MARCH 6 — The other day a friend of the family dropped in for dinner; an acquaintance who over time had become a friend to all of us but not a person who knew us too well, I suppose.
And as we often do when hosting dinner, we decided to have hotpot at home. It is an easy way to entertain — always delicious, interactive and with broth plus ingredients all available at the nearby Sheng Siong, it is absolutely effortless.
We settled into our seats after preliminary courtesies and just as we were about to get started, our guest noted the plate settings and remarked, “Wow, everybody got a pair of chopsticks.”
It is no exaggeration to say the entire table paused to look at him — unclear as to what his point was.
He went on to explain, “I didn’t know Indian homes had chopsticks”
Then my husband (who isn’t Singaporean) piped up and said, “My in-laws are Singaporean, you really find it strange that people who have lived here for generations can use chopsticks when a curious foreigner picks it up on his second visit to a sashimi bar?”
I will be honest: The guest looked quite chided and then my brother broke the tension.
Everyone laughed, the conversation moved on and the evening was pleasant, and that comment has now become a little bit of an inside joke around our dinner table — if you’re Indian-looking and ordered soup noodles, we expect you to be slurping it with your hands.
It wasn’t an upsetting or even racist interaction. I know this gentleman isn’t a racist — we have known him for sometime and have seen him work with various communities. He is a perfectly nice guy.
All he is, is another victim of the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) construct that underpins so much in Singapore.
Fundamentally, he couldn’t help but see us as anything other than “Indian.”
As far as he was concerned, he was visiting an Indian house and therefore, in his mind we were supposed to be sitting around Indian things — eating some steaming hot curries, doing Bollywood dances, putting dots on our heads, etc.
This to me is the tragedy: That we don’t see it as visiting the home of our fellow countryman and so we can and should expect many similarities.
CMIO has forced us to see each race as its own world. And that’s the point. Too often and too easily we see ourselves as Chinese, Malay and Indians — and honestly as caricatures of these things but not as Singaporeans.
I mean if the man had simply thought through his statement, it would obviously be absurd.
Did he really think that my family has never visited a hawker centre and had bak chor mee?
This isn’t the first time — I have also been to friends’ houses where they take away the chopsticks from my place setting and replaced it with a fork and knife (which by the way, is the worst set of utensils as far as I am concerned. Give me a spoon!) in an attempt to accommodate the difference they imagine.
They see an Indian, not a Singaporean — and so they reveal the division they have internalised.
The gentleman from the hotpot visit turned out to speak extremely poor Mandarin and had hardly been to China, so what was Chinese about him and Indian about us?
This construct blinkers us all and Singaporeans of Chinese origin are also victims of it. In the end, our identities are complex — there is no one set way to be Chinese. A lion dance lesson and a TCM packet does not make you any more Chinese than a proclivity for vadai and mango lassi makes me Indian.
Besides if you have been to China or India — you will quickly realise our island culture is worlds away from the way of life in those two giants.
In today’s world, we are seeing how important it is to find unity at home — we need to know who we are.
It is time we broke out of these shackles and embrace that what we are is Singaporean with all its quirky hodgepodge creole mixes and borrowings.
So, eat your prata with some chopsticks and next time when I am feeling bold I will try some hotpot with my hands.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.