ROJAK – Abigail Goh
By: Abigail Goh
Edited by: Simren Sekhon
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.
Abigail has recently finished her post-grad studies in Social and Public Policy with a specialism in migration policy at LSE. She is interning for Project Chulia Street: an organisation that serves migrant workers and wants to continue advocating for intersectional issues of inequality surrounding racism, sexism, climate, ableism. She loves being outdoors playing football and enjoys cycling/hiking around our reservoirs.
Choosing whether or not to take your mother or your father's race is something a non-mixed person doesn't have to think about.
For them, there’s a default option that leaves them free of choice. In contrast, my racial identity has always been a choice of sorts. Navigating this is complex - not only because of internal considerations but what the state chooses and deciphers for me. I was born 'Chinese' meaning that my birth certificate states I'm 'Chinese' but now at 22 years old, my IC states 'Eurasian'. My race, according to the state, officially changed at the age of 13 when my brother decided to change it upon entering National Service, therefore causing mine to change too, without choice.
Singaporeans are allowed to change their race twice: once before the age of 21, and once at or after the age of 21. They would have to execute a Statutory Declaration stating their reason(s) for the change, and undertaking not to change their race again.
As a woman that did not have to ‘serve the nation’, I was free of worries relating to race within the military service. Moreover, I did not put much thought into the decision to adopt either my mother's (Eurasian) or my father's (Chinese) racial identity when I was a teenager. Hyphenating my 'racial identity' is something I didn't know was possible until recently, as I was never made aware of this in the past. With research and contemplating my mixed identity, I would now like to declare that I am 'Eurasian-Chinese'. The decision to do this is a rejection of the belief that you can only be one or the other:
I am mixed and want to embrace both sides of my heritage.
This is my prerogative.
Nonetheless, the declaration of 'race' in our public records is one that has a profound implication for many Singaporeans. Many view the notion that Singaporeans or any permit holder having to declare their 'race' as an outdated, colonial practice. Although the original uses of racial records are obsolete, today it is justified as a way the government can keep track of the different racial groups to 'calculate' our diversity and racial harmony. The impact of such is intertwined with the privilege that we are then bestowed, be it in regard to housing or access in the job market. Cognisant of such, I fully acknowledge that my racial-mix consists of two privileged groups in Singapore. Chinese as the majority race have more representation and power currently, compared to a historical position of privilege for the Eurasian community. My past nonchalance towards 'choosing' my race is evidence of this privilege, as stating one instead of the other would not necessarily make a big difference in my experience of education/housing/job discrimination in Singapore.
混血儿 Hùnxuè’ér (directly translates to: 'mixed-blood child') is a term I learnt at an early age from Chinese teachers, who recognised that I was 'mixed-race'. Being a 混血儿 automatically allows your appearance and identity as a whole to be open for public comment and question. Although statements can often be intended to be 'compliments' they so often can become acts of micro-aggressions.
The grey area between the 'compliment' and 'micro-aggression' is something that I am still learning to navigate.
As a woman these comments are often targeted towards my appearance i.e. skin-tone, facial features, body shape, and other indicators of 'physical beauty'. Conceptions of beauty are a prime example of the intersections of racism and the patriarchy. These comments greatly affected my self-perception. When I was younger, I often wanted to look more Chinese ('fairer') to feel 'prettier'. As a girl who loves sports, specifically football, I spent most of my free time outdoors and would be soaking in a lot of sun. In Singapore, like many other Asian cultures, there are strong negative connotations attached to having dark skin. I have been told I was getting 'too dark' by both sides (Chinese and Eurasian), and this is something I have become accustomed not just from family/friends but strangers commenting on my 'brownness'. I was always taught and encouraged by my family to brush-away these comments, and if my mum would overhear such a comment, she would always reassure me to embrace my melanin.
