By: Tessa Kaur
Edited by: Ria Chia
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.
Tessa Kaur was born and raised in Singapore, where she lives to this day. Her writing has been published in Barnstorm Journal, Mahogany Journal and now, Women Unbounded. She can be found on Twitter at @tessakaur.
They stared more when I was younger, I think, but it’s possible that I just stopped noticing it as I got older. When something happens for long enough, you just accept it as part of being alive. It’s not fair that my family and I are under constant scrutiny, but there isn’t much I could do about it, and especially not when I was a child.
My family would go out to eat, and people would peer at us. Some people would pretend they weren’t watching us out of the corner of their eyes, stealing glances when they thought we wouldn’t notice. Some stared outright, talking to each other, asking pointed questions that they wanted us to hear. “Why would a Chinese woman marry a man like that?” They would say, as my brother and I fought over food, pretending not to hear.
My father was bearded then, much more obviously Indian. His hair was thick and curly, matting his arms and legs. He hadn’t worn a turban in decades, but the sharpness of his nose, the length of his lashes and the way he pronounced words gave him away. In contrast, my mother was fair, plump and round, with soft lips and a soft jawline. They stood out as a mismatched couple. We were a mismatched family.
We, their children, don’t particularly look like either of them, but we do resemble each other. We have round cheekbones and eyes too big for our small heads. Our eyebrows are bushy, the hair on our heads dark and thick. We have the same smiles, the same creases from the nose to the corners of our mouths when we grin.
They stared at us then, but I’m the sibling that notices it most. My brother says people don’t seem to be trying to figure him out, but I feel eyes on me everywhere. In the train, on the street, people look at me. As time went by and I turned from child to teenager to young adult, my rationalisations changed. Now I ask myself, is it because I’m wearing too little?
Is it my tattoos?
Did I put on too much makeup?
Am I taking up too much space?
It could be any of these things. It could be all of these things or none. It could also be my race. It often still is my race.
People want me to define my race all the time. It’s easy enough to answer: I’m half-Chinese, half-Indian. It’s less simple in practice, of course. Till I was seven, I was incredibly conscious of being categorised as an Indian girl, with very little understanding of myself beyond that. We had to draw a self-portrait for art class in Primary 1. I coloured myself in with a dark brown crayon, because I was Indian, and that’s what Indians looked like in my mind.
When I handed it in, my teacher showed it to the whole class, and they laughed at me. “She thinks she looks like this,” the teacher said to them, and then tore my drawing up. Somehow, I hadn’t realised I was pale-skinned until then. I’d registered Indian as all its stereotypes and decided I had to be all those things.
It took much less time after that to realise people were obsessed with racial categorisation. My classmates would ask about my race, as would my teachers. My race was on my medical booklet, my birth certificate, forms that my parents filled out for me at school.
My father used to joke about hating filling out the “race” section on forms. “I don’t see why it matters,” he’d say. “We’re all human. Human race.”
It was a stupid dad joke, but I understood. When it came time for me to get my NRIC in secondary school, I stared at the race field. Race: Indian? Race: Sikh? Race: Chinese? Race: Other? I wrote “Sikh/Chinese”. When that legal identification came back, it seemed the government had decided what I was for me. The pink card just said “Sikh”. I’d once erased my own Chinese heritage because I only saw myself as different from everyone else, and now it seemed a governmental body had done the same.
In Higher Chinese, my classmates called me dirty-blooded. In Punjabi school, they pulled my plait, asked why there was a Chinese girl in their midst. I dropped Higher Chinese. I quit Punjabi school. I barely speak either, now.
At a second cousin’s wedding, my uncle talked about my cousin dating an Indian girl. “Good for him,” I whispered to my mother. And then he kept talking. “I just don’t think they should date,” he said. “I just don’t want that in my backyard.” My mother grabbed my hand under the dining table. The tablecloth hid my other hand, clenched in a fist so tight it went white. “In your backyard?” I said before my mother could stop me.
And then he remembered that I was there. “No, not like that,” he backpedalled. Then he doubled down, chin tilted up defiantly. “I just don’t want that for my son.”
I know that I by no means present as an Indian girl. I’m not brown-skinned. My hair grows in slight waves at best. I’m not even culturally Indian—I eat biryani with a fork and spoon. Spice gives me stomach-aches. I’ve seen maybe four Bollywood movies in my life, and one of them was 3 Idiots. I don’t speak a word of Punjabi or Hindi. I’ve passed for other things my whole life—Eurasian sometimes, Malay or Filipino occasionally.
But I am in his backyard. My mixed family, my black sheep parents, I, my brother—we are in his backyard. We live there, eating our white-washed food, speaking only English, religion-less, tradition-less. We live there, never watching Bollywood movies or Channel U, never going to any temples. We live there, behind his allegorical house, and I imagine one day burning it all down.
I find myself mentioning my parentage in conversation so people know why I am the way I am. I preempt the questions, I project my race to the world. “Guess that’s what happens when you have a brown father,” I joke. “Yeah, my aunties are always stressing about marrying my cousins off too,” I say. But all of this rings hollow. Trying to use my passing privilege to protect my brown friends seems so hollow. Who am I to say I understand their plight? I have the right last name, but that’s it. No matter how many brown boys I date, no matter how many brown friends I have, I’ll always be faking it.
My parents know this as well as I do. “You’re only Indian when it benefits you,” they say when I tell them I want to get a nose ring and that they can’t say no because it’s ‘cultural’. I tell them, “I didn’t realise I could stop being Indian whenever I wanted, somebody should have told me.” But maybe they’re right.
Of course, it’s reductive to say there’s only one way to be Indian. I wonder if I ever unlearned those racist stereotypes about my own kin after all. Maybe on the inside, I’m still a little girl who thinks I have to be dark-skinned to be Indian.
It feels stupid to put this much thought into my race when there are larger things going on in the world every day. Children are put in cages, innocents are bombed by drones, and I have my quiet, ongoing identity crisis in my comfortable bed in my comfortable home. I’ve been told that my race and the way I identify doesn’t or shouldn’t matter.
I want desperately to believe this. For my whole life, people have insisted on putting me into boxes defined by race and where my family comes from, and I have railed against it. I did not want this to be my defining characteristic, the most interesting thing about me. I wanted to be smart and creative and strong, not just mixed. But denying this part of me feels like denying my history, like I’m swinging an axe at my family tree and pretending I sprung out of empty space.
Regardless of how my race has shaped me or not shaped me, I exist as a result of and as resistance to these cultures.
My name is Tessa Aneet Kaur, and my name is my heritage.
My grandparents come from Punjab, Guangzhou, and Muar.
I am Chinese, and I am Indian, and I am both and neither.
People stare at my family when we go out, and they whisper.
Now, I stare back.