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[identity crisis] on practicalities
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karanguni wrote in bromatheon
Cultural barrier and racism discussion alert; also warning that I am a bit weepy from PMS and this long talk with my second brother --

We were talking about all sorts of ideologies, my being more non-Christian than I'd dared to be in a bit, and a lot of talk about politics and then talk about race, and if you want the alternative point of view this is it. As we talked, and as I mentioned how I found it greatly offensive sometimes when they (brother 1, brother 2, father, family) made racist jokes, he turned to me and said, 'You're very Americanised, you know we don't mean it, right?'

And I said, 'Yeah, I know you guys don't mean it and aren't racist, but it's still offensive and --'

He said, 'You can't always think ideologically, mei, you've got to understand our frame of reference practically.'

And I said, somewhat angry, but not totally confused by what he'd meant, since it's common here to make fun of race with the members of said race and every race does this, 'Do you remember the time when I'd come back from camp with my Indian friends, how I was going on and on about how awesome everyone was at dinner, and then he and his wife said to me, "Indians will backstab you at work?"'

And he said, laughing but not meanly, 'You do know by now that the two of them always do that to take the mickey out of you, don't you?'

Furious, I sort of almost shouted, 'At the expense of a whole race?'

And he said, 'They don't care what they use to offend you. They offend you on purpose because they're older than you, that's the job of older siblings -'

And, continuing to be furious, I yelled, 'And that makes it okay?', with all the force of a PMS-y 18 year old fresh off of weeks of Racefail and growing up around friends with whom it was very not-okay to use racism or any other -ism as the butt of making fun of someone.

And he, my second brother, whom I sometimes do not take as seriously as I ought to take, said, 'No, it doesn't. That's their problem, they think that since you take it so much to heart when they insult you that insulting someone you're close to is a good alternative way to piss you off, and you make them right when you get upset, but do you think they're really racist?'

And I said, 'Perhaps not, but just their using race or anything else like that-- how can they feel like they're even good human beings?'

He said, 'They're elder siblings. Nothing's sacred.'

'Some things should be.'

'Not to elder siblings,' he said. 'Realise what they're trying to do. Then let them stew in their own stereotypes, because I see where you're coming from, but look ---'

And he told me of a supremely racist thing that had happened to him that day, someone had yelled at him and called him a "inconsiderate Singaporean" and then screamed that he was being "harassed" by an "man without an education" when my brother tried to ask what he'd done wrong (breathing in front of the man's shop, apparently). And he said, 'But I let it go. Sometimes you've got to let it go, because -- welcome to the real world. In practice, nothing works ideologically.'

Unused to being told to "get used" to discrimination, I said, 'But it should,' like a petulant child.

And he said, 'Do you think anything would've changed if you'd talked to that man ideologically? There're only two things, I've learned, that you can do in a situation like that: make a reply that makes someone laugh, or just say nothing at all.'

I said nothing, this being the tail end of a very long talk that went from him using the word "fag" a lot initially to an acceptance of things that bred no offence, the strange way that things work here in this country; full of give and take and then a lot of living, and letting live.

'We're different here,' he said to me. 'The whole country is.'

And, realising that this, this --- strangely practical, to use his word, element of grounding idealism was one of the things I'd tried to hard to explain to myself before, I nodded. 'Yeah,' I said. 'We're strangely tolerant in strange ways, the whole country.'

'So yes,' he said. 'Some people are just the way they are. You've got to understand their frame of reference. As for kor -- he does it to you to rile you up. You should chill out.'

I, partially in tears as is common when we talk like this, which is so strange, since I cry not at all outside of the family circle but as easily as a child 7 and 11 years apart from her siblings when within, said, 'Some things I don't really want to chill out over. They should use my frame of reference sometimes. Realise that they're being dicks.'

He laughed. 'Fuck it, they're older than us.'

'Yeah,' I said, closing my eyes.

'Ideology is different from the real world, mei, remember that,' he repeated, weirdly gentle in his own way. I thought to myself, the part of me that is Singaporean totally understands this, the part of me that is still me but that must not be Singaporean totally doesn't, but this makes me feel oddly at peace. 'Okay?'

Then he said, 'I've got to go play football,' and disappeared upstairs.

I don't talk to him more than once in a half a year like this. I always give him less credit than he deserves because my second brother doesn't argue ideologically, he always gets the brunt of me trying to be the smartass and our elder sibling being the leash-jerker. He's a lot more down to earth than either of us, a lot more layman, but tonight in spite of all the things he said that made me want to cut in and talk till my tongue bled, I realised that he's right. That he's right, and that the things that he was right about were the things that made my -- my frame of reference so different from people from different countries. That he reminded me about how Singaporeans are in a way that I can't even think of explaining. And it's not the same from how things work in different parts of the world, and that there are parts of it that seem inherently strange and wrong to me, but also a heart to it that is as natural to me as breathing:

Take offence when offence is meant. Understand offence when offence is turned into humour. Humans bond in strange ways; to swear fuck, to call out a race or religion, to highlight lesbian to the gay friend; things I've done and had done to me, which here in text seems unconscionable, but which in the moment had been a bizarre moment of camaraderie: here, this is what you are.

Nothing stranger or better or more uncomfortable or touching than discovering your own country's racial and religious idiosyncrasies, and the wisdom of a brother.

Caveat: Most of this is as verbatim as I can spit it out, and much of it doesn't necessarily/at all highlight how I normally approach my life or brains or anything in general, but it's a... really significant talk that I had, and a weird spin even for me, and I thought it might be nice to get it out on paper.

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i've had multiple conversations like this with my friends, who say racist things but don't mean them, and also with my parents, who say racist things and sometimes do mean them, and it's true that those two situations are completely different. i guess it's a type of... intimacy... when people show you their figurative asses? 0.o it's frustrating a lot of times, but at the end of the day, we can only make decisions for ourselves. (and, in some cases, hope that the people we know and love don't make asses of themselves in public/say stupid things around people who will actually be hurt by it.)

Practicality in thought! \o\ ♥ Life is so full of multiplicity. I CANNOT EVEN BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND IT, I JUST TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS OF IT AND PASTE IT ON WALLS YEY? /o/

Nothing stranger or better or more uncomfortable or touching than discovering your own country's racial and religious idiosyncrasies
YES. Yes, this.

Another thoughtful, fascinating post... This makes me want to think and write about my experience of regionalism/racism/communalism in India.

This was very resonant with some conversations I've had with my family. I know that every time I return to India and engage in political discussions with my new-found (Americanised) approach, I have to slow down and back up, to re-orient myself to what the baseline of discourse is in that space.

I... have some other thoughts about how the attitudes you mentioned are present in other cultures as well (at least in Indian ones), and also some of my disagreements with them, but this is your space, so thank you for sharing.

Oh, please do go ahead! ♥ It's always new and lovely to hear things from different places and people.

I feel like this is yet another proof that part of me is Asian, despite the fact that that statement in terms of my heritage is really completely untrue. Because really both sides of that made perfect sense to me. There's not a whole lot else I can say because I would probably end up writing a book and it would almost definitely end up self-centered because I would have nothing to express other than my own experiences and thoughts, but... yeah. There's a lot to think about in there. The "real world" is such a strange place in so many ways...

*g* I think it's more than possible for different cultural sensibilities to make sense to people and be inherently part of people no matter where they are or what they're born as! \o *g* 'Sides, it's our own experiences and thoughts that make us human and it's always cool to read about and think about and float around in a goopy pile with. \o\

Allow me to confuse you some more *Poke* Indians are a mixture of a large number of races XD
And yeah, everyone will backstab you at work if you're better than them, and even more than usual if you're a woman - this's not race-ltd

Trust me, I know


Man, I know Indians are a mixture of races. *g*

I have nothing really intelligent to say, I just wanted to ask, are mei and kor family titles?

