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by Yvette Choo

It is another Sunday where the heat pummels your senses senseless and whispers murder, bloody murder in your ear, while the humidity, a force of nature on its own, collects in the crevices of your body and begins its damp, odiferous subterfuge. Any place un-air-conditioned- horror of horrors, feels like a wrestler’s armpit. Such days, I want to emigrate. And wonder why I returned in the first place. Twenty below Boston weather suddenly sounds charming.

We go to Ikea, the Current Love Of My Life and I. It makes me instantly happy. Besides being air-conditioned, Ikea offers many perfect model rooms of the perfect model home you could never own but hope to, in spite of everything. Their secret is in the experience, the journey, of that hope. It helps that hope springs eternal, which explains the maddening crowd. Evidently, Ikea is as much a religious experience for me as a good two-thirds of Singapore.

We are close to the check-out counters on the way out when we see proud stacks of foldable chairs in cheery yellow and white, as well as a nauseating turquoise. “God,” I mutter, “who would buy these fucking ugly blue chairs.” Evidently God was listening, because a large noisy family sprang forth from the crowd and began piling their carts with heaps of fucking ugly turquoise/blue chairs.

“Indonesians,” whispers the Current Love Of My life. I nod gravely while piling fire-cracker red stools into my cart. “They probably paint their walls pink.” I say, distastefully. “No, that would be Malay.” We laugh.

Singapore proffers itself as a multi-racial, multi-cultural country, with much emphasis on equality and meritocracy. We have four national languages- English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. “And you speak all four?” People often ask me, impressed. “No. Just two- English and Chinese.” I reply, feeling a little disappointed in myself and a good half less exotic and glamorous. The Chinese are the majority in Singapore, the Malays a close second, after them the Indians, with Eurasians, Europeans and other races a scant minority. Perhaps it has to do with belonging in the smugness of the majority. But nevertheless, I have yet to encounter racism- the nasty insidious kind or its more violent cousins, in Singapore. What I do meet is the unapologetic, matter-of-fact variety, no less chafing, no less vulgar, no less a caricature of a stereotype but infinitely more comforting in its brash honesty. The Chinese are materialistic, the Malays are lazy, the Indians are wife-beaters and the Eurasians are… well, I don’t know, but no matter because there’s so few of them anyway.

I am not so much a racist as a yellow supremist, one of those rare things in life. The fact is that after generations of British colonialism, a nasty Japanese occupation and the current global epidemic of everything-American, I feel like I’ve earned the right. While my European counterparts still suffer some of the monstrous guilt over the Holocaust.

Still I think, the charge of racism is a cliché, whether by those who employ it or those who suffer it. Blaming the single, glaringly obvious denominator between us requires little effort, imagination to say the least. It is an all too easy scapegoat for every bad social situation, every alleged slight, and every perceived insult. And in these days of our global village, it is an appalling charge.

It is in Italy and America that I discover a cold creeping fear, a tightness around the heart, pointing slowly but surely to the possibility of being fucked by my own logic. Nothing too overt of course, the Americans are far too sensitive and politically correct while the Italians have a certain bourgeois dignity to maintain. It is in the subtle change of manner and tone; a note of impatience here, a quality of coldness there, and a general can’t-be-bothered-ness everywhere. (A note: This is not the sum of all my experiences of course. I have some superb Italian friends and a few very sick-fuck American ones.)

Culture perhaps, I think adamantly to myself. People are inherent xenophobes, at once suspicious yet curious, especially when confronted with an alien in their own county. The most popular defense is a self-perceived superiority. Ironically, the aliens apply this same superiority to themselves. “Italians are all bloody dirty. And damn lazy too. Too lazy to even sweep their own streets. I sweep my shop front twice a day, sometimes thrice, as you can see… ”, an irate Chinese restaurateur once said to me, rather haughtily. It was a complaint that struck me as grossly untrue. Italians are notorious hypochondriacs, true paranoid obsessive-compulsives in all matters of hygiene while the Chinese, well, the Chinese are somewhat lacking in this respect, especially with regards to public sanitation. It is a well-acknowledged fact that some of the foulest toilets in the world are Chinese.

Race is too easy a target when you are vulnerable and alone in a foreign country. And no matter your most rational justifications, it creeps up on you. I felt it most in Boston. America is a free country no doubt, they proclaim it all over the place, in their literature, on their televisions, in their movies - it is not easy to miss, harder to ignore. Yet what explains the willing social segregation of American Africans, American Chinese, and American Hispanics etc. What explains the peering curiosity of my American Chinese counterparts? “So people in Singapore speak and read Chinese? And English too? That’s totally cool man. Want to hang out?” I feel happy, a little used, immediately less lonely. It is a most unusual feeling to make someone feel validated enough to become friends with you, on account of your race. Or is it culture now.

March 2005


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