“Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?”
This is a question I’ve been asked many times since arriving in Singapore, one that’s deceptive in its simplicity. I moved to China from the US when I was nine, and lived there for nine years before moving back to the US for college. Whenever people asked me “where are you from?” back in China, I would always refer to the US with nostalgia. But my reply could change over time and space – after completing high school and arriving in Amherst as a college freshman, I found myself reaching for “China” whenever asked about my hometown. Perhaps it’s the many years living there that has shaped me. Perhaps it was the feeling of groundedness to my cultural heritage in a western setting. Today, studying at Yale-NUS as an exchange student, I find myself again reconsidering my reply. Living in the US for college for more than two years has fostered my growth, and Amherst has undoubtedly become an integral part of my identity. “Where are you from” has become a way for me to navigate my multicultural identity.
At Yale-NUS, I was surprised to find that my multicultural identity actually fostered a sense of belonging. Growing up, I envied my peers who didn’t need to move to a new city every few years, who never struggled to fathom their identity. Even at Amherst, it wasn’t easy to find people who could relate to my experiences or the internal contradictions I felt. But to my surprise, many students at Yale-NUS resonated with my experiences. International students make up more than 40% of the student body at this small liberal arts college. But diversity is not merely a statistic: it’s a real, raw, and lived experience. Some of my greatest memories here have simply been the conversations with my peers: listening to their stories of living in different countries and educational environments, understanding the challenges they faced in the transition process, and finding out how they ultimately came to Singapore and for our paths to collide. I was comforted by my peers’ genuine interest in my background and their assurance that my experience was “not complicated at all”. I am aware that Yale-NUS is not representative of Singapore’s population.
It’s also been fascinating to consider how students of multicultural backgrounds chose to identify themselves, particularly how those with similar experiences might label themselves differently. For instance, during our first meeting a friend stated he was from Thailand; but it wasn’t until deeper conversation later on that I learned that he had spent more than ten years in the US as a child. Our experiences are capable of shaping our identities, while we are capable of choosing how those experiences influence our identity.
After the event, we picnicked in the courtyard to enjoy a typical Orang Laut meal, with lots of seafood, spices, and chili
In addition to the international student body, I’ve also gained greater insight on how locals identify themselves and the subtleties of local culture. A couple of weeks ago, Yale-NUS held its annual Diversity Week, and one of the most memorable events was a talk by Firdaus Sani, a fourth-generation Orang Laut. The Orang Laut are an ethnic people who once occupied Pulau Semakau, an island south of Singapore. However, in 1977 the government forced the Orang Laut to relocate to the mainland in order to turn the island into a landfill. During his talk, Firdaus introduced us to the Orang Laut ways of life, from its nomadic fishing lifestyle to its unique religious practices. In addition, he highlighted the challenges that his family faced in adapting to life on the mainland. Before coming to Singapore, I was only aware of ethnic and cultural diversity through conventional rigid categorizations such as CIMO (Chinese, Indian, Malay, Others). But my experiences here so far have pushed me to explore the more nuanced aspects of Singapore’s diversity: the ways in which the inhabitants identify themselves, and the rich stories and heritages that arise with these unique identifications. Orang Laut may be simply categorized as Malay. a crucial component of Firdaus’ identity. I couldn’t help wondering: what drives people to be connected to a particular place or culture? Little do I actually know about the place and its people.
I once believed that our identities are fixed and unchanging. But my experiences in Singapore so far has allowed me to appreciate that there are facets of our identity that are highly contextual and constantly evolving.