Writer: Veda Samhitha Ramaka
Edited By: Nadya Soetomo
This article is part of ROJAK, a series inspired by the famous Southeast Asian dish, literally meaning ‘eclectic mix of ingredients’. It aims to collate the lived experiences of mixed-identity women who have interacted with both Singapore's society and the wider world, allowing for an exploration of the nitty-gritty hardships of intersectionality while simultaneously showcasing the beautiful diversity in our midst.
Samhitha graduated from NUS where she studied Sociology and Gender Studies. She has great interest in issues surrounding gender, race, nationality, and mental health and hopes to propel the conversation on these issues in any way she can. In her free time, she goes for night runs and she’s always up for a good trek.
Singapore-born peers: “Oh, you came from India? But you sound Singaporean.”
Extended family members: “You’ve been away from us for so long. When do you plan on returning to your homeland for good?”
Parents: “You are not a Singaporean; you are an Indian. You should not follow a Singaporean lifestyle or try to be like your local friends (peers who are born and raised in Singapore).”
Non-Indian Singaporeans: “You are Indian, but how come you don’t speak Tamil?”
Tamil-speaking Singaporeans: “Are you mixed race?”
Hindi-speaking peers: “Oh you are South Indian, but why are you learning Hindi?”
Growing up in Singapore, I was constantly at the receiving end of these questions that stem from rigid and stereotypical perspectives of what it means to be a local, a foreigner, an Indian, and a local Indian. I did not fulfill these stereotypes and that made some people—including my own family members—uncomfortable. This bred a lot of self-doubt about who I am and what was the “right way” to describe my identity. I would say finding my identity was akin to navigating a maze; it was confusing.
As the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) categories are entrenched in so many Singaporean public policies and the education system, many locals correlate the Indian identity with Tamil culture and language. Chinese, Malay, and Tamil are the mainstream options as to having second languages taught in school. And so, many are taken aback to hear that I am not literate in Tamil or that I do not celebrate some Tamil festivals despite being Indian by race. I speak Telugu at home – an unheard of language for many in Singapore and one that is not officially recognised as a second language in local schools.
Being a non-Tamil Indian was incomprehensible for many of my non-Indian classmates, so I was not considered to be “Indian enough” to them. Moreover, a few aspects of my appearance did not fit the negative stereotypes against Indians, which made it difficult for my non-Indian peers to wrap their heads around my “Indian” identity. Some thought I was “too pretty for an Indian”, or that my skin was “not dark enough” to be an Indian. But at the same time, I was accepted as an Indian when they were mocking “the black dot” on my forehead or making negative remarks about my body hair because those fit their perception of the Indian race. I swung between juggling microaggressions and overt racism depending on whether the opposite party approved of my “Indianness”.
At a societal level, growing up in Singapore as a first-generation Telugu immigrant meant navigating Singapore’s stinted definition of racial and ethnic diversity, which is the result of its CMIO narrative that unintentionally (also) perpetuates negative racial stereotypes, creating a viscous cycle. But at a community level, it was equally challenging.
As I had learnt Hindi as a third language in primary school in India, I continued Hindi as my second language after moving to Singapore. Thankfully, many local Indians were aware of both Telugu and Hindi because of their exposure to Hindi movies, non-speaking local Indian communities, and Tamil-Telugu mixed families. Watching Tamil movies when growing up and being surrounded by Tamil family and friends have led me to understand basic conversational Tamil. But I was seen as an outsider by many Tamil peers back then. At the same time, Hindi-speaking natives identified me specifically as a South Indian even though I learnt Hindi too. Many of them who have not been exposed to the local education system often doubted my ability to comprehend the language as I am a South Indian. I was an outsider to both Tamil-speaking and Hindi-speaking natives in Singapore. On top of these, defining my identity also meant picking between countries and the values and mindsets that come along with them.
Growing up in developing small towns during post-colonial and nationalist independent India, my parents and extended family resist a western lifestyle for the most part; straying away from the Indian culture and norms are often looked down upon in my family. Even though my parents voluntarily moved to Singapore for financial reasons, they have always kept me from assimilating into the local culture as they tried to prevent me from internalizing a false superiority of the western culture. So, in my family, beauty is often associated with traditional Indian clothes, long braided hair embellished with floral garlands, a black bottu (sticker), bangles, and anklets.
However, the Singaporean youth is westernised to a large extent and any hint of tradition has put me at risk of judgmental stares and racism from the locals. As an adolescent who wanted to fit in, I succumbed to peer pressure and internalised the disapproval towards the beauty standards set out by my family: I chose to only wear western clothes when I left my house, straighten my hair instead of braiding it, keeping my hair short, avoiding wearing bangles and/or anklets, reducing the size of my bottu, etc.
It took me several years to unlearn these internalised false ideals. Formal education in university as well as social media presented alternative perspectives that taught me how to undo my internalised racism and to take pride in my culture. They taught me that eastern traditions are not inferior to western culture. They are simply different and a person does not have to choose between them. One can take part in both the cultures simultaneously. In fact, I can choose to identify with multiple cultures at the same time.
As much as Singapore takes pride in being a “multicultural society”, I only truly learnt what multiculturalism is through media and critical theories in university instead of learning it in Social studies or through the embodiment of multi-cultures in Singaporeans.
After this unlearning and relearning, I now practice my ethnic traditions and enjoy the western culture. I now wear sarees, but I can also rock a pair of jeans. I like both Indian food and local Singaporean delicacies. I like both Deepavali and Christmas. Does this make me a local or a foreigner? An Indian or a Singaporean? Neither. My journey of unlearning and relearning helped me understand that I do not subscribe to binary thinking surrounding nationality. I am not an Indian or a Singaporean. I am both.
As much as my family thinks that I am a foreigner in Singapore and my friends think I am a local, the truth is that I identify as both, depending on the context. Legally, I am a foreigner. Practically, I am a local because this is the country in which I grew up.
Though it may be difficult for some people to accept or understand, I would call both India and Singapore my home.
If you ask me now, “who do you identify as” or “where are you from”, I am going to say it does not come down to one race, nationality, community, residential status, or even lifestyle. My identity cannot be nicely fitted into only one box because I am a product of different cultures, and I feel connected to various ethnic traditions, languages, and countries.
Throughout my school years and in university, I became acquainted with many others who came from circumstances similar to mine–Malayalees, Bengalis, Gujaratis, Kannadigas, Manglorians, Goans, Mauritian Indians, etc.–the compass to my maze; they showed me how to navigate the confusion around my identity. They were living proof that I did not need to fit into the mainstream range of Singaporean identities to feel a sense of belonging. They reassured me that identities are not always explicable, and we should not expect them to be either.
“Tamil” and “Indian” are not the same. “Singapore-born” should not be the qualifier for “Local”. “South Indians” can take part in “North Indian” traditions and learn their languages, too. “Singaporean” does not just mean Singapore-born natives who speak Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil.