Singaporean Chinese or Chinese Singaporean?

by Diana Tan, Mar 7, 2005 | Destinations: Singapore

Singapore is a hardly noticeable dot on the world map. To those who know Singapore it is but a thriving modern and cosmopolitan city. Its government is known for having the highest level of honesty and its people hardworking and efficient. Its airport and seaport are among the best in the world. Foreigners from all over the world love the opportunity to work here in this friendly, clean and safe haven. Some foreign workers here commented that they feel safe to have their children schooled here than anywhere else in the world. It is absolutely safe to walk the streets here past midnight.

Singapore is also well known for producing the world's best science and maths students. Our students have competed in top international competitions in science and maths and came up top. I read recently that somewhere in the United States schools there are importing our maths textbooks for use in teaching.

Such is the renown of this tiny island state in South East Asia. It lies just slightly north of the Equator and is separated from West Malaysia (a country which is easy to spot on a world map) via two causeways.

I was born and grew up in this beautiful island that boasts of warm sunny weather all year round. I do not know what winter nor autumn nor spring is like but I could liken these seasons to the times when I witness the shedding of leaves from some trees here and I figured this is autumn. In December to around February when the rainy season sets in, I feel cold and I liken it to winter albeit there is no snow and the weather turns a mere 20-22 deg C. This is when I am all cuddled up with a shawl or a cardigan all day long.

I go overseas and I realise that some foreigners do not know where Singapore is. "In China?" the foreigners queried. "You speak good English, how is that?" I guessed many foreigners have mistaken the Chinese look as having an association with China. They wonder why I could speak English. I would then explain where we are located on the world map and tell them that English is in fact our first language in school. Sure, I am proud to rave about the fine things about Singapore. After all, I am truly Singaporean in the first instance. I am Chinese, correct, but I have never associated my Chinese-ness with the Chinese in China. I see myself first as Singaporean then as Chinese. I live in a cosmopolitan city where there are four main races - Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

My grandparents came from China but my parents were born here. I grew up and listened to my grandparents' tales of their relatives back in China and how they wished they could one day return there. Alas, that era was Communist rule in China and they did not ever get back. It was left to my parent's generation to visit homeland when China opened up to the world. My family, unlike some other families I know of, did not speak much about the relatives in China. This means I am even further away from my Chinese roots. Having been bred and imbibed with a patriotism that says "Singaporean", (yes, I even cried as I watched our national day parade on television back in the 80's) I grew up a Singapore citizen and have never considered that I had roots in China. When I visited China a few years ago, I was there as a tourist. I did not feel I was home. I did not even appreciate China's culture, history and rich traditions.

My mother-in-law is different. When she makes trips to China every few years, she considers it home. She lugs with her gifts and money to give away to her relatives in China. About two years ago, my husband had the honor of accompanying his mum to China to visit relatives and he came back and said that I was better staying home. The relatives were with them day and night and they even bunked into their small hotel room. Worse, they smoked the night away. I would freak out had I been in that room because I cannot stand smoke! My eyes roll at the thought of having to be in that room with a group of chain-smoking uncles and aunties and cousins whose over-indulgent hospitality scares the light out of me. My husband told me that these relatives had no qualms asking for monetary help and support. My mother-in-law, over and above what she had intended to part with before she left Singapore, had to dish out a new computer and a new bicycle for her nephews during her last trip there.

From what I know, our Chinese relatives in China consider their Chinese relations in Singapore rich and wealthy and I guess they are right. We have the good life here in Singapore but of late I read about the rich millionaires in China in the media. Will the table turn in years to come? Will Singaporean Chinese be acknowledging their rich relations in China? If such a time comes, it will not matter to me because I do not have relatives in China and even if I have, they are past my knowledge because my grandparents and my parents have never gotten in touch with any of them. I am, and will remain, Singaporean Chinese.

My Chinese root was further destroyed when the Government banned the use of dialects and advocated that all the citizens here should learn English as first language in school and then do our mother tongue as a second language. For example, a Chinese will take up Chinese as second language, a Malay would do Malay and an Indian the Tamil language. Dialects, colorful and varied in tones and enunciations, sort of identify the city in China where one's ancestors come from. For example, Swatow in China is associated with the Teochews. Other dialects are Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, and more. I count myself blessed that I could still remember some Teochew and these days when I take a cab and the cab driver happened to be "one of me" or at least he knows how to speak my dialect, we would converse in Teochew and I would feel so at home. I remember telling a cab driver once that it is a warm feeling to speak in dialect. It is funny how I associate myself more as a Teochew Chinese than a Chinese Singaporean. I must say that my quality and fluency of the dialect has dropped through lack of use. Alas, the generation after mine do not speak dialects anymore. The Singapore government was too successful in their implementation of the "Speak Mandarin" campaigns and over the years dialects have been forgotten. The children here now converse mostly in English and Mandarin. I feel this is one great loss because I might have at least felt some comradeship had I returned to Swatow and found myself speaking the lingo of the people there.

Learning and speaking Mandarin as a second language did not make me feel a Chinese Singaporean or a China Chinese. I dare say I get along better with my Malay, Indian and Eurasian neighbors than with the China Chinese who have, in recent years, descended upon Singapore to work. After all, I grew up side by side with my Malay, Indian and Eurasian schoolmates and neighbors. We converse in English with each other. I was oblivious to the period when there was racial disharmony here because I was too young to understand its disastrous effects. Thanks to the efficient and forward-looking Singapore government, we were inculcated to live harmoniously with one another in land-scarce Singapore. Thanks to the able efforts of the Singapore government, I am proud to be a Singaporean. I am Chinese by genes and to the parents who gave birth to me. No matter when I am in the world, I would first be a Singaporean, then a Chinese.

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