To this day, I still get stunned when my skin-tone is commented upon and often do not know how to react. Instead, I often burst into nervous laughter or complete silence. Taxi-uncles who have commented that I was something like a 'mongrel' (for being mixed) or at least I'm not as dark as some 'Malays' or 'Indians' have dissuaded me from opening up to strangers (particularly older-men) about my identity. The uncomfortable feeling of awkwardness has affected my confidence in sharing why I look the way I do. This open season on strangers judging your attractiveness based solely off your looks is not a unique experience just for mixed-people, but something that all women experience in their daily lives. Whether someone is 'pretty' in comparison to their 'ethnicity' should never be commented on, yet it is common practice i.e. ‘you’re so pretty for a _________ girl’. The importance that is placed upon women to be physically attractive is not uniquely Singaporean, but a symptom of the patriarchy as a whole.
In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.
Through a heteronormative lens, women are presented for the 'pleasure of the male viewer', which places unnecessary importance on 'looks' with unwanted attention. The intersectionality between the 'male gaze' and 'racism' that occurs through micro-aggressions is a daily occurrence for mixed-women in Singapore. Nevertheless, patriarchal society also puts pressure on men of colour/mixed-race to look a certain way to be more 'manly' or 'attractive'. These pressures and unwanted attention is frustrating, especially when being mixed becomes fetishised as 'exotic' and 'oriental'.
Placing the intersections of gender and heritage aside in my own country, perceptions around my national identity grew increasingly salient abroad. Living in the UK made me realise that the rest of the world did not know how diverse Singaporeans could look or act or sound like, and already had a strong preconceived notion that being Singaporean equated to being Chinese. I understand that being able to go to an international school as a Singaporean is an enormous privilege, and having a neutral-American accent when meeting foreigners is also a privilege of sorts. Attending university in London also allowed me to see that there is an underrepresentation of non-Chinese Singaporeans herein. When speaking to foreigners, some tended to 'compliment' my English in comparison to Singlish, or other Singaporean classmates who they 'can't understand'.
Insulting my identity to applaud having no 'accent' has often left me frustrated at not only how small-minded people can be, but also how anyone could perceive these comments to be good-willed.
These micro-aggressions reflect the perception and mindset foreigners likely have of Singaporeans as a whole when generalisations are made from their own personal experiences.
However, it is important to highlight that these generalisations are not unique to the UK or other foreign countries. These assumptions are made in Singapore by Singaporeans too. How the world and Singapore society perceives my ethnic identity is often the same with questions of 'what are you exactly' or an inaccurate assumption of my ethnic-makeup.
We all make shortcuts when we perceive and judge people by their covers to an extent, but when names, languages, skin-colour, behaviour etc. do not match, we have to second-guess our judgements. I, therefore, understand the confusion and do not expect any stranger that meets me to guess that I have a Chinese (Teochew/Cháozhōu), Peranakan (Indonesian Chinese/Riau), Eurasian (Indian-Portuguese) background. Nonetheless, how questions are delivered are extremely important; curiosity is a good thing as long as the person you are curious about does not feel like they are a lab-rat being studied. Ignorance, prejudice and lack of education is something that all of us have to work to combat, as I by no means am free of unconscious biases and do not make perfect judgments in the face of inclusivity and diversity. However, I have learnt from my own experience and sharing with other mixed-identity friends that we can all be more empathetic when learning about others.
Empathy, kindness and respect are particularly important when helping people understand the issues of marginalised groups and intersectional problems.
By sharing experiences that bring attention to ignorant perceptions, problematic mindsets and behaviours which attack both race and gender, we can all understand how to treat the ‘other’ more kindly.
Being a mixed-race woman makes me feel empowered now more than ever. Despite the unwanted attention it may bring from individual members of the public, I have never been so comfortable in my own skin. This feeling of empowerment has worked through a two-pronged approach by learning to love my diverse heritage and slowly seeing more minority female representation in Singaporean society.
I now not only embrace the perks of having a multiracial culture (of which there are many) but I am also proud of ticking the ‘other’ box, happy to represent and embody how beautifully diverse Singapore’s identity is.