Sunday, October 2, 2011

Me, myself and my Chinese-ness

Forever enshrined as an OB marker here in Singapore, race (or rather, ethnicity) is a topic that always appealed to me. It's probably because far too many people take it far too seriously, and we are all happen to share the same (lack of) understanding of it.

I mean, we should be free to talk about race and ethnicity and how interaction on various levels of society have come to mould the lived daily realities of every Singaporean.

I am particularly interested in how something that is socially ascribed with a purpose to differentiate one person from another by one's physicality and cultural practices, as if we are indeed categorisable by an agreed set of seemingly heterogeneous parameters.

While these parameters have throughout history been often arbitrarily (re)arranged and (re)assigned to create a desirable authentic group of individuals who appear to be the "same", these herds have come to believe that the parameters are what determine racial difference.

With race, or at least our common understanding of what we think it should be, we have one more reason to feel defensive, to feel offended and perhaps one more reason to band together with those who we think are the "same" as us and incite violence against those we think are "different" from us.

We believe in race's authenticity just because we currently share, thereabouts, the same physicality and practice, thereabouts, the same cultural practices. As we believe it to be authentic, we feel it is something worth protecting, something meaningful.

When there is a symbol people collectively hold dear, take very seriously and observe it to be an essential (essence is punny) part of their identity and daily life, it becomes both a means for solidarity and an instrument of control and manipulation.

When people are confronted with the reality of differences, we some how feel compelled to create boundaries, as if there is some inherent need to do so or there is some value in doing it.

As an ethnic Chinese Singaporean (my given race and nationality - 2 more reasons to feel offended or die for a collective cause), I feel, in my experiences, that race has been used as a disciplinary mechanism to regulate my behaviour. I observe the same for other ethnic Chinese Singaporeans too.

Perhaps it is the immigrant Southern Chinese roots our community and our ethnic Chinese elite government continually want to remind us of. Along with it comes the immigrant and survivalist ethos of pragmatism, which has come to underpin many of our policies.

I am constantly reminded by my Chinese-ness on a daily basis. Maybe it is not unique to ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, but I think we have a very strong "us and them" tendency towards everyone else.

We strain at drawing the line between ethnic Chinese Singaporeans and those from mainland China. As ethnic Chinese Singaporean, we have reclaimed and conveniently labelled ourselves as "Chinese" and used "China" as an adjective to describe the citizens of mainland China. Surely citizens in China are ethnic Chinese and nationally Chinese. Nope, for the sake of distinction, we know them as China men, China women, China children, China students, etc.

Skin colour and ancestry are agreed-upon fixed indicators and parameters of "race", and they are ritualised with common behaviours, which include language and a common set of cultural practices.

I've often been lectured and reminded of my Chinese-ness with the phrase "Chinese ought to speak Chinese", or "Hua ren ying gai jiang hua yu".

The government has also reinforced my Chinese-ness by bombarding social and education policies with terms such as "mother tongue" and "bilingualism". Well, "mother tongue" does not in any way refer to the tongue (speak) of your mother, but to the tongue of your race as classified by the state, which is the Mandarin language as determined by the state to be the unifying language for all ethnic Chinese in Singapore. This is also a pragmatic approach to prepare Singaporeans, ethnic Chinese in particular (of course), for a future global economy dominated by the Chinese, a.k.a. China.

"Second language" does not possess the same manipulatively emotional appeal as "mother tongue" for a culture that has been historically predisposed to Confucianism and patriarchy.

Social sanctions also continue to exist, in order to police ethnic and cultural boundaries. Those who appear to be less able or less inclined to speaking Chinese or behaving in a way that is typically Chinese (however it is defined by a majority), will be teased/judged to be "losing their roots" as if that equally mattered to the "jiak kantangs" as it does to the purists.

Social policing is often done with the belief that differences in behaviour and in mindset indicates rejection of what is believed to be inherent or authentic, and rejection is a huge taboo. But hello, being different does not in any way equate to rejection.

I guess, as an ethnic Chinese, and perhaps a member of the ethnic majority, we can abuse our privilege position and make everyone else an outsider.

The idea of "roots" and "heritage" is actually the product of a cultural imagining of the power elite. They draw the lines and boundaries, shaping and defining what roots, culture and heritage should be, and these are defined based on the whatever political advantage the elite can gain. Our roots and heritage are not myths, but the manner in which they have been adapted and manipulated is indicative of their mythologisation.

Depending on the economic, political or social situation, the "once upon time..." rhetoric will change, as it sets about recruit and regroup the "right" members to be mobilised for any political cause.

The beauty of the state's reminding me of and reinforcing my Chinese-ness lies in its invisibility. We don't sense it at all, because it appears to be seamlessly integrated into our lives.

What I understand as meritocracy and multiculturalism are through my ethnic Chinese eyes and mindset. It is a meritocracy and a multiculturalism that is defined and shaped by a Chinese elite, that somehow does not create much disruption or dissonance to me as an ethnic Chinese - this is my privilege as a majority. No dissonance means no need to think about my reality with respect to that of others. It's a system that works for me and my family, and I am in fact grateful to the PAP government and the Chinese elite, if these two could be disentangled.

I am also constantly reminded of my Chinese-ness whenever there are population reports. Chinese Singaporeans are marrying late, not having enough babies and so on. There is a sense of urgency to top up "our" numbers. "Us" and "them" again, no?

Many of us ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are also subjects of a practice when our names have to carry both the dialect name and parenthesised hanyu pinyin name. If there would ever be an overkill in reminding ethnic Chinese Singaporeans of their Chinese-ness, this would be it. For instance, Tan Boonhuat John (Chen Wen Fa) - that's the full name. There's both the dialect name and hanyu pinyin name, unless in the most unlikely scenario, your dialect happens to be Mandarin.

One important contribution our ethnic Chinese herding and boundary-policing brings is that it creates a relatively safe environment to make assumptions - a function of taken-for-grantedness. In a tightly policed ethnic Chinese community, it will be safe to assume that any one of a particular appearance and physicality will speak the same language. If not, it is natural to feel curious, surprised or even offended that there could be difference within a presumably homogeneous circle.

I encounter many individuals who seem to tell me that they know more than me what it takes to be Chinese. It is as though there are a fixed set of characteristics to possess, internalise or exhibit that determines true Chinese-ness, when these are in fact romanticised cultural imaginings selectively put together by random opinion leaders throughout time based on what they agree to be essentially Chinese, and it just happens that there is a significant number of people of people who take this whole idea pretty seriously.

The worst thing about people taking things seriously is that they expect everyone else to take the same things as seriously as they do. In order to do that, you need a healthy dose of socialisation and indoctrination. One strong mechanism is to shame and use self-esteem to discipline the errant "Chinese" into being "more Chinese", in this case, you are expected to feel ashamed if you speak sub-par Mandarin, because you are less Chinese, a situation you should thus be ashamed of but need not to question why that is the case.

You know what happens when people take things too seriously? It can cause violence.

The communication of values and morals is also often couched in race, ethnicity and "roots", what not, as if the former are unique and inherent to the latter entities. Values and morals are selectively collated and attached to race and ethnicity because race and ethnicity are in serious need of distinguishable parameters before any one can start policing them in the first place.

I wonder any way, what does it say about our country, our leaders and our policies when we have to be reminded of and divided by our racial categories?

As for racial pride, or to be proud of something (an identity), we have to assume it to be true and to be real, that the traits that make up (racial) identity are unique, distinct, unchanging, unshakable, authentic and essential when they are in fact products of mythologisation.

The concept of "race", for me, captures the aspirations of an elite, as it remains supported and celebrated by many.

As a Singaporean, I don't exactly feel proud to be ethnic Chinese, but feel very lucky (and grateful) I am categorised as such. Being in such a category in this system comes with privileges and with a general sense of comfort in my daily life. There are many policies and social norms which benefit me directly, enough for me to take many things for granted. It is a multiculturalism, pragmatism and meritocracy that benefits the group I have from birth been told and expected to be part of. And that is enough to remind me of what I am.

No comments: