By Finder blogger: Pooja Makhijani
The expat meet-and-greet script usually goes:
1. “Where are you from?”
2. “What do you do?”
3. “How long have you been in Singapore?”
When you don’t “fit” someone’s preconception of what a person of your nationality looks like, as I don’t, new acquaintances seem to get stuck on question one. “But where are you really from?” they prod.
If I’m feeling less than charitable, I may reply, with an eye roll, “Where do you think I’m from?” If I’m in a generous mood, as is often the case, I explain that, although I was born in the United States, my family hails from South Asia; that, although my parents live in New Jersey, my grandparents live in India.
Ultimately, it is important to me that none of my cultural identities are erased – I am an ethnic South Asian who holds a U.S. passport. What makes me “me” is the union of my Asian-ness and American-ness.
Now that I am a parent, I think about the many cultures that make up my daughter’s identity.
In the lexicon of human migration, my daughter might be considered a “third-culture kid” – an expat child who is raised outside of her parents’ culture for a significant portion of her developmental years.
The first culture refers to ours, her parents’; the second, that of our host country; the third, of the expatriate community in Singapore. So, of course, she celebrates Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, and watches election results (mimicking us by yelling at the TV). She codeswitches between Singlish and Standard English with an ease I could never approximate.
Yet this third-culture model doesn’t account for the fact that she celebrates Diwali, or Deepavali, not only with other expats from India, but also with fellow Singapore Indian diasporics. Together, they wave sparklers and light diyas, tiny clay lamps, so Lakshmi can find her way. It doesn’t acknowledge that she learns not only about U.S. history – George Washington, the Civil Rights Movement – but also about South Asian American and Asian American history through the books on her shelves, carefully curated by me.
My daughter is now four-and-a-half-years old and is curious about her place in the world. She calls herself “Singaporean” sometimes, as Singapore is the country she knows best.
When I explain to her that she is not, and that “Singaporean” refers to neither her ethnicity nor her nationality, she bursts into tears as preschoolers are wont to do.
These conversations about identity are ongoing, difficult and often too abstract for her to grasp. While I realise the futility of counting cultures, it is important to me that my daughter knows that she has many, and not just three. I hope to teach her, that regardless of what her passport says, she doesn’t have to choose one over the other or let other people choose for her.
By Pooja Makhijani, The Finder, September 2016