They're the Cantonese (short) versions of younger sister and older brother -- ACTUALLY WAIT, I think mei is just Mandarin (short for mei mei = younger sister), whereas kor is definitely the shortened version of the Cantonese dai kor (dai = big, kor = brother). \o\

*sympathetic and empathetic hug*

Mercifully, in this case, I am the elder of my siblings and can admit that I've tried to instill into my younger brothers a more - like you have mentioned 'ideological' - sense of race and presence. Maybe my sense of idealism is a bit too strong, but I like discussing it with them. What is interesting, is how my youngest brother responds to it. He has a large and electic mix of friends; all of different racial backgrounds and none of them ever shy to brand themselves with public nicknames of their origins and make fun of them. So, there's the Pole, the Viet, the Chinese and the African amongst a myriad of others. When I responded in outraged shock at this, he said that was just how he and his friends were and that it was an acceptance, rather than a distancing of their races, despite how crudely they would talk to each other and the stereotypes they would use. 'It's a Boy thing' he grinned, 'it's just how we roll.'

I really couldn't respond to it the way I expected or wanted to.

As for 'cultural racism', my father is one of the most 'racist' men I know. But he would always argue that he was not because having been a victim of racism himself, he would not ever see how he could be. But sadly, through the things he says and thinks, he is - if we're using the modern term - and it really is, like you've highlighted, a deeply set cultural thing. It's how he's been bought up to think by his country, peers, personal experiences and community and in his thinking, i can see the nationalistic ideals that have been set down for centuries now.

It's taken me years to come to terms with it, I am still embarrassed when new friends meet him for the first time and get gobsmacked by what he rather innocently lets out, but I've learnt to accept that it's a major part of him and thank my stars that I do not think like that myself.

(sorry. Have totally spammed you. Hugs?)

Hee, no, it's totally cool. :D :D

My brother said the same thing too, it's a guy thing, and I think to a large extent maybe it is. *g* I'm way more out and vulgar about What Is with my guy friends than I am amongst the girls, and it really does become a matter of bonding and hilarity to be incredibly "rude" and "racist" and "discriminat-ist" and all other "-ist" words amongst friends. \o\ LIFE, IT IS SO STRANGE AND MULTIPLEX.

Following the links on the Asian Women's Blog Carnival - another great post. Thank you, again. More for me to think about, deeply!

:D If you've anything you want to poke me about, feel absolutely free, by the way! :D

Ever since I've discovered what's racist and what's not, I have very rarely let it slide around me. Nobody likes it when I open my mouth anymore. XD I have HUGE problems with the "that's not how the real world works". It just seems so dismissive, so resigned to the world that's actively hurting other people, even beyond our sight.

Now, swearing and saying "fuck" around others, that hurts no one, and I'll get walloped on the back of the head for it. I'm still trying to parse it....

It just seems so dismissive, so resigned to the world that's actively hurting other people, even beyond our sight.


hi -- fellow singaporean here, arriving via the second asian women's blog carnival! firstly, thanks for writing this post; i found it an interesting read. bits of it also made me uncomfortable, though. i don't want to be confrontational, but i would just like to ask one thing: do you think there's a difference between chinese singaporeans engaging in racist humour, and singaporeans of other races doing so? i guess i'm uncomfortable with the idea that it's okay to handwave casual racist banter because it's "what singaporeans do", or something.

i guess i'm uncomfortable with the idea that it's okay to handwave casual racist banter because it's "what singaporeans do", or something.

Man, I'm more than uncomfortable myself with it - it was the basis of my whole argument/talk with my brother, really - that he felt that it was part of our general fabric to wave racist banter around, whereas I didn't feel exactly the same way. My friends and I do use it - but it's an inside joke kind of thing, something that embraces our differences as opposed to anything else, and it never leaves our very tight, very firm context. While I guess with my brother - or most of my male side of the family, really - it's something that comes up more often?

I don't think there should be a difference at all. I can't speak for the other races, of course, but one big thing that I've always kind of felt is that at the end of the day I wish we had a country where we didn't have to qualify ethnicity before our nationality. Singaporeans, to me, are just Singaporeans no matter what race we are. \o

[edit] Though I do have to come in and add that a lot of times I sort of feel that being Chinese makes people feel that they can get away with throwing "casual" race-related comments around like popcorn -- which makes me want to throw popcorn myself, just in a completely different direction...

