By: Shruti Mehta
Edited by: Anna Mohan
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.
Shruti is currently pursuing a double degree in Economics and Business Administration from University at Buffalo, SUNY. She’s currently working in the financial sector and is really interested in global issues such as sexism, racism, and mental health issues. She loves engaging with people from different backgrounds and learning about new opinions and perspectives. In her free time she enjoys learning Korean, watching K-drama and singing.
Imagine being stuck in a constant debate between two individuals who have completely different identities and opinions. That is how I feel while I am living in Singapore being an Indian citizen.
I moved here when I was 9 years old, feeling worried and scared if I would find new friends and maintain my old ones. My priorities were to do well in school but most importantly to find friends as good as I had back in India.
I used to constantly worry about how local people would perceive me as a foreigner trying to live her life in a country which is essentially a melting pot of cultures. Whenever I go back to visit my relatives in India, my worry tends to side with if they will accept me as Indian as others in the country. This constant gamble causing anxiety to fit in is a pretty common scenario for most foreigners trying their best to please both sides. I’m a foreigner in India, where I’m from, and a foreigner in Singapore, where I’ve lived most of my life. Both individuals have their rights and wrong, but I can’t seem to fully align to either side. I moved to Singapore in 2007 and I have not looked back since. When I moved here, I did not have many friends near my house, it was an HDB in far corners of Singapore where playgrounds were generally empty. I joined an international school in the hopes of making friends as I had back in India, but I was losing out on meeting local students in Singapore. Being a student in an international school, I never got the chance to hang out with the local crowd until I entered university. I felt ignorant and embarrassed that I missed out on a large cultural aspect that Singapore has to offer. I remember going to my orientation camp and my local friends took me to a Chinese restaurant. I was so nervous because I had probably only had the chance to try one of the dishes off the menu in my entire lifetime. My friends very politely asked me, “Have you never tried local food before?” I very honestly and humbly told them, “not really.” They offered me to pick whatever I was comfortable with and asked me to try some of their items. That is when I realised, “Hey maybe it is never too late to start knowing the country you live in.” I started assimilating into the local culture, meeting people in CCAs, trying local food and most importantly understanding socio-political climate in Singapore. I wanted to start a dialogue with people, especially when the Black Lives Matter debate was so heavy in everyone’s hearts.
I felt the need to start something because of the void that COVID 19 had left everyone with. People globally felt the mental pressure and issues that either amplified during this pandemic or became a part of them to adjust to the new normal. I felt the need to address global issues that were ignored for a while, and I wanted to address this to learn from people in this free time where social media was the only way to communicate to a wider audience. A bunch of people anonymously came forth with their stories regarding any racism they have felt in their lives, it need not be in Singapore. Some friends, acquaintances and strangers came forward with their stories such as, “I was born in Singapore but I was treated differently because of my mother tongue” or “Some people made remarks about all Asians looking like girls or alike.” I felt my heart sink when I saw people coming out with their stories. I hadn’t expected this to be such a common experience. It made me aware of, and value the platform I have – I don’t have thousands of followers but I forged a space for conversation in my own community. Having a dialogue online helped me internally to not feel restricted and help to elevate the mental state I was in due to the worries of the pandemic. I received positive feedback from people saying that what I tried was helpful to them – having this conversation was liberating especially in contrast to the usual restrictions people faced here. When I first began reaching out, I was concerned that I would be labelled “preachy”, but to my surprise, I received more positivity and support than anything else. It seemed that I was finding people who could relate to my experiences – and I to theirs.
I realised that it may be important at this juncture to look into the country I come from, as I saw this global wave of people realising that matters of race are prevalent all around the globe. Social inequalities and injustices which occur in India are ignored because “this is normal there” or “oh there’s nothing new about that.” I find it incredibly sad that sexual assault and colourism are looked upon as “everyday things.” These are issues that are not just about single countries, they’re global issues.
Being sheltered from such problems sure might allow us to remain comfortable in our bubbles, but we also run into the risk of ignorance and complicity if we remain silent.
