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.
Oh, K, go!
- [identity crisis] on practicalities