The shame of having a Chinese face

This is one of those overdue blog posts, which you know you want to write but you only keep thinking about it to the point that you actually delude yourself into thinking you’ve actually written it.

But a brilliant article by the incisive Bilahari Kausikan on What China’s Rise Means for Southeast Asia and Overseas Chinese finally jolted me into action.

I travel quite a bit and each time I fly, I wished I was wearing a burka (or a paper bag over my head). No matter how un-Chinese I try to look (being a honey brown instead of a pasty white), I’d still invariably be accosted by lost Chinese tourists at the Hong Kong airport who can’t seem to understand that they need to take a train to their boarding gate.

Or I will get hapless non-Mandarin speaking air stewardesses asking me to help explain to the clueless Chinese passengers how to use the in-flight entertainment system. And the Chinese passengers would in turn scold the air stewardess for not being able to speak Mandarin. Hello, the last I checked, this is Thai Airways, not China Eastern, so why should they have to speak Mandarin?

On a side note, I’d like to commend the professionalism of the air stewardesses on Turkish Airlines. I was seated across the aisle from a Chinese man in business class (work travel rocks!) and he was watching a movie on his iPad very loudly WITHOUT earphones. The stewardess tried to get him to lower the volume but wasn’t getting anywhere because he had zero English. She asked if we were travelling together and when I said no, she never bugged me again. Not even when he couldn’t understand “chicken” or “fish” during meal times. I was half-expecting her to ask me to translate. But she didn’t. Instead she found pictorial cards to get the message across. Props to her.

I feel very conscious about my Chinese face whenever I travel. The sad fact is that many people can’t tell who’s Chinese and who’s not. As long as you’re yellow with slitty eyes, you must be Chinese. Who cares if you’re from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore.

And when I’m in a situation where the Chinese are behaving badly (think queue cutting, being obnoxiously loud, exposing their smelly feet to everyone on the plane), I feel tainted by (facial) association. This is exacerbated if we were in a context where the Chinese are the minority, say a Western country. I’ve seriously considered wearing a sign that says “I am not Chinese” to dissociate myself from them.

Kausikan writes: “China seems to have great difficulty in accepting Singapore as a multiracial meritocracy. It seems that this is, to the Chinese, an alien mode of conceptualising an ethnic Chinese majority country. At any rate, Chinese officials, sometimes at very senior levels, constantly refer to Singapore as “a Chinese country” and ask for our “understanding” — by which I suspect they mean “agreement” — of their policies on that basis. Of course, we politely, but clearly and firmly, point out that we are not a Chinese country and that we have our own national interests that we cannot compromise without grievous and probably irreversible internal and international damage.”

During my time in Hong Kong, this was something that I regularly encountered. The Chinese can’t fathom why I don’t feel kinship with them even though my grandma came from China. Or my former boss would present me as the “China expert” to the clients, which I found rather offensive. It’s like calling an Australian an expert on all things British, or expecting Beyonce to know everything about Mother Africa.

It’s taken a while but I can now embrace the Chinese heritage and culture, since that’s part of my genetic make-up. I continue to painstakingly correct everyone who ask if I’m Chinese. No I’m not Chinese, I’m Singaporean. And proceed to educate them on the differences between the two.

I may look like you, but I’m nothing like you.

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How to torture an introvert

Coming out is extremely liberating, i.e., coming out as an introvert.

For years, Myers-Briggs insisted that I’m an ENFP but I felt that it surely can’t be correct as I find people extremely draining and making small talk with them even more so. At the same time, I’m not awkward or shy, and I’m comfortable giving talks in front of hundreds of people. After some long conversations with a fellow introvert and some cursory reading (yes phone calls scare me to bits), I’m relieved to know that I’m actually not weird. I’m just an introvert and a Highly Sensitive Person (ok, i don’t sob over movies but loud noise and cigarette smoke do bother me a lot).

Being a newly minted introvert, I can now confidently say that the best way of torturing an introvert is to put him or her into group travel. In my case, it was 10 days with 47 other people in the Middle East. The last time I went on a group tour was when I was 16 with my parents, and I’d swore never to do it ever again. But my travel buddy couldn’t get a visa easily to where we were going, so we had to bite the bullet and go on this bloated group tour. It was possibly the most emotionally draining thing I’ve ever done, and I’m still recovering from it.

