Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Who I am (and what that looks like)

We spent the last fortnight in Singapore -hot, humid, and teeming with too many people for its own good. It was wonderful to see family and friends, but I am happy to be home, even if the jet-lag is still making me fall asleep at inopportune times of the day, and usually without warning. 

I've always thought it challenging to re-introduce one's own country of origin to one's new family. For one, there are only so many tourist attractions to cycle through if one makes regular visits like we do. For another, I am not a tourist, and never have been, in my own country. Therefore, I am disinclined to visit tourist spots, particularly when they are even more crowded than the rest of the country (population: 5.4 MILLION humans in 277 square miles). 

Also, each trip to Singapore feels like I'm going home for the weekend - if I were on my own, I'd choose to hang out at my parents' house all day and eat food that Mum cooks. But I'm there with the husband and the three girls, so instead, I do the tour guide thing by day, help Mum and Dad with their admin. stuff after the kids are in bed, and squeeze social visits between everything else. And therein lies the most challenging aspect of all: the multiple roles I play during the two short weeks: mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, cousin, niece, aunt, teacher, student. . . Because I'm enjoying the time with friends and family, I'm emotionally filled with all good things, but I sometimes also feel like I'm giving in four hundred different directions at once. 

So - sadly - no, trips to Singapore are not vacations. Sure, they are good impersonations of vacations, the way they involve mega-packing and interminable plane rides and foreign currency and tropical beaches and so on, but they never feel like vacations the way, say, a trip to the Bahamas feels like a vacation. I know this because when it's over, I'm so wiped out that I think I need another vacation to recover from that one.

Every trip to Singapore is different. And each year, when I get back to MN, I show you photos of beaches or shopping haunts or fabric or food or whatever aspect of the country I'd found worth documenting. Between the sights and the mementos, I talk about culture and displacement and my children's growing realization that, in spite of being 100% American, they are a part of this world, too, and this world is strangely and wonderfully in them. Culture is insidious that way.

Let me sidetrack here to share, with much glee, that I acquainted Emily with my old treadle sewing machine that lives in my parents' house:

I mean, since we were all about culture on this trip, I thought she should get to experience what sewing was like before electric and computerized screens and self-adjusting needle positions became the standard. I sewed everything on this machine - clothes, bags, pouches, toys, instrument cases, everything.

Here is Emily getting a feel for the way the pedal worked. She loved it.

We didn't have scrap fabric for her to play with, so Grandma (my Mum) let her stitch on pretty paper IKEA napkins. Emily turned them into napkin bags.

Ah yes- sewing: so much a part of who I am as a person, and who I am as a member of my family, and who I am as a Singaporean-who-couldn't-use-a-commercial-garment-pattern-to-save-her-life.

Anyway, as I was saying, every trip to Singapore is different. This year, I thought we'd talk about who I am. Narcissistic as that sounds, it's less about my existential journey to Finding Self than about the colorful artifacts and textures of my heritage.
Peranakan tile montage

Let's begin by saying that I am Singaporean (duh). This means I was born in Singapore.

And let's also say that I am Chinese. Which means that if you went back enough generations in our family tree, you'd find someone who originally lived in China. In Singapore, it'd be redundant to say, "I'm Singaporean Chinese", although that would be an accurate way to distinguish ourselves from, say, Chinese people who are citizens of China. 

I am also Teochew. This is a sub-culture of Chinese people, like the Cantonese, the Hokkiens, or the Foochows, the ancestors of which still live in particular regions of China today. Each of these sub-cultures speaks a distinct dialect, which shares the same written Chinese language with all the other dialects (including Mandarin) while sounding distinctly unique. 

