I was reading the tumblr blog for the We Need Diverse Books campaign and one post stood out to me about the importance of accurately representing different cultures from yours.
I guess I started thinking how to represent a culture – I thought of what exactly a culture is and it brought home once again to me the fact that I have no idea what my culture is. It reaches out to more than my strange amalgamation accent. I have no roots. I don’t know what culture I’m part of. I don’t know what it’s like to have a culture. And I don’t know if it’s just me. Do other people feel this way?
People always ask me, “Where are you from?” And whenever they do, I freeze up. “Where am I from? Erm …” Where was I from again? Um … oh, right! Singapore! I remember! “I’m from Singapore,” I say.
“I beg your pardon?” the stranger says.
“I’m from …” Should I really say Singapore? I don’t feel very Singaporean. But it’s on my birth certificate so, oh well … “Singapore,” I say louder.
Why am I so hesitant to call myself Singaporean? Is it because I’m not proud of my nationality … my Mother country, so to speak? Well, I guess so. I’m not very proud of Singapore, but I think it goes deeper than that.
The other day, a stranger began speaking to me in a different language. I said, “Sorry, I don’t speak …” and left it at that, because I didn’t know what language she was speaking. Chinese? Korean? Japanese? Some dialect like Cantonese?
“Where are you from?” she asked.
I said, “Singapore.”
“And you don’t speak Chinese???”
I kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, I don’t speak Chinese. Weird, isn’t it?” Why don’t I speak my mother tongue when legally all children in Singapore are required to learn it? Well, because when I was three, my parents emigrated to the U.S. I don’t remember anything of those three years in Singapore. All I know of Singapore comes from visits back there and one stint of living there for a year when I was thirteen. I became familiar with hawker centres, huge malls, rows of flats, motorcycles, and chicken rice, but it never became home.
Neither did the US, which we left when I was five. We stayed in Canada for two years, then moved to New Zealand for two years, then spent another two in Canada, then another two in New Zealand, then one in Singapore as I mentioned, before going to New Zealand again where we have remained (so far). Phew! If you followed me in that paragraph, congratulations!
My Canadian loyalties are probably the smallest. I memorised all the provinces and territories. I have a fondness for maple leaves. I was happy to discover Frank Zhang (Heroes of Olympus) was both Asian and Canadian. But that’s about it.
At heart, I think I’m American. The words “stars and stripes” always make my heart leap in a funny way, before I remember that’s … um … not actually my country. It’s not hard to understand why I love America, because I studied all of high school and some of primary school using an American homeschool program. The majority of literature I’ve read is American too. My favourite bands are American. And in that homeschool course, naturally, I took a (mandatory) American history course. Apparently, it’s the level of college history. I don’t know how accurate that is but I do know that course was hard.
The fact I homeschooled furthers the cultural divide even further. I had no friends outside of my parents and my equally isolated siblings. I spent the majority of time at home. I had little to no socialisation. In fact, before I started reading modern literature and using a lot of Internet, I even felt a sort of absence of generation. There was technology, of course. There was food and clothes. That was about all that marked me as a twenty first century teen.
At the same time, I don’t quite identify with groups like the Quiverfull/Fundamentalist homeschoolers or the Trad Catholics. My family has always had a fairly lax faith. Cafeteria Catholics, kind of.
What are my roots? I can refer to my ethnicity, of course. I’m Chinese. But, what, really, does Chinese mean? In my case, it goes no further than my yellow skin undertone, and almond eyes, and terrible eyesight genetics. What does it mean to be Chinese? Maybe that’s all it means. It’s the only link I have. Even food isn’t a link, for while I eat rice and stir fries, I also eat Mac and cheese and cereal and roast chicken. And really. Food is a small thing to define a person’s culture.
I guess it’s inaccurate to say I have no culture. Of course I’ve got a culture. But it’s a unique and very lonely culture – a culture of a girl constantly on the move, armed with plenty of paper and pens, and a whole lot of social anxiety.
I’m like a gypsy. Or, perhaps more aptly, I’m like a person in one house. The scenery outside keeps changing – the location is different and I notice every so often when I look out the window, but nothing really changes for me cause it’s always the same house, same me. I’m “Housese”. “Familyan”. Or maybe I’m like what it’s like to listen to music. The locations are like the drumbeat – you notice it when you think of it and you notice something’s different when you change it, but you’re mostly just paying attention to the singing and the instrumentation.
That is me. And it explains, I think, why I’m always writing outcast characters. I’m always writing of people who are different species from everyone else, people other people are prejudiced against. I used to think it was weird since I’ve never experienced active prejudice (beyond a couple immature boys who didn’t like Chinese girls). Now it all makes sense. It makes sense why I wrote of a girl who’d been locked up in a garrett for nineteen years, and a man who spent five years hiding in the woods because everyone shunned him like he was a monster, and a human who grew a pair of wings, and Cyrus White, who feels disconnected from the world around him. It explains why I relate so much to the outcasts in stories, like Nico di Angelo and Adam Parrish. And not just any outcasts. The outcasts who feel lonely. Inferior. Scared.
And now there’s New Zealand. I love New Zealand. I really do. I love how friendly and laid back every one is. I love how people say Kiwis are backward – backward? In what? Fashion? Well, I really couldn’t care less. I’m happy with my shopping choices! I love how I was drawing in the front yard one cold day and a passerby asked me if I was okay. I love how the year I went to primary school, the girls flocked to me – the new kid – like they all wanted to be my BFF. I love listening to the radio and hearing the DJ’s Kiwi accent and all the hilarious ads. I love that we have freedom in this country, for free speech, homeschooling, religion, living the lives we want to lead. I love that the National Party legalised same sex marriage in 2013. I love how strong the LGBTQ+ support group is here. I love my new school and how accepting everyone is of people of different nationalities, cultures, and sexual orientations.
I love my country and I would love roots here, but roots take time to grow. It’s not just gonna happen overnight.
I will definitely research other people’s cultures and do my best to represent people of different cultures from me accurately. But I can’t forget the people like me. The outsiders. The people with a blank line on their sheet. The people torn between the Yankees and the All Blacks. The people who grew up in a single box. I can’t forget because it’s a part of me. And I don’t think that will ever quite stop seeping into my literature.
***Why have I written this? All my life, I’ve been struggling with the thought of who I am, where I’m from, and who I want to be. I wouldn’t say I’m bitter about my life. This is who I am and it’s okay. But I won’t deny I feel a little sad about it sometimes. I often feel lonely and inferior and scared. Writing my thoughts is how I come to understand them and come to terms with my life.