Gen Z Speaks: As a Malay-speaking Indian girl of mixed heritage, here’s how I celebrate racial harmony every day
Growing up in Singapore, my life has been a colourful tapestry of diverse cultures and languages.
My journey has been one of self-discovery, introspection, and a profound appreciation for racial harmony.
From enjoying various cuisines at hawker centres to celebrating festive occasions with friends of different ethnic and religious groups, I am thankful for living in a diverse country that celebrates multiculturalism.
But for those with complex ancestry like me, who find ourselves at the intersection of different cultures, it is often the case that we have to grapple with the complex concept of identity.
You see, my forefathers came from diverse backgrounds, including of Eurasian, Indian, and Peranakan origins.
My grandparents and great-grandparents lived in a typical Singaporean kampung and spoke Malay.
On the other hand, my maternal grandfather hailed from Pondicherry and was a Malayalee who spoke English, Malayalam, and Tamil. When he came to Singapore in the 1930s, he married my grandmother and picked up Malay conversationally.
And so, while English became the sole language spoken at home by my entire family, I studied Malay in school, despite it being customary for most Indian students to learn Tamil in Singapore.
Let me just say that I deeply appreciate how harmony between different races has been such an integral part of my family history and my own life.
With my mixed heritage, I take immense pride in my identity as an Indian girl.
Nevertheless, despite Singapore being multicultural, some people have found my background confusing.
Although my South Asian roots primarily trace back to Tamil origins, like I said earlier, I do not speak the language.
When I was younger, this caused an identity crisis for me. Unlike my friends who learned and spoke their mother tongues, and were thus able to connect with their culture through language, I couldn’t do the same.
Language was just one aspect that contributed to my sense of being different. As Catholics, my family celebrates Easter and Christmas, and we do not observe Hindu festivals like Holi or Deepavali.
I have been ridiculed for both my unfamiliarity with popular Bollywood music and films and my limited tolerance for spicy food.
Over time, I became aware of some unfair judgements that people have made about my cultural background.
It troubled me greatly that my inability to speak Tamil or follow certain practices painted me as a “fake Indian”, and true enough, others have called me that before.
I was deeply distressed by the thought of not holding up to the image that many people have about Indians.
SEEKING TO LEARN MORE ABOUT OWN HERITAGE
Thankfully, I no longer hold such beliefs now. Just because I do not know how to speak Indian languages or follow cultural traditions does not make me less of an Indian.
Over the years, I took it upon myself to learn more about Indian culture to deepen my connection with my heritage.
Through literature and university courses, I delved into the history of Indians in Singapore and the myriad traditions of different Indian groups such as Gujarati and Maharashtrian, I eagerly engaged my lecturers with questions that they have always graciously answered.
For example, I enrolled in a “South Asia in Singapore" course at the National University of Singapore, where I learnt about the historical context and migration patterns of South Asians here spanning from the colonial era to the contemporary period.
The course underscored the remarkable diversity among South Asians in Singapore, highlighting variations in their origins, languages, and religious affiliations, thereby dispelling the notion of a homogeneous South Asian community.
Moreover, I found joy in sharing my cultural journey with loved ones who have happily joined me in my visits to the museums and heritage trails. This year alone, I have visited the Indian Heritage Centre in Little India three times.
Participating in community events is also a wonderful way to connect with people from different backgrounds and understand different cultures.
I regularly volunteer at my neighbourhood’s community club, and I have had the pleasure of teaming up with a diverse group of friends to create a music video for a Deepavali celebration.
We filmed in Little India, engaging with various shopkeepers, and immersing ourselves in their traditional trades. We embraced the spirit of Deepavali by dressing up in colourful ethnic costumes and partaking in the festivities.
We learned about the significance of Deepavali and the vibrant celebrations, such as preparing delicious delicacies like gulab jamun and creating Rangoli patterns using coloured powders to usher prosperity.
Another community event that gave me new insights were the Racial Harmony Day carnival celebrations on July 21, featuring an array of fun segments like musical performances and writing Chinese calligraphy.
These activities cultivated my appreciation for different cultures and revealed historical significance, like the Indian origin of Snakes and Ladders, also known as "Parama Padam."
Food stalls at the carnival offer beloved dishes from various cuisines, such as Chinese popiah and Peranakan laksa.
It is always heart-warming to watch others, regardless of ethnicity or religion, bonding and celebrating our multicultural society.
Such cultural exchange fosters a shared identity as Singaporeans. To me, this intermingling of cultures within the community is what creates a sense of belonging and strengthens social bonds.
It is what helps to nurture a unique Singaporean identity that is rooted in unity and acceptance.
CONTINUOUS PROCESS TO CONNECT WITH OWN HERITAGE
At 23, with growing confidence and self-assurance in my identity, I learned that labelling individuals based on their languages or cultural practices is futile.
Instead of labels, which serve to put people into boxes, I found that we should all welcome the idea of learning about one another's beliefs and practices because this helps to dispel misconceptions and find common ground.
Today, my passion for learning more about Indian culture has remained strong as I find that connecting with one's heritage is an ongoing and fulfilling process.
During my summer break this year, I had the valuable opportunity to intern with the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda), a self-help group supporting the Indian community.
My days there gave me further insights into cultural activities and their significance.
My colleagues were touched by my desire to connect with my roots and taught me Tamil phrases eagerly, without any judgement that I wasn’t able to speak the language.
Such experiences not only deepened my understanding of Indian culture but also allowed me to share my background with others and fostered a mutual appreciation for different cultures.
I firmly believe that racial harmony forms an essential aspect of the social defence pillar of Total Defence, as it strengthens social cohesion. By nurturing a sense of responsibility towards one another, we can all contribute to the well-being of the broader community and help build a united and strong Singapore.
Although Racial Harmony Day is not officially observed at work or in tertiary educational institutions, I believe that it is necessary as it serves as a reminder to cherish the unique blend of cultures that coexist harmoniously in Singapore.
In Singapore, with its diverse individuals from various backgrounds, some of us may encounter instances of racism and discrimination.
Celebrating racial harmony helps to foster appreciation for each other's traditions, values, and histories, enriching the tapestry of Singaporean society. It is a part of our daily lives.
I believe this is how we can continue paving the way for a more inclusive and harmonious society.
As a mixed-heritage individual, my journey towards self-acceptance was made possible because I felt empowered to learn more about my own identity.
I have come to appreciate the beauty of different cultures and recognise the importance of fostering understanding among my peers.
It has been a long journey but I am proud of who I am.
Like my favourite Singaporean dish, rojak, I am a mix of various ingredients and spices, a vibrant amalgamation of cultures and traditions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Darcel Anastasia Al Anthony, 23, is a final-year student at the National University of Singapore.