This was supposed to be a funny post. Then this became a really sad post. Then this became a really, really, massively blow-up angry post. Now I’m just sitting here confused, because I’ve gone through so many emotions over a country that I’ll never call my own. (It’s like that cousin you see once a year who’s really everything and you are like I just need to get through this but on the other hand you really really want to mass text everyone) So maybe the way to start this post is to start with the basics, about what is amusing and heartbreaking and infuriating and confounding all at once: America, you put up barriers where there should be none. America, you tell me there’s already a story to know.
America, one of you just told me that you do not have the patience to talk to me about what was apparently an offensive comment I made. You told me that I cannot choose to be not offensive, that’s not how the world works, that I need to learn about the reality of the world, and that you are ending this conversation now. That even when you think that what I said was problematic, you will not talk to me about it, that I need to go find out on my own why it is so (as if any book could ever tell me about why you, you in particular, find it so). So let me try to explain: this is why I don’t think it’s offensive to say that we need to consider the multiplicity of white voices too, even as we talk about black and rainbow and all sorts of other coloured voices too: because when you shut any voice off, you do the exact same sort of silencing that you decry.
This is what I think about, when I think about race back at home. I think about how being Singaporean is more important than being Chinese to me; that all I want to hear is the Singlish voice, about Singapore food, from another Singaporean. Malay and Indian and Eurasian and Korean (Kim Bumsoo this is for you), anyone also can, so long as they say it with the right lah. I think about buay tahan, the weight of two languages on my tongue; how we all japalang rojak, all mixed together. Race is important, but in a different way; I am Hainanese in abstract, Chinese in my roots, and Singaporean in practice. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that being Singaporean and trying to figure out what that means, is more important than trying to figure out what being Chinese means; I don’t think I’m alone in saying that there are problems either. I also don’t think I’m alone in saying it’s okay to say both; to be both preoccupied with a place where race and privilege will not matter, and to acknowledge that we are not at that place yet and we still have many things to work through.
I don’t think that I’m alone in thinking that we need to operate from a place of goodwill, that we need to believe that these problems can be fixed if we hammer away at it enough, if we come together enough as an entire country and sit down and listen to each other; that if we believe hard enough in that future, we can actually get over our problems, but we need to do it together. This is what I hear, then, when I hear you speak, America, about race, about how certain groups must take the wheel, and other groups need to stop because they’ve had their turn. I hear you writing the old narrative all over again, in a different way; writing in certain voices, blocking out others, only one group steering, creating one extreme to mediate the other.
You will continue to perpetuate the idea that it is okay to silence a voice, simply because they won’t be affected. You will continue to promote the idea that there are standards that can be applied to decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t. You will continue to draw lines in the sand between you and me, us and them; you draw ever finer distinctions, more and more tight knit communities, people who you identify with and people who you do not want to talk to, who you do not want to listen to or engage with. America, do you not understand that this is how people fall apart, how communities build walls that cannot be torn down? America, I thought you wanted to end segregation, so why will you not try to come together, to listen to each other?
So much of what is here seems to be just screaming at each other; you want people to hear you, but do you want to hear what others have to say? America, who taught you that some people are worth listening to and others are not? If they are your countrymen, are they not your people? I don’t understand you as a country, America; what holds you together? What is your gen, what ties you to this land and to the rest of your people? America, maybe your country is big enough for you to find enclaves and niches and places where you never need to move beyond your comfort zone; maybe you can hop from city to city, choose the communities you agree with and leave the rest. Maybe you can live your life not wanting to understand the other side, not wondering what keeps them up at night.
Carve out, then, what you disagree with. Reinforce your opinions with steel beams; lock arms and hearts, demarcate where others cannot tread. Create safe spaces, install your defenses, block out what you deem invalid. America you are a minefield I do not know how to navigate. America, you oversold yourself; you told me that in your campuses lay a dialogue and discourse I can find nowhere else, you told me that I have a place and space to say what I want to say and yet you tell me that there are answers already laid out for me to find, you will close doors in my face and you will not look at what I had to say. America, it is your right to reject a voice; but know the nature of grace. Know that to give one the power to bar means to give it to another too, know that to silence anything is to open yourself up for silencing too. Know that grace is vicious in its own way; what you give is given to all, for good or for ill.
America, I struggle with being a student here because I never know what to say. You tell me not to say; you tell me what I should say. But this is not real for me; but you will not give space for what comes from overseas, you will not grant possibility to what else America could be, you proudly proclaim the American way even as you criticize the way America is. What change is there to be found, in talking amongst yourselves? What change could be found, if you would hear others out a bit more?
America, I question you this: must you really be like this?