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. ♥
( Click me for today's menu of yummy foods! )
Tired, so I'm going to try to keep this short... I didn't have too good a time in class today; I felt as if I wasn't really able to contribute to the discussion, and I wasn't paying full attention to Dr. Quek's class, which I'm normally listening to with rapt attention. I guess I was just a bit tired, physically and mentally. After class, I grabbed lunch with a group of people, and then we headed back to PGP. I finally got around to doing my laundry (well... I still have to fold my clothes); PGP's washing machines are really good—the wash cycle is done in 30 minutes, and the dry cycle in 40. I think the wash cycle finishes quickly because they seem to use less water, which would make sense, as Singapore has a limited supply of water, as far as I know.
Afterwards, I went and had dinner with Elizabeth and Sean, and then we headed off to the bus stop for tonight's scheduled performance: Les sept planches de la ruse
, which is 《七巧板》 in Chinese, and roughly translating to The Seven Boards of Tricks
The performance is a modern dance performance (70 minutes long) that plays off the Chinese game of 七巧板, which is commonly referred to as a tangram in English (composed of a very specific set of shapes: two large triangles, a medium triangle, two small triangles, a square, and a parallelogram). The entire tangram itself used in the performance weighed a total of about a ton; the largest triangles weighed about 300kg, or about 661 pounds; the outsides are made of wood, but the insides are pretty high-tech and made of lightweight and durable material like the kind found in airplane wings. Anyway, the performance itself was very much left open for interpretation by the audience; it was primarily a series of mathematical and geometrical abstractions, plays on space and function, as well as an exploration of concepts of integration, the whole, and the human body in its environment. I also found significant the themes of balance and identity.
More information and another video available here.
Personally, I identified very much with the themes and icons of balance that were very prevalent throughout the performance. Balance was critical throughout the piece—the grace and majesty of the piece was the ease with which both people and pieces balanced upon each other; at any moment, one of the dancers, or one of the pieces, could slip and crash. But everything was artfully controlled with an intensity that left me enthralled and literally left me at the edge of my seat.
And there was more than just the physical balance that existed in the piece. I felt that the physical balance was there to convey a social commentary on the necessity for balance in our lives. To me, the blocks became symbols for the invisible weights and pressures that we as "modern" citizens place upon ourselves; these pressures vary from person to person, and the abstract, empty, featureless character of these blocks allows the audience to imprint their own stresses and anxieties onto the face of these weights. Multiple times throughout the performance, dancers would be in a position where they would appear to be squeezed or crushed by these simple, black shapes. Only the fluidity of their bodies and the grace with which they handled themselves seemed to prevent them from being crushed. And, at times, dancers would disappear behind or beneath these shapes; they would lean against these shapes and rely on them for support; yet, at the same time, they would climb to the top of these shapes, as if to conquer them.
Much like these dancers, the modern citizen, faced with the burdens of simultaneously preserving the self and nurturing the self, as well as forging a path and niche for the self while integrating the self into a community (however broadly or narrowly one defines "community"), is forced to learn to balance and juggle these pressures and anxieties while maintaining a social grace. And we as modern citizens come to rely on these anxieties to fuel us, yet, at the same time, detest these anxieties and seek to conquer and overcome them. And if we are not able to find that balance between motivation and punishment, or to find that necessary grace in dealing with these pressures, we will be crushed and consumed into a vast, black emptiness of space, also represented by the black tangram.
And this space need not be death, or, at least, in the physical sense. As more and more people struggle to balance these enormous weights and find their tipping points, as urbanization and modernization push our lives to faster and faster paces, there is the danger of the inner self being destroyed: having a vast emptiness within the core of one's self. Losing a sense of identity, of permanence, of what truly constitutes the "self", versus external pressures to fit into a certain type or mold that best benefits society. This is an idea that I have struggled with myself: an emptiness within the person; a lack of integration; a lack of a sense of the "whole".
Closely tied to this idea of balance is the idea of integration: the whole, and, when applied to the human experience, the creation of the stable self. Again, the tangram is a wonderful metaphor for ideas of integration and completion of the whole. The function of the tangram is to provide room to experiment and play around with the pieces in order to create a new, stable whole consisting of all the parts. To me, this remarks on the human experience in general: All humans are given a set of pieces with which to form and construct their lives, but the way in which these pieces are rearranged is ultimately what determines the person.
Key to notions of integration, the whole, and the creation of the self are ideas of both identity and permanence. Concepts of identity were primarily conveyed through the juxtaposition of the old and the new, as well as the East and the West. Personally, I felt that this aspect of the play was a bit hastily done. Representing the "traditional" were the more rooted, almost stereotypical markers of Chinese culture: the repeated refrains of erhu (二胡
) music, and traditional Chinese, operatic tunes. The contemporary, meanwhile, was represented by the stark, sleek, modernized shape of the tangram, as well as the more contemporary sounds of the avant-garde, neutral noise of the cityscape, or the simplicity and sporadic piano chords that would carefully tug at one's emotional core. The traditional and the modern seemed, at times, to be starkly tossed against one another, as well as representations of the East and the West. But maybe that's a hasty judgement—maybe the purpose is to allow the viewer to struggle to integrate the two parts of the binary and, in doing so, understand the struggle in our own experiences of integrating these two pieces while attempting to preserve both.
