Tuesday, September 18, 2007

forced inclusion, or comfortable exclusion?

i've had this come up in conversation a few times in the past couple of days, so figured it would make a good post. people keep asking me how i'm finding singapore. there's the easy answer, and then the longer one.

the easy: so far, so good.
the more complex: it's more than i expected. it's less than i expected.
...let's focus on the less, shall we?

singapore is ~70% chinese, ~20% malay, ~8% indian, and the rest is everything else (what's left of a mixed bag of expats and multinationals).

sounds like a veritable melting pot, doesn't it? a developed, cosmopolitan city, right in the center of asia. if only that were totally true.

don't get me wrong. this is way more of a city than some of the other places i've lived, and is a GREAT place to live…as i often joke with my mom that she shouldn’t worry bc i'm actually SAFER here than she is in the states). and i'm looking forward to the next several months here. but in some ways, i was thinking there would be more to it.

and i'm not going to dog on how many say the city has a limited amount of things to do. it's all in what you make of it (after all, i spent a large portion of my life somewhere i'd argue has LESS to do). i'm here to work during the day, and travel in all of my free time. everything else in between will be (hopefully) spent making good friends, eating great food, and spending some time in new surroundings, away from everything else that was once familiar (the last of those being a healthy thing to do every few years...if only for a few weeks, i'd highly recommend it).

what's disappointing on the inclusion that seems to be missing here in singapore. better put, the social-mixing of ethnic groups is somewhat lacking. to be clear, we definitely don't have this one solved back in the US. and perhaps my opinion is somewhat skewed given i'm a 1st generation american (of foreign descent) who's grew up in suburban (white) america. i had to assimilate + aclimatize, and have always found myself with anyone who's somewhat interesting (just being yourself helps) and not (a) pretentious or (b) a jerk. one of my pet peeves about MANY indian kids my age in the states has always been that they tend to only want to socialize with eachother (case and point being a large group of them congregating on my back porch at a recent going away party, or go out to any club in a US city and you’ll see what I mean).

it's not about diversity for the sake of diversity. it's about doing your own thing, and just stumbling upon it. and that's just it. my friends are diverse, not because i want them to be, it just kind of happened that way. my first 2 friends in cincinnati - a white guy and a black guy. my roommate, a white guy who happens to be a republican (i try not to hold that against him). my girlfriend, a chinese girl from florida (though about as chinese as i am indian). of my other super-close set of friends, only are a pair of my out-of-town, usually-only-by-phone people really indian (not counting my sister, since she automatically makes the cut since we’re related, but calling her out would be nepotism, which should be frowned upon)- a guy i grew up with, and a girl i've known forever. in my extended circle of local (cincinnati) friends there are a few more white guys, few more indians, etc, etc. there's even a half white/indian guy (that can play a mean guitar hero), and a pretty cute half white/black girl. let’s top it all of with one of my favorite people at work , a venezualan guy. and we all hold hands and sing "it's a small world" (or was "we are the world"?). i never know.

...and THIS is all in a country that's ~70% white, ~12% black, >12% hispanic, and <5% asian

so here, in singapore, why isn't there more social intermingling? probably the a greater degree of the same reason there is none in a large part of the US. people just don’t want to. period. they'd rather stick with what they know and what is comfortable. and who can blame them? here in singapore i personally seek it out, because i've traveled to a far away land (hell, i'm discovering that i tend to like my indian peers here more than their counterparts in US :). but for the locals, this is where they grew up. this is what they know. does that make it any better?

the chinese.
now that i look back and compare the numbers, singapore is ~70% chinese. the US is ~70% white. so who does a better job of mixing? i really think the US wins hands down here (and i grew up in alabama). but why is that so? i have no idea. i don't fully understand chinese people/culture yet. give me a few months and i'll get back to you. but i DO find it ironic that in a city full of chinese, they felt the need to label a particular area "chinatown."

i'm not sure i'm making complete coherent sense as i jump around, but hopefully you can get the general sense of what i'm thinking so far.

the indians.
indians in singapore largely keep to themselves. i've found there are 3 kinds of indians here (not including the ex-pat imported from another non-indian country type like yours truly).

#1-there's the migrant worker, who i have often seen digging ditches (literally), cleaning buildings, and riding around in the back of trucks from one construction site to another (many from sri lanka, but let's just generalize and put all south asians together, shall we?).

