Discoveries of identity – amidst other foreigners in Japan

Growing up, I’ve been called various things.

Banana^. Jiak kantang*. Mother tiger∞.

I can’t say more than a few simple sentences of dialect to my grandparents, and know only the most basic of Hokkien swear words.

In secondary school, I struggled with Mandarin, but managed to scrape through the O levels with a fairly decent grade thanks to sheer luck and my ‘bible’ – the 词语手册, from which I memorised vocabulary, grammar and model sentences.

As I come from a purely English-speaking home, I’ve been described as sounding “like an angmoh (Caucasian) trying to speak Mandarin”, which I’ve always found to be quite insulting to those angmohs who can speak Mandarin very fluently and accurately.

It never helped either that I am considered loud, assertive and unladylike by Singapore’s standards, where a willingness to engage in a debate with a male schoolmate and forcefully argue my points against an unreasonable opinion earned me the reputation of being “fierce” and “scary”.

Also, because I exceled at English, always had my nose in an English book, didn’t see why men should pay for a first date (what’s wrong with going Dutch?) and disagreed that a woman’s place is in the home, I was thought to be angmoh-pai (‘Westernised’) and somehow less Asian than most other Singaporeans.

While I bristled at some of those descriptions (what’s wrong with having a big, hearty laugh?), I never really questioned if I were really that Westernised in my thoughts and mannerisms – I merely took it to be the truth. After all, it wasn’t as if I were anything like a stereotypical Asian woman – gentle, domestic and demure.

It was a surprise then, when I was on the JET Programme, to discover that while I was a foreigner in Japan with other foreigners, that I wasn’t actually that foreign after all.

While I was a JET, like all the other JETs from countries including the US, UK, Australia and Canada, I did not share their astonishment and shock towards what to them were so Japanese and foreign – including squat toilets (present in France, Italy and most of Asia), fish served whole with the head and tail intact (common in Spain and Italy and present in Northern Ireland), and the habit of taking off one’s shoes to enter a home (widespread in Asia and practised in Sweden).

I did not think it strange to have the neighbours complain at midnight about noise from a house party. I did not find it absurd that fellow commuters would shoot dirty looks at a rowdy group of inebriated people on the train. Neither did I find it unreasonable that eating what is served or going through the motions of toasting and drinking are encouraged, if not expected, at Japanese corporate dinners.

Hence, it was only in Japan, among friends brought up in a ‘Western’ environment, that I realised how truly ‘Asian’ I am. As much as I may be considered ‘Westernised’ or hold views considered ‘liberal’ by people back home, at my core I possess key ‘Asian’ traits and principles that, while not usually practised, are most certainly firmly embodied.

That was the first time I was truly aware of my identity as a Chinese-Singaporean, born and bred in an ‘Asian’ society.

What’s your story of identity?

^: A Singlish, pejorative term used to describe ethnic-Chinese who think they are at heart a Caucasian.

*: Literally translating to “eat potato”, it’s a Singlish, pejorative term referring to a local person who adopts ‘Western’ practices, such as eating potatoes rather than rice or noodles as a staple.

∞: A literal translation of a Chinese term to refer to fierce women. 

Disclaimer: I am fully aware of the reductive, simplistic and sweeping nature of the ‘Asian’ vs ‘Western’ dichotomy. However, stereotypes and generalisations do hold a modicum of truth. Also, I have adopted these terms as they have been used on my all my life, and because I’ve never felt the differences between ‘East’ and ‘West’ more keenly and starkly than I did then in Japan.


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