Edited at 2009-06-10 14:44 (UTC)

yes, i did get the uncomfortableness in your post, but i guess i felt the ending was a bit too-- neat? lines like Understand offence when offence is turned into humour. i mean, i think that it's a privilege of the ethnic majority to be able to make racist jokes and dismiss them as harmless. i don't think the people against whom the jokes are directed would cheerfully see casual racism as part of singapore's social fabric.

(i do get the argument that racist humour is 'okay' if it's used among friends and everyone understands no ill will is meant; i haven't worked out how i feel about it personally, but i definitely wouldn't say that there's something wrong with what you and your friends are doing!)

and i guess where i differ is, i do think that there's a difference between racist humour being used by chinese singaporeans and racist humour being used by singaporeans of other races, since chinese singaporeans are the ethnic majority and there's a structural power inherent in that? i see what you mean by the singaporeans-should-be-singaporeans idea, but to me, that line of thinking is uncomfortably close to the sort of logic used by white people proclaiming how good it is to be colourblind.

again, i don't want to be confrontational in a post that is about personal sharing, so please just say if you'd rather we stop the conversation. i just-- feel that we chinese singaporeans should be called out more often?

*g* I think you and I are on more or less the exact same footing. When I wrote the last bit, (
Take offence when offence is meant. Understand offence when offence is turned into humour. Humans bond in strange ways; to swear fuck, to call out a race or religion, to highlight lesbian to the gay friend; things I've done and had done to me, which here in text seems unconscionable, but which in the moment had been a bizarre moment of camaraderie: here, this is what you are.

Nothing stranger or better or more uncomfortable or touching than discovering your own country's racial and religious idiosyncrasies, and the wisdom of a brother.
, )
it really was something that was meant to go *both* ways, you know? When offence is meant - whether through a sense of intention, or blind privilege - then take that offence and make it known - call it out, bring it up, talk it out. But when offence is humour, when it's part of that weird ramble of intra-friend space, then treat it differently. After calling my brother out every single time (and good lord does this happen a lot), I figured he was right when he said that much to me - that if I rode on my ideology horse all the time I'd go insane, I'd drive myself up the wall with my own priorities, and that doesn't do good for everyone. It comes down to context, which is something I think is super++ important in life. 8D A friend of mine once pointed out that if we keep diplomatically and conscientiously erasing every race-related linguistic connotation from our speech, what we get is a weird inverse of "colourblindness" -- if you don't bring race up, if you can't laugh about it, laugh with your friends about who you are, and state it as genteely or bluntly as you are comfortable with, then it's as good as relegating it into a corner and pretending it isn't there, which is an element of real racism that I think is the true danger.

And yeah, while I'd like a Singaporean to just be a Singaporean, I know that that's an ideal that's a long way off from coming true - we're still so segregated, so majority-dominated. I fully agree that Chinese Singaporeans, when using racist rhetoric, end up in a completely different category than other Singaporeans - but I do think that, as a principle, calling people out for being racist doesn't start or stop at what race we are. A principle is kinda a principle - if people are using majority power to knuckle down on others, call them out; if people are using minority perspective to strongarm their way through a discussion, call them out too -- calling the larger population the bully or the smaller population the easily-victimised swings wrong on both ends for me.

I don't want to be colour blind. I want to know and love everything about the different people around me. But I don't want to focus my vision until the only thing I do see is colour; where everything gets tainted by a "is it or isn't it racist?" perspective; where everyone is suspect and everyone is guilty of something or another. \o

eheh, i wouldn't quite say we're on the same footing, but thanks very much for clarifying.

i guess it's not intra-friend humour that's an issue, and i definitely agree re: the importance of context. ultimately what bothers me is probably the idea, again, that racist banter is okay because it is part of our 'social fabric'. i do agree that banning any race-related comments from conversation is dangerous -- in a sense, that's one part of the official government line on race that i find disturbing. and i agree that racial prejudice should be called out regardless of what race one is. at the same time, i think more importance should be accorded to the "racism = power + prejudice" framework, especially in singapore. i'm not sure it's anything as deliberate as bullying/victimisation, really; more an awareness of the power one has by virtue of being in the majority, even if one doesn't consciously exercise it?

but anyway. i'll leave off now. ^_^;; thanks for letting me say my piece, and for engaging with me so patiently.