As for the theme of permanence, the performance seemed to make it clear that there is
no sense of permanence. The very nature of the tangram itself—a large shape made up of smaller shapes—allows for fragmenting, splitting, and rearrangement. The tangram itself lends itself to a transitory nature. It is momentarily stable—but it is not intended to be just one shape in the long run. It is meant to shift, to change, and, mostly, to be
changed. Thus, it is an apt metaphor for the shifting and changing nature of the environment in which humans find themselves. At times, the focus of the performance was
on the shapes themselves: a mathematical exploration of space and function, exploring and manipulating the space of the stage and how we viewed that space by rearranging the geometric figures. But the more compelling aspects of the performance are when we see a human interacting with the changes in space and function, an exploration of the human ability to adapt to their environments, and to be—literally and metaphorically—flexible.
A lot of people left the performance feeling as if it didn't make any sense, or that they didn't understand what they saw. However, as the Q&A with the director revealed, the intent of the performance was not to convey a specific message. The intent of the performance was to provide abstract, mathematical, stark visual imagery, and to allow the audience to imprint their own meaning onto the performance. Perhaps that was an easy way out of creating a message to convey, or perhaps what the audience imprints is more telling than whatever basic message the director may have wanted to convey. Personally, I find the value of the piece to be found in what it taught me about myself and my interpretation of the world, as well as how I viewed this performance within its context.
And I feel that the fact that I saw this performance in Singapore is critical to my understanding, interpretation, and analysis of the performance. Although this performance was produced by a French director and consists entirely of Chinese performers, I feel as though it, and its themes, are highly representative of Singapore. The amount of pressure and stress that the Singaporean population imposes on itself is, in the views of an American, horrific. And yet they are forced to find the balance in order to survive. And these ideas of integration, of creating an identity, are paramount in the creation of the identity of the Singaporean nation: integration of races, religions, languages, motivations... all with the intent of allowing Singapore to answer the question: What does it mean to be "Singaporean"? Moreover, this sense of permanence, of human flexibility to the environment, of the effects of modernization, all are so present and so visible in Singapore, a nation that struggles with establishing permanence and with taming its environment through modernization.
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Okay, this entry is getting long and incoherent. I apologize if it was really difficult to follow my "analysis"; I was writing it as my eyes were beginning to close... I might go through it within the next couple days or so to refresh it and clean it up a bit. But yes, I did enjoy the performance, even if, on the surface, it was just a bunch of people moving around shapes. :P
Hanna and I had a little bit of a tough time finding our way back, as we were the only ones to stay behind for Q&A, but we made it.
Okay, pictures of Q&A (the black rectangle in the back is the tangram), Victoria Theater, and Raffles Place before I sleep:( Click me! )
Okay, I'm sleepy, and it's late. 'Night! (This entry was WAY longer than I planned! >_______<)
( Click me for today's menu of yummy foods! )
Slow day today. I ended up getting very little sleep last night because I was bogged down by readings and other things that I had to deal with (I was a bit of an emotional wreck, for reasons I won't disclose here), so I was pretty dead tired. I felt a bit bad in class because I felt as though I was unable to contribute—I didn't totally understand the readings, and I don't really have enough of a background in any kind of politics to really have intelligent discussion about politics. Maybe that was the sleep deprivation, but I'm not sure.
I felt a bit more engaged in the Singapore class, though; today, we talked about urban planning and public housing. Singapore is one of the most well-housed countries in the nation, if not the
most well-housed. I believe it's about 85% of Singaporeans who live in public housing, and public housing is carefully controlled to be racially mixed and with different income levels, so that no part of Singapore becomes a racial enclave (with the exception of Little India) or a slum.
Although this gives a positive appearance—most newlyweds expect to own their first home, instead of rent—it has a lot of negative social repercussions. For one, mixed housing pretty much destroys any sense of community that you might have. Additionally, housing requirements are very strict—singles under the age of 35 are unable to purchase a home, and divorcees are forced to move out, as housing is only for married couples. This also has the consequence that people get married younger and when they're not really ready, simply because they want to move away from their parents. So it's questionable regarding whether these policies are actually good policies. Moreover, just because you're mixed up racially doesn't mean that you automatically get along.
After class and lunch, I went back to PGP and just fell asleep until about 6, which was a sorely needed nap. I then had dinner with Elizabeth, Kelsey, Mary, Peter, Don, and Steven; I had a number of really good conversations with them about things like how much Walmart sucks, how nice public transportation is in Singapore and how the US might be able to learn from it, how segregation of residential and commercial sectors in the US contributes to a lack of a sense of character or community in the US, and lots of things. I learned about UNC's Zipcar service
, which lets you borrow a car for occasional use, which will prove to be really helpful for me next year. I also talked a lot with Kelsey about our work with refugees back in North Carolina and about how I would like to do field work with them.
So yes, now I'm back in PGP, and I've got to do my readings and redraft that e-mail to the Mahidol professor who does S'gaw Karen research. :X So intimidating! I'm planning on doing more tomorrow (not sure what, though); we have a group outing to see a play in the evening. (Maybe I'll get reading and laundry done in the afternoon, then? Hmm.) I feel obligated to go out and explore since I'm in Singapore, but, idk! Slow days like this are really nice. I really need them.