All Singaporean schoolchildren are required to learn a second language (commonly Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu or Tamil) from preschool/kindergarten and up, and most Chinese children choose Mandarin. I've never cared for Mandarin, because it was poorly taught in our schools back in the day, and had no cultural significance to me personally (no one in my family spoke it - we only ever spoke English to each other). I do, however, love the Teochew dialect, because it was what my mother spoke with her own family, and because I personally think it is a much prettier and more elegant dialect than Mandarin. Unfortunately, my spoken Teochew is rudimentary at best, although I understand it quite well when eavesdropping on other Teochew speakers.

I am also Peranakan. This is harder to explain, but let's give it a shot anyway. So, in the early days of Singapore's pre-history, folks came from China - among other places - and settled in Malaysia and Singapore, which were British colonies at the time. These Chinese immigrants married the indigenous Malay people and eventually developed a blended culture of Chinese, Malay and European influences. This is the Peranakan culture and this, arguably more than any of the individual Chinese, Malay, Indian or European racial groups in the country, represents the true culture of multi-ethnic Singapore.

This blend of cultures is evident in Peranakan food, customs, dress and language - everything is a mix of Malay, Chinese and European (primarily English, Portuguese and Dutch, with other colonial influences) and neither is purely one or the other. A Peranakan woman, for instance, does not wear a Chinese qipao, or a Malay baju kurong, or an Indian saree; she instead wears this - a sarong kebaya, 

which I've gone on and on about in this earlier post, in which I shared some of the kebayas I owned and wore, including the one on the left, which Grandma (my Dad's Mum) embroidered. Even the kebaya's design is a blend - thought to originate in Java, the fitted batik skirt is Malay, the collar of the blouse is Chinese, and the lacework is inspired by European cultures. 

Here's another example:

This is a full-size bed we photographed in a store display (more on that later). It's extremely Chinese - at least, it's exactly like the beds I'd seen in movies made of old China. 

But the fabrics - particularly the apparel fabrics, as seen on the mannequins - are distinctly Malaccan. This is some traditional South-East Asian batik, which is typical of what the skirts of the mannequins' outfits are made of:

Incidentally, I can never resist batik, especially the Indonesian/Malaysian kind like the ones in the photo above. The next two batiks, however, are of a much more contemporary design, being recent commemorative prints for one of our tourist attractions, the Gardens By The Bay.
Gardens by the Bay, at twilight, 2014

I adore this grey color scheme - I bought a tote to cut up (because - bah - they didn't sell just the fabric in the gift store),

although this pastel one (it's an apron similarly destined for reincarnation) is pretty, too.

One of my great regrets as an adult is not having taken the time as a younger person to adequately analyze my heritage in order to appreciate the parts which were Chinese, and Peranakan, respectively. Take the food, for instance. Because we eat so variedly across cuisines in Singapore, and because Mum cooked anything and everything we could ever crave, I'd never bothered to ask if a particular dish were something peculiar to one or other of my sub-cultures. It was only much later that my friends would comment, "You're Peranakan, aren't you? You must miss ayam buah keluak. Do they have that in the US?" And then I'd think, "So that was Peranakan! Huh. I'd always assumed it was just regular Chinese food."

Oh, my ancestors would turn in their graves at my ignorance.

But enough of Me. 

Let's do Show-And-Tell now.

On this trip to Singapore, we were dining in Katong, one of the enclaves of Peranakan culture in the country, and chanced upon a lovely shop.

I was initially drawn in by the food (of course),

but it turned out to be a delightful store-cum-museum of all things Peranakan: entire rooms of furniture, fabric, cultural outfits, houseware, stationery, gorgeous coffee-table books and all manner of souvenirs. 

This is a display case of Peranakan beaded slippers. They cost upwards of USD$130 a pair. 

Here is an old photo of a pair I beaded years ago. I still have my beading loom, and random templates and patterns, should I ever feel like making more. Unfortunately, they take months to bead (mine took years, because I procrastinated. Cough.).

These here are Peranakan tiles -

- not quite Chinese, not quite Malay, not quite European, but somehow all three.

Back in the old days, Singapore was full of these charming pre-war shophouses. Shophouses are two -, sometimes three- storey buildings that have a retail thing on the ground floor, and residential quarters upstairs. You can still find these in some parts of Singapore now - they're being deliberately preserved, thank heavens - even though a large part of the country are towering skyscrapers of concrete and glass. 

Anyway, these shophouses yell "old traditional architecture!" and, often, Peranakan tiles adorned their facades, 

or lined their staircases, 

or ran around their walls.

Here is a model of an old shophouse, with wooden shuttered windows and doors, and tilework.

Here is a display window with a line of tile underneath.

And this is a Peranakan-tiled Rubik's cube that I bought.

I'm such a sucker for Rubik's cubes. Back in elementary school, it was such a craze - and some of us could solve it in under three minutes. I still can - and once Emily had me do it for her (then) 4th grade class, who thought it was a Big Deal, even though I explained that it had nothing to do with being a genius - there's a method for solving it, which we learned when we were kids. I'm sure there are loads of youtube tutorials for it, if you're interested.

Here is Emily at an old Singer treadle, common in Peranakan homes (so as to do all that embroidery!) She was thrilled to see it, especially after her own introduction to the one in Grandma's house.

Finally, here is a tiffin carrier. 

I made a cardboard one way back when - remember this?

Here are more of them - real vintage tiffins (and you can see more tiles in the bottom right corner of the photo):

I thought I'd buy one to bring home.

This one's an enamel tourist replica (the shop owner candidly confessed, "it's digitally painted"),  so it isn't quite as charming as the authentic originals, but it unstacks,

and is gorgeous,

and the girls think it would be a hoot if I delivered their lunch to school in it someday.

It's interesting to me that, as I grow older, the obscure parts of my culture become more important to me. Part of me believes it has to do with my now living thousands of miles away from my country of origin; when one is utterly displaced from one's childhood roots, one naturally develops a new appreciation for what one previously took for granted (and, consequently, had no interest in). But another part of me blames motherhood and that inexplicable urge to "pass down" something of oneself to one's children. 

Interesting anecdote: I cannot count the number of times people (including strangers) have asked me if my children speak Chinese (I assume they meant Mandarin), followed immediately by whether I have plans to teach it to them. I usually stare at them, aghast, because
  • I am not as proficient at speaking Mandarin as they think
  • I don't enjoy speaking Mandarin as much as they think
  • I don't value speaking Mandarin as much as they think
  • if I did speak anything Chinese, I'd sooner it be Teochew than Mandarin
  • even if I harbored secret ambitions for my children to be bilingual (which I do),  I wouldn't presume that their second language would be Chinese
  • how on earth would my children enjoy learning Chinese completely out of context? It would be a rude encore of my own experience of rote-learning Chinese in school, accompanied with nightmarish exams, and much gnashing of teeth.

No, Mandarin Chinese was never part of my family culture, nor had it any contribution to the proverbial "roots" that all us Westernized "modern new-generation young 'uns" are supposed to be so poor at preserving. I still speak it whenever I'm in Singapore, along with smatterings of Teochew, Hokkien, Malay, and the colloquial English that is so fun to bark out in the country's heartland neighborhoods. My kids are always astonished when they first hear these languages spoken in Singapore at the beginning of each visit - all foreign sounds in their ears, but so natural in mine - and especially so when they hear the words fall from my own lips. 

"Mom," Jenna said to me on our first day of this trip, hearing me converse in Mandarin with the market food vendors, "I can't believe you can speak Chinese."

Neither can I. It all lies dormant during the 50 other weeks I live in America, when there is no context for it. I do not speak the way I look.

That said, I'd love for my kids to pick up Chinese later in school, if they decide they're interested enough in the culture to want to learn the language for themselves. If that happens, I'll cheer and unearth all my old Chinese paraphernalia and Peranakan bits and bobs and talk culture with them - authentic, personal culture, not the stereotypes that perpetuate from the way our eyes slant, or the color of our hair. 

But if they picked Spanish, or German, or something else instead, I'd be just as happy, and just as supportive. After all, culture is only part hereditary; there are so many other parts of it that are gleaned from the environment, or social influences, or even by the choices one makes as one collects life experiences in a myriad of settings. 

Like me - a Teochew Chinese Peranakan Singaporean, married to a Caucasian American with Scandinavian roots, and raising bicultural kids in the upper Midwest. And that's just ethnicity! Factor in personality, personal history, socio-economic circumstances, gender, faith, education, interests, and everything else that makes a person who they are, and it's a wonder that anyone can be pigeonholed as anything nowadays. I am certainly not who I was twenty years ago, even though I also am exactly who I was twenty years ago.

Someday, my kids will be ready to talk about who they are culturally. Already, I suspect, the scales of color-blindness are falling from their eyes - on the plane ride home, for instance, one of my kids watched the Disney movie Mulan, and remarked that she liked it because the characters looked like her. Then she said something that made me laugh: "But here's what's weird, Mom: all the words (like in the royal edicts in the movie) are written in Chinese, but they speak English!"

Indeed. How strange are the nuances of culture. Welcome to my world.


  1. I really enjoyed this post and look forward to seeing and learning more about Peranakan culture when we move to Singapore in July. Beautiful photos!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, LiEr. Thank you for sharing your heritage, your own personal history, your beautiful photos from your trip, and your thoughts. I appreciated your candor.
    Natalie (QSOgirl)

  3. Oh those shoes!
    And the batiks!
    And visiting family rarely feels like a holiday, even when they are just down the road. You never get to switch off the way you do when you go away for a break.
    Talk to your doctor about Melatonin for preventing jet lag. I know a few people who swear by it.

  4. This is a marvelously informative and interesting post - thanks!

  5. I'm a longtime follower of your blog. I like your crafts and sewing but what I love most is your writing. And I really really enjoyed this post.

  6. I love this! Thank you so much, I'm always so interested in the way other countries/cultures work and interact and how that all plays out.

  7. Thank you so much, it's a very interesting post. Greetings from Poland :-).

  8. I really loved this post, LiEr; thanks so much for sharing. I agree, visiting family is not a holiday! Kind regards, Sue

  9. You've been in my neck of the woods. My girls go to school in Tanjong Katong and I spend loads of time around Katong and Joo Chiat. I just love the Peranakan culture - the clothes, buildings, and the interesting blend of cultures. It's so lovely seeing your pictures. It would have been so funny if I'd run into you. Hope the jet lag isn't too horrible since you got back.

  10. Lovely post. Thanks so much for sharing your personal cultural perspective.

  11. Thank you for sharing about who you are. I enjoyed learning about your background and seeing all the wonderful creations. It was truly a delight for the eyes!

  12. LiEr, this is a beautiful post! Heritage is important, and I know there are studies that show children do better when they know more about their family history and hear family stories. I love your comment, "culture is only part hereditary". It rings particularly true to me, as someone who grew up nearly entirely outside of the culture my parents grew up in (and also outside of the small farm town where I spent the first six years of my life).

    I love the way you shared pieces of the subtleties and complexities of your heritage in this post. I love these personal posts of yours.

    We are taking our children to Scotland for one month this summer - back to Edinburgh where Emma was born. It will be their second time in Europe, but they were really too young to understand it the first time (Emma was three, Johnny turned two while we were there, Lily was three months old, and Anna wasn't born!), when we took them to visit my parents in Austria. Mike will be busy taking care of university students (that's how we are making it over there), but I am excited to take the kids and show them a piece of this part of their heritage.

  13. Very interesting post and so nicely written. I enjoyed how you wrote it. Thanks for sharing such great cultural post with the personal touch.

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, as I do all your writing. Thank you!

  15. Thank you so much for sharing all your wonderful insight about culture and heritage. I read every word of everything you post and never fail to be enlightened, informed and entertained. Today's post is no exception and may be my favorite. It makes me want to visit Singapore and gives me background information only available from a native. Thank you and keep up the good work with your daughters and your blog.

  16. Such a great perspective! I'm a first generation Indian married to a Caucasian man. My halfling children don't speak my mother tongue (and I've tried hard to teach them). I appreciate your point of view in learning a second language. Thank you for sharing such awesome pictures. That tiffin picture brought me back to my school days.

  17. Hi LiEr! What a wonderful post! I come from an Italian sub-culture in New England (talk about mixing oil & water!) and have lived most of my life in the San Francisco Bay area. I am also a baby boomer and and old hippie. I think that my own heritage is shaped by the people I have loved and who have loved and fed me! You and your family are very close to my heart and I appreciate all that you share with us. When I read your blog, it feels like you all live right next door to me. Thank you so much!

  18. Welcome home! We missed you! I wish I could offer you a cup of coffee and a nice sit down to chat up the stress of vacations back home. I miss Germany and everytime I'm there I feel like I'm home and a tourist at the same time. How can I avoid embracing a history as rich as mine?! And yet... I just want to chat with my cousins and cuddle new babies and drink tea or beer as we spend time as a family. Take a few days to do nothing and just watch the girls sink into being midwestern american girls again. It's how I was raised and it's a wonderful childhood. They'll take it for granted until they don't. It sounds like a stupid statement, but it makes sense once you're on the other side! If it were so rare that they didn't take it for granted that they got this adventure then you would regret not going more, but if weren't rare enough that they didn't get excited then you would wonder if they are too spoiled. They'll figure it out one day and adore you for making sure they got to enjoy it.

  19. I feel like visiting Singapore now! I love the old architecture, with living quarters over the shop. Thank you for the wonderful colorful patterns you pointed out to us. I have wanted to see what a tiffin carrier looked like ever since I read The Toy Sword, by Elizabeth Cadell. All so beautiful!

  20. Thank you for such an interesting read. When visiting Singapore, I've been curious about the history and the culture - I learned so much here that now, I want to go back and take a fresh look!

  21. Thank you for this great post. As a foreign service brat, I identify very much with this flexible view of culture, and the mix of languages and allegiances and identities that it creates. I haven't been to Singapore aside from the airport, but family members who lived nearby have (for medical services). I'd love to see it!

  22. Thank you so much for sharing this. I came for the cardboard tutorials, and I've stayed for your intellect and curiousity.

    As a mom, going on vacation is not a vacation. Or going anywhere with small children, frankly. It's about housekeeping in a house that is not mine. We traveled a lot when our children were small, and the only person that remembers where we went on those trips is my husband. I'm not bitter, but I wish we'd saved the money for when they were older and could carry their own bags and have their own interests.

  23. What a lovely post. The tiles on the buildings remind me of my trip to Portugal.

  24. Another longtime reader here coming out of the woodwork. I've been hanging around for a couple of years now (if you're curious, I Googled 'how do I make a panel skirt without a pattern', and then discovered I couldn't get enough of either your tutorials or the birthday parties you organise!). I loved this post; I know it's intensely personal, and I wanted to thank you for sharing it. Lovely writing.

  25. your writing makes me wish to travel home, but sadly the Manila of my youth isn't the Manila that it is now. I was there by myself last year, and as much as i would love to take the kids, it's much too huge an endeavor and cost! But then again I helped our son with his paper on the Philippines and felt such a pang that he didn't know much about what I still consider my homeland -- for both my kids it could maybe be Peru or Lapland for how connected they feel to it... except maybe the food!

  26. Thanks so much for this post. I learned A LOT about this area just from this post alone! What a great amalgamation of history and culture which express themselves in fabric, fashion and architecture. I know so little about this area and it is so rich in beauty.


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