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.