by Soorma Bhopali
“What are you?” “What is your race?” These are questions that are thrown at me frequently, the latter of which was only asked recently at a small family get-together. I was stunned to be asked such a personal question in front of people I had just met that day. As a sensitive introvert, I took the question as a personal affront. Nevertheless, I took it in my stride and answered the offensive individual, all while the rest of the people who were gathered around looked at me with what I would like to believe was purely engrossed anticipation.
I got asked the same question twice that evening. The same question that was asked in the earlier part of the gathering was by a newcomer to the family, who whispered to someone else, “What is her race?” As a newcomer, I understood her wanting to know more about me. The second individual who had asked me the same question was my husband’s relative, whom, despite the fact that my husband and I have been enjoying marital bliss for more than ten years, still had questions about my lineage. And it wasn’t just them. At family functions and gatherings on my husband’s side, there are whispers of (in a language foreign to me), “What is her race?” Although I do not blame them for their curiosity, such questions speak volume for the need of society (especially those from the older generation) to place individuals in pre-defined boxes based on the CMIO categories.
Perhaps I should sweep my frustrations aside and start from the beginning. I am, dare I say, a blessedly unique individual of mixed heritage. I have Peranakan Chinese and Pakistani ancestry on my maternal side and Indian heritage on my paternal side. For the most part of my formative years, up until I was in my 30s, I grew up confused and having an identity crisis for never being able to fit in the CMIO mould in school and in Singapore. According to the typical Singaporean who would try their best to place me in a box, I am too fair to be Indian. Since I look Malay, I must also be one, and thus will be spoken to in Malay. Since I celebrate Hari Raya, I must be Malay and to quote the aunty who recently cut my hair verbatim, “If you are Muslim, you cannot be Indian, so you must be Malay lor.” Thank you for explaining to me who I am aunty. Trying to explain my unique diverse heritage to a random local of the majority race group here has become such a cumbersome undertaking that I have resorted to simply saying I am Chindian. However, this response will invite more questions such as, “Oh, so you speak Chinese?” I had the exact conversation two weeks ago and when I replied in the negative, the conversation pretty much stopped there. It seems like no matter how much I try to explain my mixed ancestry, it only opens up a myriad of questions that are themselves so confusing that it is easy to just say, “I am Indian.”
However, this is not entirely true. I do not feel purely Indian. At home, we do not converse in any traditional Indian language, unless we want to gossip about you in your presence! We also do not eat typical Indian food every day. Being Singaporeans first and foremost, we eat a variety of food that come from the different cultures in Singapore. My grandmother, aunts and mother all enjoy unhealthy bowls of glutinous chee cheong fun for breakfast. Apart from the usual biryani, we also feast on sambal sotong and lontong at Eid/Hari Raya gatherings.
On the other hand, thosai and prata are the best comfort food on lazy days. When we crave for something to munch on at tea time, there is always sugee cake, ang ku kueh, char kuey rojak or Indian rojak to pick from. Nonetheless, I have to say it feels the worst when my ‘own’ —fellow Indian-Muslims—doubt my ethnicity just because I cannot speak Hindi well, having studied Malay in school. It is hurtful to hear comments like, “So your Mother Tongue is Malay lah!” as if doubting my ‘Indian-ness’. To be clear, I have nothing against the Malay Language (I scored A1 in Malay Literature in junior college, thank you very much!) but I strongly resent reductive comments about my identity and lineage just because I cannot speak the language of my forefathers well and I do not fit the mould of what a typical Indian or Chinese individual should be (i.e. being able to converse in Indian or Chinese languages/dialects).
You see, when my ancestors migrated to Singapore from India, they naturally needed an anchor, a community to belong to. Being a minority community of Indian Muslim traders, it was easy for them to integrate and assimilate into society if they belonged to a certain group. Since the majority of Muslims in Singapore are Malays, moving into Malay kampongs and living amongst the Malays made pretty good sense especially since they were trying to make a living in a foreign land. Being Muslims, they thus had something in common with the Malay community here. Although my forefathers wore their ethnic clothes, they were still also able to converse well in their adopted Malay Language and get along well with their Malay neighbours and friends. This would explain why, while most of my older relatives were able to speak their Mother Tongue, the younger generation either have pretty much lost their ability to do so or speak broken Hindi or Urdu. We may understand what is being said, but we may not be able to reply fluently, because we were never formally taught. However, this varies across the different families here. I do know of third- and fourth-generation Indian Singaporeans who are still able to converse in their original Mother Tongue thanks to classes and family exposure.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are Malays who assume I am Malay. When I reply in English to the questions they ask in Malay, they assume I am consumed by my arrogance and do not want to converse with them in a common language. How do I explain to the nasi padang aunty, “Pardon me aunty, but having grown up in a household where English is predominantly spoken, and having being brought up by my late grandmother who spoke Hokkien and the Peranakan patois, talking in Malay just does not come naturally to me.” This is especially true after I was made fun of for my funny Malay pronunciation in primary school by a schoolmate.
Needless to say, my growing up years were filled with poignant questions like, “Who am I? Why don’t I fit the mould? Where do I come from? Am I really an arrogant person because I cannot connect with people based on a common language?” Imagine grappling with such an identity crisis for almost thirty years of my life. Imagine grappling with such questions as a teenager, the phase in my life when I deeply needed to belong somewhere. Transitioning into adulthood wasn’t easy either. At company dinners, Muslim staff members are usually grouped together in one or two tables since we have the same dietary requirements. Why? Why is the group I am allowed to eat and socialise with limited to the people who share my religion? Why do we as adults allow society to limit how and who we socialise with based on what we are allowed / not allowed to consume? Needless to say, company dinners are usually four hours of boredom for me because I am always separated and seated far away from my close colleagues who all do not share my religion and dietary requirement.
The ignorance of society does quite a number to one’s self – esteem especially when you are growing up with so many questions and concepts that are beyond your comprehension. Now, after more than thirty years of existence, I am finally grasping and embracing my unique identity and I finally understand why I feel the way I feel. It is okay to not fit in anywhere because of social circumstances that are beyond my control. On the other hand, for the sake of our future generation, society should stop trying to fit us in pre-defined boxes. We are all special and unique individuals with a myriad of stories to tell. Just ticking the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others box is over simplistic and does not do any justice to what a distinctive and beautiful individual each and every one of us
is. It does not do justice to the story that each of us has to tell. It definitely does not do justice to the stories of our forefathers.
Soorma Bhopali is an educator of young children. She enjoys her roles of being a daughter, sister, wife and aunt. In her free time, she enjoys eating cupcakes and dreaming of unicorns.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu