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Alternative selves

Other identities on roads not taken

IT WAS MY parents’ first visit to Australia, and within minutes of entering Woolworths I had lost both of them. I paced the supermarket’s aisles in a minor panic and eventually found them in the soft-drinks aisle. ‘Two dollars,’ my father said, holding up a can of Coca-Cola. My mother winced at the price. Moments ago, she had been impressed with the range of available cereal brands and she was already counting down the hours till she could safely drink another signature Melbourne latte without aggravating her chronic heartburn. However, judging from this reaction, and her tsk-tsk noises when she noted the cost of bananas (this was 2011, during the Queensland droughts that prompted price hikes across the nation), I knew that Australia was already asking too much of her.

The conversation broadened beyond food prices after we left the supermarket. How cold did it get in winter? How much petrol did I use on my daily commute? Where was the closest Sikh temple, and was it on a public transport route? This practice of assessing another country for its livability, even without any plans of uprooting themselves, is second nature to my parents. They carried similar curiosities to visits to Canada and England, returning not with snapshots of Niagara Falls or Buckingham Palace but detailed knowledge of income-tax thresholds and how long it took to pay off a mortgage in Toronto or London. Tourist must-sees and cultural activities were not prioritised; first, tell us about living here.

My parents are hardwired to see potential everywhere, a trait that I inherited and which fuelled my compulsion to travel in adulthood. I am uncomfortable with the idea of living permanently in one place, and concerned about the fate of my personal and cultural identity when I consider other places to call home. This curiosity is perhaps the reason I’ve always been drawn to literature, news stories and films that explore the migrant narrative – stories of loss and regret, of adapting to new worlds and forsaking the old.

However, the typical migrant narrative is increasingly dissatisfying because it does not fully align with my experience as a second generation Singaporean with roots in India. The most commonly portrayed immigrant trajectory goes from East to West, where cultural differences are starkly observed and distances are measurable by oceans. But our journey is better described as East to further East, where cultures overlapped clumsily rather than clashed in direct opposition to each other. Audiences of the East–West narrative understand the migrant to be a drifting, stateless being, never achieving permanence or stability. This description fits my family but is somewhat incomplete: our identity also lies in speculation about lands we’ve never had a chance to live in. We consider the worlds we could have inhabited, imagining alternative routes and tracing our largely untold story along the lines of colonial history.

 

THE STORY BEGINS in Punjab, India, where both my paternal and maternal grandparents were born and raised as the children of landowners. Neither abundantly wealthy, nor mired in poverty, my grandfathers had just enough motivation and means to search for opportunities overseas. Already, this is where their narrative diverges from the more familiar story of Punjabi migrants in that era: families desperately scrambling out of dusty war-torn villages during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. I was always aware that my grandparents’ struggle was a quieter story of personal advancement rather than basic survival. Centuries of colonial rule had taught my grandfathers that prestige was to be earned by crossing oceans.

Growing up, I was curious about my grandfathers’ choices. Why Singapore? I understood that England was also an option to economic migrants at the time, and I always felt a pinch of envy at the version of myself that could have grown up in London; surely, since the UK was the pinnacle of success, the best version of me existed in some alternate British reality. But it seemed the British colonies also needed help in the 1940s, and borders were open to people who wanted to serve. When the ruling British government in Singapore began a new recruitment wave of police officers on the Sembawang Naval Base, both of my grandfathers seized the opportunity to enlist.

The promise of prestige was upheld in this new life in Singapore. My paternal grandfather still recalls with pride making his rounds through the naval base, his turban signifying his heritage and servitude to the regime that he had followed from India to Singapore to protect. He took his association with the British as an opportunity to carry on developing personally, improving his written and spoken English by searching for words in the dictionary and underlining important phrases in the newspapers. Here he was able to provide a stable future for his family, maintaining the same measure of migrant success as his counterparts who had settled in Western countries. This is the part of the story that was always sold to me as a sort of consolation; I didn’t grow up in England, but our lives as Commonwealth citizens closely mimicked a path not taken.