1. Extrovert Thais

Thais in general are extroverts who love being social and being with people. They have an inordinate fear of being alone. They love going everywhere in groups and doing things together. Being introverts, my travel buddy and I found it very difficult to be part of this happy-clappity group. They seemed to be governed by a herd mentality that causes them to be uncomfortable with people who are different from them. And worst of all, they couldn’t stop talking. It wouldn’t be so bad if their chatter made sense. I was perpetually stuck sitting in front of this lady who made the most inane and stupid observations throughout the trip. I didn’t have my earphones with me and I thought my eyeballs were going to drop out from the constant rolling.

2. Unspoken expectations

The 48 people in the tour group hailed from three churches. I was one of the 14 from my church, a church that I’ve joined for about a year or two and I don’t know many people there. There were two free days during the trip. And being the obsessive planner that I am, I already knew where I would go on those two days. I even bought tickets online in advance. So during those two days, my buddy and I just went to do our thing. When we met the bigger group after those two days, we were greeted with words like, “oh we’d almost forgot that you came along with us” or “are you sure you’re part of our group”. Thank you for the sarcasm. To me, free means free = I can do whatever I want. And I’m not obliged to bring the whole village with me, especially when you’re probably not interested to spend four hours in a museum.

During the two free days, the rest of the tour group (minus me and my buddy) went to do stuff together. Remember what I said about herd mentality? One of the things they did was to go for additional teaching on God’s plan for Israel. I’d have loved to go. But it wasn’t communicated to us beforehand, just the night before, and I’d already planned out the two free days. But because we missed it, there was the assumption that we understood/knew less about what God is doing in Israel, compared to other people in the group. (Keep this at the back of your mind, as I’ll circle back to it later.)

Thais love to shop. They were constantly buying stuff. And I’m ok with that, even though I’d have much preferred to spend the time doing something more educational, but it’s a group tour and majority rules. But what I’m not ok with is people expecting us to be their mules and to carry their stuff because they shopped so much that they were over the baggage limit. And also expecting us to have to help them because they’re old. My adage is shop as much as you can carry. If you can’t carry your own stuff, you can’t expect others to carry your burden.

And don’t even get me started on Thais and cameras. Thais love taking photos of themselves. I love being behind the camera not in front. And I can’t help but grimace each time they drag me into a group photo, which is every time they get off the bus. So there you have the tour guide doing his best to explain stuff to us, and you have everyone taking photos of everyone at the same time. Again, I have no problem if you want to take photos of yourself in 101 cutesy poses using your mobile phone, but please don’t expect me to be your personal photographer and taking 10 to 20 portraits of you when there are other infinitely more interesting things to capture.

3. Worldly Christians

I’ve been a Christian long enough to know that being Christian is no guarantee of good manners or behaviour. Afterall, Jesus came to save the sinners, right? The only problem is that when it is a “Christian” tour group, one have to show “Christian” love even when other people are behaving badly.

Tour buses have a certain number of “good” seats and to me, the fairest way is to rotate everyday so that everyone has a chance to get a good view during the trip. But it seems that Thais prefer to sit in the same place from Day One. But what happens when someone takes your “good” seat on Day Two? I thought it was ok to change seats and plonked myself into another “good” seat but ended up causing a lot of unhappiness because I’d displaced the “owner” of the seat. By Day Three, I went back to the “bad” seat vacated by the person who “stole” my seat. So on Day Eight, when we went to Jordan, we changed buses and I as usual got the “good” seat. On Day Nine, the same person took my seat. I very politely asked her if she had moved. She said, yes, someone put her stuff there on my seat. Yeah right, scarves have feet. I’d have felt better if she’d asked if we could exchange seats. But because she’s from my church, and I can’t possibly be sarcastic at someone that I might have to see again, I just have to smile and take the “bad” seat.