\o I know what you mean; and baww, my brains -- I'm sorry if I appeared like I was jumping to conclusions by saying we were on the exact same footing; I really just meant that I think we're trying to convey different aspects of the same thought. 8D. I absolutely agree about more importance being placed on the racism = power + prejudice framework - I really should have qualified that earlier, with a bit of background -- it's something so ingrained in me normally that I don't even think about it much any more, or about how it may not occur to others who share my "social" position (Chinese in Singapore etc) but not my POV. My friends and I were always kind of on edge while at school - we were always worried about how we might be perceived, or how others might perceive how we acted towards them, and self censorship and knowing the line was always a number one priority - you always kind of thoughts about discrimination, the other side, the privilege of being something or having something. Then when we grew up and had to deal with watching politics, family and the world around us bashing us/our gay/bi friends, it all got even more highlighted, y'know?

I think racial banter in a general context should just... never be practiced, not unless everyone involved is highly conscious of what it means and are using it more as a form of gentle mockery -- but that isn't the case 99.99999999% of the time, and I always have issue with it when it does crop up. \o In a sad kind of way, it's like everyone needs to have been in a position where they've been ridiculed/hated/discriminated against/slighted by people who don't know what consequences their actions or words have (power + prejudice) when it matters so little to them but so much to the people affected to understand the concept -- with hope the day will come where everyone is, like you said, called out enough or taught well enough about this for that not to happen.

:D ♥ I'm really glad to have had this exchange, too. Feel free to poke at any time!

Edited at 2009-06-10 15:43 (UTC)

I've read this three times, and I'm not able to parse your post in any way that excuses you from a not-my-Nigel fallacy.

I am from India. I lived in Singapore for nine years and now I live in the US. The first few years I lived in Singapore were some of the worst in my life, mostly because of the massive racism I faced in that country.

I went through secondary school, junior college and university in Singapore with exactly TWO non-ethnic-Indian friends, and both of them were Malay. (Here in the US my life could be on a racial harmony poster: my friends are white and black and Lebanese and Bulgarian and Indian.) You look at my old report cards, and you can tell which appraisals of me were written by ethnic Chinese teachers and which were written by ethnic Indian teachers. I had no idea at the time why only these teachers seemed to dislike me, no awareness whatsoever that it could be a race issue. It was only after I moved to the US, in fact, that I realised how deeply unhappy and how much a victim of pervasive racism I had been in Singapore.

It wasn't just me. My dad tells stories of how at his workplace his colleagues used to faithfully remember and celebrate the birthdays of everyone except the Indians and some Malays. My mother lived with remarks from her colleagues like "why you so black-black" for years as a school administrator, because she couldn't afford to quit. My sister who is much more sociable than I am also went through secondary school and JC with no non-Indian friends, even though unlike anybody else in our family she can speak a lot of Mandarin and some Malay. What's telling is that she picked up her Mandarin and Malay from her primary school friends who inexplicably dropped her once they were in secondary school.

After graduating college, my Indian friends have all, almost without exception, been renting condos because no HDB apartment owner wants to rent to "those dirty Indians". They pay two, three, even four times the rent they should be paying.

So don't tell me that your country is oh so tolerant. As the politically and socially privileged ethnic majority, you may have the luxury of believing that your brother's racist remarks are meant just for your ears and absolutely nobody else's, that he doesn't really mean them, that he won't go out in the world with *some* of those notions in his head which will affect his behaviour and his treatment of Indians... But believe me, no Indian in Singapore has that luxury.


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