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Studying in the States makes one columnist question his identity
Published 7/17/2013 6:00:00 AM
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Migration is by no means an odd affair in my life. When I was 5, my parents split up. And along with my brother and mother, the three of us moved to Singapore from Thailand to live with my maternal grandmother. Growing up in a country whose work force is heavily based on foreigners, the ideals and identities of many a culture come to interact.

So it was funny, and perhaps a sort of a personal journey, when this idea of self-identity as a Singaporean was challenged.

Recently, the government released a white paper saying that Singaporeans should brace themselves for the population to increase to 6.9 million by 2020. Just over half of this population is expected to be foreigners.

When this finally happens, what would it mean to be Singaporean? What does it mean for me?

As a half Thai with a Thai name, I’ve often been singled out. In my household we have three different surnames going on, and that’s fine with me. My brother and I have my father’s surname, whilst my mother kept her maiden name after the divorce and never took on the name of my stepfather.

Being ethnically Chinese, particularly with Cantonese and Hokkien dialect blood in me, I theoretically should be able to speak English, Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien if language was an indicator of identity.

I studied at an international school that was essentially a mini United Nations; my stepfather is British, while my mother never taught me Cantonese. So, what am I then if I only know a little bit of everything? Am I ever a sum of all my parts?

My friends and roommates in Pullman joke that I’m a banana—yellow on the outside but practically white on the inside. It’s not far from the truth, but I do like my rice and can speak the local Singaporean slang (Singlish). Then again, I make my own bread and eat salads often enough to make Alice Waters proud.

Now that I do go to WSU and travel back every year during the summer, I’ve found myself in an odd spot. As much as globalization brings us closer together, there has been a despairing separation amongst the people around me.

Those that have stayed back in Singapore move on from when I last left off, making catching up with gossip a tiring race. Not having grown up in the U.S., there is a lack of innate connection one has with another fellow countryman. Relationships suffer as movement across continents occurs so frequently.

I can never seem to fully utilize my smartphone because I’m constantly on prepaid.

First world problems indeed.

Don’t get me wrong; studying abroad has been an amazing experience and something that everyone should do if they can. In addition to a family that loves to travel, I’ve seen much of this world more than many have, which is something I will never take for granted.

Aside from the jet lag, I never seem to be able to put my suitcase and duffel bag away, perhaps a literal metaphor for this constant motion. Trying to tether myself down to one place has been all but impossible, making this identity crisis constantly difficult to comprehend.

Having studied for three years now in Pullman and living with Americans, there has been a certain amount of "‘Merica" that has rubbed off onto me. When I was in Portugal last year, someone asked if I was American because "I sounded like one."

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it felt like I had lost part of my Singaporean-ness, that somehow being American over-wrote some of my other personal history.

Clearly, I have no idea what I am. Perhaps I’ll never be able to figure it out.

What I do know is that I’ll continue to try and figure it out, even if it means packing and unpacking those two bags again.


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