Or here’s another example. We had half an hour for lunch and it was at a canteen where each of us were given a coupon. We were served the mains and we helped ourselves to the salad buffet, which had a wide selection of dressing, after which we were supposed to hand over the coupon as we left the line. So there were three people in front of me dithering over the dressing as they couldn’t figure out which was which. I don’t put dressing on my salad, so I just bypassed them and handed my coupon over. And one guy said quite loudly “queue-cutter”. But because I have to be Christian and “turn the other cheek”, I just walked away without engaging him even though I was boiling mad inside. Fatso, do you seriously expect me to wait behind you and your two ignorant pals as you figure out your left hand from your right? Plus there’s absolutely no loss to you if I go ahead of you. You’re not going to end up with less food, and neither do you have to wait extra.

4. Standing with Israel

One of the recurrent themes on the trip was how we Gentile Christians should “stand with Israel”. This could be through a variety of ways including prayer and giving. And the trip had also given me a better understanding of what it meant to “stand with Israel”.

To me, what better way to show that we “stand with Israel” by eating the food that they eat? But you see, Thais have a very set palate that finds very little joy in anything else other than Thai food. So they went on the trip well-prepared: fish sauce, shrimp paste, maggi sauce, chilli sauce, chilli flakes, canned tuna, instant noodles, dried fish. And they brought pork too. Lots of pork. Enough to last the whole group for 10 days. Dried pork (like bak gwa) in two-litre tupperware boxes. Plus packs and packs of pork floss. Every meal, they would lay out all these on the table and liberally sprinkle the pork on their rice. With no sense of inappropriateness. Despite us staying in the Muslim quarter in an Arab hotel. Despite us being in the kibbutz serving kosher food. They did this even in posh Arab restaurants outside. I grew up in a multicultural society and was always sensitive to the utensils used by my Muslim friends. And I was so embarrassed by what they did. How is this a good Christian witness? Oh we love you, Israel, but we just can’t eat your food. And the perpetrators? The pastors who’ve been to the country at least three to four times to “stand with Israel”. Eat cup noodles if you find that you don’t like the local food. But pork? Seriously?

At the end of the tour, it’s customary to tip the tour guide and the driver. In our case, our guide is a Messianic Jew (meaning a Jew who believes in Jesus). For Christians who “stand with Israel”, the Messianic Jew is like the best person you can show that love to by giving. And the tour leader (Thai) also emphasized that, plus the tour guide’s wife was giving birth on the same day. So she said that the minimum is USD 10 per person, but feel free to give more than that. The tour leader’s assistant went around with an envelope to collect the tips and she came to this woman, the same one who was always sitting behind me with the inane prattle. She’s not poor by any chance, judging from the undiscriminating way and amount she shopped. The same woman, who a few moments ago was telling everyone how much God blessed her with money and how she ended up with three new cars, handed over a ten-dollar note, and asked for five dollars in change. So be it, amen. Oh and by the way, she did go for that additional teaching on God’s plan for Israel, which I-the-one-with-little-understanding missed.

This entire post has been a very long rant, although I’ve tried very hard to keep my blog from degenerating into a complaint bureau. But it was 10 days of being cheek to jowl with people that I could hardly tolerate except for a handful. And I feel that I can’t start processing what I’ve learnt from the trip until I air all these bad feelings that have been bottled up.

Now that it’s all out, I do feel strangely liberated. Just like when I came out.

Hello Medan!

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After sending eight years outside of my home country and going on a fair number of business trips, one can get quite blase aout travelling. So as I landed at the Medan airport, it was interesting to feel the excitement of old bubbling up again. Medan is nowhere as exotic as any of the -stans but to me it is territory unexplored, having never been to Indonesia (Batam doesn’t count).

The first thing that struck me when I arrived is that the Indons smoke… a lot. I can feel my lungs choking up as I walked out of the airport and scrambled onto the taxi which cost Rp 50k to get to the city centre.

As usual, the best way to experience local life is through the food. So my friend and I wandered around until we found a food centre.

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While ordering the food, I was surprised at how much Malay I can actually remember simply from growing up in a multi-ethnic country — but I still can’t count beyond five. Nasi soto ayam, sate ayam, ifu mee seafood, teh tarik dingin, milo dingin. Rp 68k. I uttered a quick prayer and started eating. Stomach, thou shalt be strong!

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