My parents carved out a similar narrative. As the children of Indian immigrants to Singapore during British rule, their cultural identities were multifarious and transient. Their conversations switched with ease between English, Malay and Punjabi. My maternal and paternal grandmothers spoke just enough Malay to bargain at the market, and they had little reason to learn English as they didn’t venture outside their close-knit Punjabi migrant community. Their homes felt alien as their children returned from school each day chattering away in a foreign language, but they forgave; after all, they were better off here.

‘Better off’ was a comparative and unconvincing term to my first-generation parents. In their childhood, Singapore was a fledgling nation. Poor sanitation, disease, overcrowding and a lack of natural resources added to a list of growing threats to the country’s future. By the early 1960s, social and political instability moved my parents to question the permanence of their home. In 1963, British rule ended in Singapore as the nation merged with the Malaysian federation. Just two years later, disagreements led to a humiliating expulsion and Singapore was set adrift once again.

 

I WAS BORN twenty years after the doomed merger, which in hindsight was presented in history lessons as the beginning of Singapore’s change in fortunes. By then, we were taught to be proud of our quick recovery and progress. But in my parents’ lived experience, independence was no triumph. Singaporeans turned to the prime minister for assurance and were met with uncertainty: his eyes welled with tears during a press conference as he admitted there were difficult times ahead. Although my parents were only in primary school at this time, this was where their speculations about other homelands began to take root. The foundations of this borrowed country were shaky at best, and questions of ‘where to go next’ were whispered in households across the migrant settlements. If their parents had packed up their lives to come to Singapore, couldn’t this new generation continue the journey to find a more stable future?

A common immigrant East–West journey follows a man going from India to the United Kingdom. It goes from poverty to wealth, from lack of opportunities to streets paved with gold, from native language to Queen’s English. So when my paternal grandfather left Punjab for Singapore, many of his fellow officers saw Singapore as a stepping-stone towards the grand prize – England. The prize was offered sooner than anybody expected. As part of the severance package when the British withdrew, citizenship was offered to officers who had served them in Singapore. Many families left for England, but my grandfather stayed behind. It didn’t make sense to uproot his family when he had been offered a good transfer in the local police force. He had a community that looked up to him for his strong values and motivation toward self-improvement. Why subject his family to new uncertainties at this stage?

As with any major life decision, my grandfather was aware of how this would shape his family’s future, but I wonder about his doubts and how long they lingered. Surely, comparisons between England and Singapore often arose – was there any comfort for those moments when he questioned his choice? Many of the officers who decided to stay in Singapore set a precedent for a new, more modest immigrant trajectory and they had to justify their choice over and over again to those who questioned why they would take a gamble between living in a stable, powerful nation like England and a tiny South-East Asian state in its infancy. Their migrant story had less dramatic impact than the typical East–West narrative. If you put your finger on a map, the move is almost imperceptible – not a sweeping line between continents but a mere shift in degrees.

For my parents, the loss of one potential home meant embracing another. As their entry into adulthood coincided with the nation’s coming of age, their loyalty to Singapore strengthened and they accepted it as their permanent home. My father became a customs officer, where the work and rhetoric of protecting our borders was strong. He later took up a post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, proudly representing Singapore on postings to other nations. My mother read the national broadsheet from cover to cover each day, impressed with daily news of our country’s rapid progress. This is a good country, they told me. You should be thankful to live here.

However, the colonial hangover persisted. My convent school had a very strict policy against speaking other languages in the classroom, and ‘broken English’ was a scourge to be removed by regular diction lessons. One of our family relics was a tattered copy of an English grammar handbook passed down from my uncle. The archaic phrasing was already unsuitable in the early 1990s, when I was a convent schoolgirl. I remember being called upon to recite genders for various nouns: steward and stewardess, lion and lioness, but I paused at ‘negro’, knowing that the word was out of date and that I had never heard anybody refer to a ‘negress.’ But nobody questioned the sacred handbook – it was the Queen’s English after all. There was something aspirational about those recitation sessions; we stood, enunciating like the British, with straight backs and squeezed out the syllables in a careful, practiced accent that had no currency outside the classroom walls.

