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.

2 thoughts on “Diaspora and displacement

  1. “Why come here, I actually asked a couple of times. Why stay? Why not go back?”

    When immigrants complain about problems in the country they have immigrated to, it is with a sense of betrayal and not ungratefulness. I came to Singapore from India with a lot of hopes – not just about my economic well being but also to become one with what seemed at that time a progressive, open, welcoming society.

    After six years of living here, I made some money but no friends. And believe me, I tried. I am an atheist and have never very closely associated myself with the Indian culture or its monickers. So when I came here, I wasn’t looking for creating a small India for myself in an alien land. Isntead, I was willing to soak in and absorb every bit of what Singapore had to offer in terms of a new cultural experience. I wanted to try the food (whatever little I could being a vegetarian), I wanted to know about the local festivals, religions, languages, sights and smells. I wanted to make new friends and learn about their backgrounds, their culture, their values. Every Chinese New Year, my partner and I bought lanterns and wall hanging to put in our HDB home and felt mesmerised by the lion dance. We learned about the Malays and the Nonyas and the Pernakans. We watched Taiwanese soaps on Channel 8 every sunday. We even went to a Chinese neighbor’s home to participate in some religious ritual they were conducting in their house. We wholeheartedly subscribed to the rules and regulations and would never cross the road till the signal was green weven when everyone else would. We would always carry plastic bags everywhere to stash our garbage. We poured over wikipedia entries on the history of Singapore and its neighbours and even made an attempt to learn the Singaporean national anthem. We would take the MRT and get down at the most obscure stations and explore the area on foot. We wanted to cover every inch of Singapore, stand at every corner and hug every tree. Above all I became an ambassador for Singapore to my friends and acquaintances back home.

    But in the last six years that we spent in this country, we did not make even a single local friend. Not even one. At work place, Singaporeans did not want our friendship. We were both IT workers whose life they weren’t really interested in. For the local Singaporean, we were a liability – immigrants who had come to take away their job. To the local Indian, we were an India they did not want to identify with (I still remember once when a local Tamil woman laughingly introduced Little India to her white friend as ‘an India without the beggars’). My partner and I joined various meetups, courses, social events in the hope of meeting new people or making connections with this place. But nobody wanted to make friends with us. Or to know more about us. About our life. Our problems. Unlike us, nobody really was interested in accepting us into their home. The white expats of course were busy sending their kids to expat schools and pouring over “expat living” in the American or British clubs. They didn’t want a piece of us either.

    Instead, what we mostly got from Singapore was bitter racism and stereotyping. From the grocery clerk to a steward in a fine dining restaurant – they all looked at us strangely. Like the lady at “market place” who asked me if I had paid for the water bottle which I was carrying before I entered the store or the cabby who would tell me that the person who just met with an accident was an Indian because his arm was black. Or the lady in Raffles hospital who would smile at the whites, be congenial with the locals but cold with us. Or the thousands of forms that I filled which asked for my race and nationality. At work place, the whites and Singaporeans always lunched together. But none cared to invite us. I could go on and on. But everytime an incident like this happened, I questioned, “whould they do this to a white person” ? “Why did they give me a work visa if they didn’t want me”? And everytime I dared to complain about it to anyone, I got the same answer back – “Why come here, Why stay? Why not go back?”

    And that’s what we finally decided to do. Of all the things I have regretted in the past, this would be somwhere on the very top of the list. That a country I was willing to call home never wanted to embrace me. The Singapore we saw always seemed to put the onus on immigrants for accepting Singaporean culture but never really welcomed those who wanted to make it their new home.

    1. I am so sorry you had this experience. My feeling is that it has less to do with being an immigrant and more to do with being Indian. I have written about this experience of displacement in my own home due to the color of my skin in other posts on this blog. The situation today is in some ways better – the people I grew up with eventually outgrew their parents’ worldviews. But there are also many in Singapore now who are seeing Indians for the first time and do not have much exposure to our struggles to transcend racial discord. I wonder why people have this expectation that Singapore is some sort of post-racial Disneyland, where if you show enough enthusiasm for the sorts of cultural packages devised for the purpose of nation branding, offers of friendship will come pouring in. This is not a friendly country, I agree. We have Issues. I think, though, that most countries put the onus on immigrants for accepting the new culture. At the end of the day, we are not a homogeneous group of people, so there are vastly differing opinions, ideals, motives and practices among us.

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