Month: February 2013

Diaspora and displacement

More than 20 years ago when I first got married, for various reasons, my social circle consisted of primarily Indian expat families. To be precise, they were all Indians who shared my mother tongue. This was despite my having grown up in Singapore. At every gathering, there was a very strong gender partition: the women would sit in a room drinking soft drinks, dealing with fractious toddlers, and talking about the mechanics of running a home; the men would sit in the living room nursing alcoholic drinks and talking about the economy, politics, etc. I was always warmly received (more because of my family connections I think) and I generally enjoyed watching the various vignettes with an untrained ethnographer’s eye. I had been brought up in a fairly traditional manner (see this post for example) but I was still Singaporean rather than Indian. And as traditional as my parents were, all their parties had been completely devoid of these gender divisions. Perhaps it was because they socialized with many non-Indians as well. Or perhaps because my mother was in many ways an unconscious (and therefore somewhat inconsistent) rebel.

In any case, my post-marriage socialization patterns were very different. The people were lovely in their way of course. And it probably says more about me than it does about them that I always left the gatherings feeling like I had reached the end of a poorly scripted play and couldn’t wait to cast off the limiting role I had chosen to play. Back in my own home, I could cast off the sari, change into shorts and t-shirt, and read a good book that didn’t have recipes in it.

But what really struck me about those gatherings, and the only thing that actually made me feel explicitly like an outsider, was the way everyone complained about Singapore. Of course a part of me knew that this was why they gathered – to share insights and experiences, and learn to cope in a foreign land that was culturally alien to them. In fact they had a perfect right to do this. I was the outsider, and no amount of pretending could make me one of them. I knew the language, I had been brought up with the all the same rituals and restrictions. But I called Singapore home and they didn’t.

So every time they criticized my country, my people and my home, something rankled in me. Why come here, I actually asked a couple of times. Why stay? Why not go back? This wasn’t done in an attempt to challenge. I really wanted to know. But in the grand tradition of the Hawthorne effect, my question would immediately turn the conversation around (and if I am to be perfectly honest, maybe that’s the effect I wanted, though wild horses wouldn’t have dragged it out of me then), and they would politely extol Singapore’s virtues. And I lost the chance to actually find out about the nuances of cultural displacement they were experiencing.

What reminded me of this now, 20 years on? Oh you know, debates about foreigners versus native Singaporeans, and attending recent gatherings where some things have changed and some haven’t. It’s not a new thing, my friends. It’s just new for some of us.

Petite, pink and perniciously prejudiced

petite sweetheart cheesecake

Isn’t this pretty? Do you know what it’s called? It’s a Petite Sweetheart Cheesecake (part of Delifrance’s Valentine’s Day promotion this year). It tastes absolutely divine dahling. But that’s not what this post is about.

I had a fascinating conversation with a dear friend last night, in which she tried to explain to me her desire to analytically separate gender from sex, because the conflation of the two leads to labels being placed on people that they have to wear even if they feel uncomfortable with the fit. The example we used to think this through was walking. It seems reasonable to believe that the way a woman is structured – with generally broader hips and narrower shoulders – leads her to walk somewhat differently than a man – with his narrower hips and broader shoulders – does. However taking this example to its logical extent forces you to admit that while these may be average forms, there are undoubtedly men who have broader hips and women who have broader shoulders. Presumably, the way they walk changes accordingly. So far so good. If there is no value judgment attached to any of these parameters, then the matter can rest here. You may not agree with the theory that body structure influences gait, but that is a different issue altogether.

The problem, according to my friend, comes in when one type of walk is labeled ‘feminine’ while another is labeled ‘masculine’. Immediately then, it becomes clear how insisting on a rigid binary framework can lead to trouble. Labels like this are artificial, arbitrary, and culturally intertwined with many other intersecting impositions of behavior and belief. Biological patterns, on the other hand, tend to be more fluid. Within the form labelled ‘feminine’ there is a range of actual configurations of body ratio. Likewise the ‘masculine’. There is indeed a continuum, whereby one segues into the other so smoothly that it is only through great force of purpose that the grid of labels may be imposed. In fact to do so requires a whole culture of contiguous structures that enmesh themselves with the human psyche so irretrievably that most of humanity cannot even recognize the imposition. We call this culture Patriarchy. Woe betide the woman with the narrow hips or the man with broad ones. She is derided for being ‘masculine’ while he is equally ridiculed for being ‘feminine’. Both are seen as insults in the context of their discursive power.

Which brings me back to the confection you see in the photograph. Of course Valentine’s Day is a marketing gimmick. And all the pink targets women as consumer and as commodity. But just think of a boy who approaches the counter. A teenage boy, who is sadly all too conscious of the impressions that his choices convey to a wider public that he has learned makes judgments on those who don’t wear their labels. He just loves the flavor of the confection, and he might even love the violently pink look of it. But the fact that pink is associated with the ‘feminine’ makes him think twice about ordering something he knows will taste like 50 shades of heaven. That he orders it anyway is proof that he is reflecting and trying not to let the labels dictate his choices. But there are so many examples like this, where labels force us into certain choices and away from others. And the use of these labels for marketing adds an extra layer of complexity that further locks us into these uncomfortable positions.

I’ve ruminated on this gender vs. sex issue before on this blog. Interestingly, in that post, I suggested that new forms of communication might be introducing some changes. I’m not so sure about that anymore, but I’ll give it more thought before I write about it. Something along the lines of appropriation of feminine styles by masculine logics of technology and business without appreciation of feminine substance. But even that’s a bit dicey because it contradicts the post-gender way in which my thoughts above seem to be leaning. I’d blame my friend for confusing me, but I’m too grateful to her for giving me something to think about 🙂

Meanwhile if you have anything to contribute to this, I’d love to hear it.