#2- then there's the 1st/2nd generation type. those who came here for good professional opportunity (doctor, professor, engineer, etc), and brought/raised their family here. i've met a few so far.

#3- finally, there's the ex-pat. with all the global corps + multinationals putting their asian hubs here (for which india is often one of their top/growing-ist markets), they're naturally going to source talent from indian universities (probably 30-40% of my office fits this criteria).

so it looks like you've got a pretty solid indian community going, right? quite the opposite, in fact. while little india does indeed rock here*, it's not because these 3 indian communities are intermingling. they are largely exclusive of one another. and 2 of these groups are in the same socio-economic class! i guess i'll call their split more generational (after all, what 20/30-something indian young urban professional wants to hang with the uncles + aunties, or their underrage/college-age kids?).

but to be fair, none of these individual indian groups (with few exceptions, like with anything) seem to want to hang out with people from any of the other large ethnic groups here.

*all that being said, little india IS so far my favorite part of town, and NOT because i'm indian. but because it's a chaotic oasis to the clean streets and shopping malls that i find my self sometimes drowning in...

the malaysians.
i have no idea what's going here with these guys. not enough interaction or observation. statistically speaking though, they've got to be here!

but today at work i had coffee + got to know a rather nice coworker from malaysia (though she is ethnically chinese!). and i did go to quite a good malaysian restaraunt on circle rd the the other day. the pedang chicken was delicious. give me a few months. i'll get to the bottom of these guys too and continue making brash, off-base generalizations.

closing thoughts.
so now that i've offended everyone (for which i have NO apology to offer), i am going to write a love letter to cheese & crackers (not supposed to be a racial metaphor, i genuinely have a recently rediscovered soft spot for the delicious combination of crispiness and creaminess).

maybe when I go back to japan in a few weeks i’ll get a sense of what racial inclusion is supposed to be like (blatant sarcasm)

...oh cheese and crackers, why must you be so delicious?


  1. i stood on the back porch at your party...all the other indians just migrated towards me.

  2. Paras, thats not exactly how i remember it...

    You went out back and everyone else left... only people that stayed were people that felt "sorry" for you...

  3. Anonymous10:07 PM

    Observation true to a certain extent but still biased due to sampling error. But the cause before the effect is always interesting.
    Expats join the melting pot too late in the game…they tend not to trickle down to the rest of batter because they don’t see the need to. They’ve not studied with the locals, they don’t have a history with them and when you are new to a country there is a certain amount of effort and an open mind required to mingle with the locals. Instead of moving towards the locals and assimilating, they find their comfort zone with other expats. It’s just like home..why try hard to fit in?

    Their Kids- It really all depends where you went to school..if you went to the International School or Indian School you’re pretty much cut off from the heartlander experience. But if you go to public school it is great fun. It’s the same minority story you hear , for every 40 pple in your class 2 indians, 3 –4 Malays. Your close group of friends invariably are Chinese and you end up speaking singlish, knowing Cantonese swear words, playing majong , barbecue and sing Karaoke. You meet your ethinic counterparts in language classes but how close you are to them does not depend on ethnicity but depends on personality trait. My closest friends have always been Chinese(I am a minority), that’s purely because of probability. We share the same interests in life and yes we’ve now grown and have taken different paths but we still are there for each other.

    In Singapore its hard to assimilate with the locals because their motivation to include an expat into their group is very low. They have friends who they have know since kindergarten who have not moved away from Singapore, then there is their primary,secondary,junior college and Uni friends they picked up on the way. Did I mention their 14 cousins from both sides of the family and ofcourse church cell group. Oh yes there is their work friends with whom they practically live with, since we put in close to 12 hours a day at work. But once you are in…enjoy the heartlander experience because you’ll never experience it anywhere..not so sure you’ll like it at first..but it grows on you!

  4. Anonymous10:39 PM

    i'm sure you'll disagree but i think you reveal more about yourself with your post then you do about "others." so...you talk about how the indians chose to congregate together on the back porch. i suppose this is true. what you miss, or rather, choose to see is the fact that the indians were all "congregated." this is how your frame viewed this (and then look at the context you frame this point around). ok, now another way to frame that is a whole bunch of p&g'ers chose to segregate themselves outside in your porch. hmm? yeah, i just looked at the pictures to confirm my memory.

    we were outside together because we all knew each other. from work. blame p&g for hiring a lot of indians. and you for inviting them. this example in the context of your larger observation falls flat.

    but i still like your blog.


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