manfully) when he saw me wearing a saree for the first time. Like the time when my future mother-in-law told me, “I think of you as my daughter; you are my daughter now.”
And, to be honest, if we weren’t here, in this specific time and place, I think it would be less easy. I think it would be harder for my 94 year-old grandma to meet my fiancée for the first time and tell him he was a “cute, good boy”. I think it would have been even more challenging for both our parents to slowly come around to the idea of a mixed family.
Is Singapore a multicultural haven? Even I, in my privileged bubble, have to say no. As a society, we clearly have a long way to go. With all that’s happened recently, we must acknowledge that there are huge, systemic problems that sometimes seem impossible to overcome without an act of God (or some other entity that also starts with a capital G *cough cough*).
But sometimes, when my mother pulls out her cheongsam for dinner, and my fiancée’s mother has rocked up in a saree, it feels a little bit like it could be. When we look different cultures and see what’s beautiful, what’s precious, what’s universal in each other, yes, it feels like it could be.
This essay is part of a series on multiculturalism in Singapore.
First-Person is a narrative column by JUNK, exploring the real lives and perspectives of people in (or influenced by) Southeast Asia. Have something to add to this conversation? Email us your thoughts at [email protected]