Our imagined narratives began to take the shape of British stories. We borrowed Enid Blyton books from the library. In English class, we penned tales of boarding school and snowflakes drifting across cottage windows despite our real lives playing out in government housing flats in a tropical city-state. When learning about the history of Singapore in social studies class, the presence and diversity of indigenous Malay communities were eclipsed by the achievements of the British settlers. There was brief mention of Sang Nila Utama, who named the island Singapura after seeing a lion, but it was a whimsical story, reduced to legend, largely dismissed for the more detailed story of Sir Stamford Raffles’s arrival and the official founding of our nation. It was important to memorise the hard facts and dates of the British founding of our country, and so we did.

Britain existed in our lives only as a concept, not a real place. This changed when my family took a first trip to the UK to visit with friends who had settled in London. I was eleven years old and had made a list of all that I wanted to see: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, George Michael. I sensed the same buzzing excitement in my parents as we landed in Heathrow Airport. Britain was finally going to be three-dimensional to me.

What we saw in England surprised us. Our family friends lived in a suburb called Southall – also known as London’s Little India. Southall was a Punjabi enclave where bhangra music pounded from car speakers, the golden domes of Sikh temples rose above the slanting roofs of Victorian terraces and patrons of the local pub could pay for their drinks in rupees.

The family had a daughter my age who was keen to show me England, but the England she knew was not what I had envisioned. The only pop songs my new friend knew were from Bollywood movies. She spoke more fluent Punjabi than my parents did. My parents later joked that their friends had moved all the way to England but didn’t get much further than the airport. Southall was only seven miles from Heathrow. Their version of London was not the immigrant progress that we had imagined.

 

I WAS REMINDED of this trip during the Brexit referendum in 2016. Supporters of the Leave campaign made scapegoats out of immigrant communities that hadn’t assimilated into Britain, pointing to enclaves like Southall. Ironically, it seemed that Britain’s aspirations to be on its own mimicked those migrants’ own survival methods: suspicion, alienation and a desire to preserve their own culture. I wondered how my alternative self, the girl who grew up in Britain, would have reacted to the increasing vilification of migrants. Would I have felt alienated in my homeland? How British would I have been?

I also reconsidered the aspiration towards British citizenship as an emblem of migrant achievement. The definition of ‘success’ had certainly broadened and become more complex over the years. While it was enough for families in my grandfather’s generation to gain financial stability, safety and educational opportunities for their children, my generation wanted acceptance. They wanted their hyphenated identities to be acknowledged and celebrated. They fought for the right to be recognised as British and Indian, and not to have their loyalties to either country questioned and scrutinised. Success and happiness were more than about gaining citizenship – they were also about individual acceptance.

In 2010, searching for equilibrium in my own East–West identity, I moved to Australia. Singapore felt stifling to me: the emphasis on consumerism, the rising house prices and the competitive work culture. As a member of a minority racial community, my claim to Singapore felt tenuous; I felt alienated in my workplace, where the majority of colleagues were Chinese and spoke in Mandarin to each other about important work matters, and I didn’t identify with many aspects of Singapore’s conservative culture. My family understood such reasons but also questioned them. They cited our trip to England, and other disadvantages of living in the West. My rejection of Singapore felt like a dismissal of their hard work to shape their adopted land into a home.

It was difficult to explain my compulsion to leave and continue the migrant journey. I didn’t think the move would be permanent, and it wasn’t – six years later, I returned to Singapore, but the knowledge that I can leave and assimilate elsewhere is a source of comfort. I identified with the laid-back Aussie culture, and the ability to see humour in most situations. I enjoyed the openness and inclusiveness, and felt more at ease as a minority because race wasn’t as big a definer in multicultural Melbourne as it is in post-colonial Singapore. My husband is Australian and we return for holidays. The ease with which I slip back into my Australian identity, and the values from Australia that I carry back with me, are validations of my efforts to blend past and present.

When my parents visited me in Melbourne during that summer of 2011, their curiosity about my way of living suggested they would always be searching for ‘home’. Who would any of us be if different decisions had been made? Perhaps this is the question that haunts all narratives, regardless of our personal and global histories – there will always be a shadow life running parallel to this one, reminding us that our stories can be rewritten as many times as the journeys we take.


From Griffith Review Edition 61: Who We Are © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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