Someone asked me the other day if I personally never had the experience how can I be so sure that racism and patriarchy are that prevalent. While I may never have experienced instances of racism, or sexism, this should be the norm, not the exception. Extreme cases of injustices should not be necessary in order to make injustice and inequality visible. Cases of microaggression still take place in everyday life – and these are also extremely harmful.
Microaggressions are “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people."
People choose to either ignore these incidents or “try not to make a scene”, which is a common phrase I have heard from people in my community or in an Asian setting in general. Some people do not even understand how to react to microaggressions thrown at them. We choose to accept how everyone treats us as long as our life is going fine. Years and years of ignorance has accumulated in the ever-rising cases of microaggression. These are more harmful than just occasionally being put down – they seem to reflect larger cultural inequalities and systems of power. I have also seen subtle debates between north and south Indians where microaggressions are always at play, and they seem to be putting each other down. The two sides always belittled each other despite being from the same country. Most of these microaggressions are generally in forms of “harmless jokes” for example when a well known West Indies cricket player was offended when he realised that he was called names with racist undertones such as “Kalu” which simply means “someone with a dark complexion.” The situation masked any racist undertones which went ignored since the term was spoken “affectionately.” Despite the intention not to harm, the larger context in which the term was spoken illustrates deep-rooted ideas of colourism, an idea which is harmful. Microaggressions aren’t just harmless jokes, or one-off incidents, as they compound over time they communicate derogatory and harmful sentiments towards specific groups of marginalised people. It affects our communities, our cultures of inclusivity and the ways in which people can find a sense of belonging. On platforms such as Facebook, I am often faced with people contributing to forms of microaggressions via subtle comments being xenophobic or sexist.
As I started looking into the matters of race, culture, and identity, I realised that the Indian community is a hotbed of patriarchy and casteism. When I see the advertisements that market the idea of “Fair and Lovely”, it still bothers me that we need to ensure that women of darker complexion are faced with this prejudice. Especially when I see influential celebrities embark on such campaigns, it gives a view that companies still think the idea of fair skin is in demand. A particular advertisement bothered me when I was younger, wherein a lady of a darker complexion is rejected in a job interview. I genuinely thought I could probably be in that position someday, it skewed my understanding of the job market for women for a while. My mother often tells me that women of darker complexion were forced into trying to make themselves fairer by applying turmeric and sandalwood paste when she was younger, she too was subjected to this surprisingly by her own will, as she saw other girls trying to “better themselves”. Today as well we can see that younger women can be influenced by such deteriorating campaigns. Women are subject to the patriarchy, but the effect of this is amplified through casteism and colourism. Casteism is nothing but a version of racism in my belief. Purity in a caste system is generally put as a tracker for women – her value is dependent on her colour and her caste. A woman of “lower caste” cannot mix with a man of the “upper caste.” Certain arranged marriages and dowry are also another form of division based on colourism and casteism. The fairer the girl, the better prospect she is seen for a hand in marriage – casteism isn’t just about colour it’s about appealing to the male gaze. Till date, numerous people still believe that daughters should not play out too much in the sun just in case they will get darker in complexion. Darker complexion here is an issue for hand in marriage, not just a practical result due to tanning. To have darker skin, is to lessen one’s value – but why is our value situated in the colour of our skin? Why is one skin tone more valuable than another?
Women are subject to the patriarchy, but the effect of this is amplified through casteism and colourism.
Things need to change to the point where people around us realise that every individual identity is at stake and no one deserves to be subjected to judgements based on the predicament of a society’s perceived guidelines. I still believe the internal debate I mentioned in the beginning exists, but as I gain more knowledge about what is happening around me the more content, I feel that issues are being acknowledged. Understanding the politics, becoming involved with social issues in Singapore was my way of understanding the culture, and connecting with a Singaporean identity. I met some wonderful people both local and international, who have helped me realise that rather than two sides debating, they can now have conversations where communication becomes a mutual tool for improving our spaces and societies.