Over the course of this trip, we've explored the idea of "national identity", particularly as it relates to the idea of "culture". Do either of these notions exist? Singapore has perpetuated an aggressive nation-building campaign, in which various "Asian values" are heavily instilled in the populace; Thailand markets itself as unique in Southeast Asia—free from colonial influence, with its own, distinct culture—which is actually a fusion of various cultures. The United States claims itself to be a bold, diverse, free nation—yet, what does it mean to be "American"? What does it mean to be "Singaporean", to be "Malaysian", to be "Thai", to be "Chinese"? Are these identities real, or are they imagined?
When I applied to the SEAS program, I had little to no knowledge of the region at all. In my application essay, I reached for a topic that would appeal to the readers—"exploring my heritage". I figured that, China has such a broad influence on Asia that, surely, there would be influence in Southeast Asia, which I would be able to pick up on and understand my heritage, even if (so I thought) the majority of the culture would be entirely different. Previously, I didn't even know that Singapore was primarily Chinese; it wasn't until I reached the area that I discovered exactly how much influence China had over the region.
I discovered how easy it is for me to pass in various cultures. Being a Chinese foreigner in Southeast Asia is almost like being a ghost. Certainly, there are aspects of your dress and your gait that will still make you stand out, and I don't look like your typical Chinese girl, but, nonetheless, I look Chinese enough that I have passed in almost every place I've been in in Southeast Asia, with the exception of ethnic pockets, such as Little India in Singapore. In Singapore, passing was a seamless transition—Some 60% of the population is Chinese; large segments of the population speak Mandarin, and, if they don't speak Mandarin, then they speak English. The food is mostly familiar. The environment is familiar, even if it's not exactly the same as Diamond Bar, or Los Angeles, or Beijing. People wear stylish clothes, and my Western-brand clothes blend in well. People address me in Mandarin; I respond with the same. Perhaps the only thing that would make me stand out among a group of Chinese Singaporeans would be my lack of a Singaporean accent.
Malacca in Malaysia was a similar experience. The Straits Chinese in Malacca soon came to control a large part of Malacca's business economy, subsequently exerting significant influence in the area. Although Straits Chinese culture is not completely the same as, say, Chinese culture in Beijing, it is still very similar. I can read much of the Chinese on the Chinese signs in Malacca; I recognize the food; I look like the natives; I could speak Mandarin on the street market. I recognized the Buddhist temples, the iconography, the history of footbinding as presented in the tiny shoe shop. I blended in.
Since I could blend in so well, I felt safe to explore the streets of Singapore and Malacca alone, to go out and just live my life as if I were a local. And, at times, I almost forgot that I wasn't at home, or that I wasn't local.
Thailand, however, has been much more difficult. Although I've been trying to learn the language, I still don't know it. I can only understand the numbers and a couple of greetings; I can read some of the writing, but I don't understand it. However, there has been much Chinese influence in Bangkok—largely due to the history of trade in the region—so much of the population looks Chinese. People at 7-Eleven, street vendors—many people view me as Thai, and talk to me in Thai, which ends up bewildering me, and makes me end up looking mute or dumb. Allison and Liz, really, have it easy—their red hair, blonde hair, white skin, makes them stand out, and people understand when they don't speak Thai or are confused. But people expect me to understand Thai language and culture, and I don't. While in a taxi with Reed, Sean, and Liz—all very clearly white—the taxi driver kept pointing back at me and saying, "You have one Thai! Thai." And I continued to clarify that, no, I wasn't Thai—or else he would've began speaking to me in Thai.
At the same time, my appearance and background challenges the stereotypical notion of who an "American" is. When I go to the street markets to buy some souvenirs or some clothes, vendors who can speak English somewhat well strike up conversation with me. They ask me where I'm from—as it's fairly implicit that, if you're at that kind of market, you're a tourist; plus, I speak English in the Thai markets—and I tell them that I'm from the United States. Everyone seems surprised—"You don't look American," they say. "You look like you're Chinese." It's almost as if "American" means "white", and it seems mind-boggling to them that I can be something like Chinese-American.
So what does it mean for me to be "American"? Dr. Qwek said that she knew that she was Singaporean, not Chinese, when she stood on the Great Wall of China and didn't feel at home. Yet, I have seen Mount Rushmore and have not felt "American"; July 4th came and passed and I didn't particularly care or feel "American". At the same time, I felt at home at Singapore; Malaysia felt familiar; I feel like I could immerse myself in Thailand and pass. But I'm not Singaporean, or Malaysian, or Thai.
Is it, then, that I'm only Chinese? But, at the same time, I'm not completely Chinese. There's still a language barrier; I'm still not completely familiar with the traditions and the customs. And if you showed me the Chinese flag and the American flag, I would still pick the American flag to more accurately represent me; if you played the Chinese national anthem and the American national anthem, I would still be more moved (if only ever-so-slightly) by the American national anthem. So who am I? What am I?
If there is one thing that this trip has shown me, it is exactly how fluid my identity is. Being American has instilled me with a lack of any sort of concrete national identity—there is little that can be characterized as quintessentially American, and what little there is, I rarely identify with. And having Chinese blood makes me invisible in Southeast Asia, makes my identity malleable and fluid in a region where I can pass as Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai... And on top of all that, I've been mistaken as Korean and as Japanese. I am American, but I could just as easily pass as Canadian, or Australian—two other countries that are immigrant-based.
The malleability of my identity is, on one hand, useful. I can immerse myself in cultures in a way that others cannot. No matter how well they're familiar with the region, people cannot change the color of their skin, their stature, the way they look, which still influences the way locals interact with them.
But, on the other hand, the malleability of my identity is also a curse. Am I truly American? Am I truly Chinese? Can I change myself and be Singaporean, be Malaysian, be Thai? What is my culture, or is it all imagined? Who am I, really?
Or maybe there's only one thing that I can say with certainty: "I am a chameleon."
I may revise this later, as I wrote this while trying to filter out a boring lecture. :P I'll update more with actual going-ons later. ♥