The End or the Beginning?

After a long but impactful 6 weeks of spending time chasing answers, I feel like I have answers to questions that I didn’t even ask in the first place and new questions that are so unplanned I don’t know where to search for answers.

Traveling has allowed me to grow in different areas, but particularly on becoming aware of my surroundings and I mean this in two ways. On a more practical side, I have learnt not to put myself in uncomfortable situations, and have become more aware of other people’s actions in order to protect myself. On the other hand, by paying attention to meticulous details, I have also learnt about how environments function (knowledge from articles and books aside), whether this means stopping in a market and stopping to look at what individuals are selling and how they do so, or paying close attention to an individual’s body language and gesture, or doing ethnographic reflections in a cafe.

Despite having awareness, I didn’t realize until I started the fellowship how intertwined the three identities were, and how there were categories within an individual’s personal identity that affected the experiences of the ethnically Chinese, such as gender, socioeconomic class, religion, etc; and how easily nationality could change, but not necessarily national identity, and how appearances and the way you speak are the largest two determinants of one’s ethnic identity, even if an individual’s attachment to his/her ethnicity is not that strong.

It’s really hard for people to talk about how migration specifically has altered their identities, particularly for those who have never lived outside Southeast Asia, since their identities in terms of geographic location have been based in Southeast Asia and they’re exposed to the same two cultures (Eg. Chinese-Indonesians have been immersed in Indonesian and Chinese cultures their whole life, so they wouldn’t know how their identities have changed, or specifically, how living in Indonesia has “taken” away some of their “Chineseness”). The original proposed question (To what extent does migration alter the national, ethnic, and personal identities of the ethnically Chinese in Southeast Asia?) is not fully inclusive of the Chinese diaspora, and perhaps we could change it to: How have the ethnically Chinese in Southeast Asia shaped their national, ethnic, and personal identities, particularly in terms of being the ethnic minority? However, the word “shape” would suggest that the ethnically Chinese have total control over their identities, meanwhile it is largely influenced by their environments, socioeconomic status, gender, which one does not have full control over.

Initially, we proposed to explore our research question by looking at how aspects of cultural identity can be preserved, lost, or expanded upon when individuals situate themselves in foreign cultures. However, I realized that “foreign culture” may not be the best phrase to use, especially when an individual’s ancestors have lived in that specific country for multiple generations. For diasporas, it’s harder to measure or examine what exactly has been lost, because it assumes that people who have not moved from China to Southeast Asia “maintain” this culture, and that their Chineseness has not been changed in any way, and has been perfectly passed on from older generations. However, with the rapid forces of globalization and reduced global borders, it’s difficult to preserve culture, as it is dynamic and changes in multiple dimensions.  

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Re-thinking what “home” means to me has changed a lot in the past few weeks. Often times, I feel like “home” is a certain group of people rather than a physical location, but I’ve realized that locations really do grow on me, and that I’m very lucky to call more than 3 places “home”. However, what I realized it, these places become less familiar and more distant when I don’t constantly visit them. Right now, Jakarta is one of my main homes and I do feel really comfortable living here (I’m in Jakarta right now writing this), but is it going to stay the same when my parents move to some other country in the world? Will I be able to adapt fast to a new culture and call that place home without ever having lived there? Will Indonesia still be as familiar and important to me if I don’t go back or will it just be the memories? Time and space have really affected my perspective on what is considered “home”, and I feel like people think this word is fixed but I think just like culture, “home” is dynamic and everchanging, and our experiences will define what “home” means to us individually. While travelling, I felt like “home” was also a feeling to me, since there were times where I saw Chinese people, Singaporeans and Indonesians and heard them speak and my mind went to “home” in terms of what I feel like when I’m home, and the cultures associated with it, instead of the location. Reading about how Singaporean and Chinese culture intertwined with these foreign locations also gave me a sense of familiarity, which I associate with the word “home”.

Interviews to me were like reading specified, personalized Wikipedia pages about day-to-day life, while visiting the historical sites allowed me to understand a country’s history and culture, make elaborate observations and appreciate what was in front of me. Going to all the Chinatowns in each city was a sign to me that trading and businesses once prospered in Chinatown but it is no longer the center of business, as global forces push it elsewhere. Through conducting interviews, I’ve learnt a lot about people’s experiences with discrimination, identity crisis, being identified differently from “natives”, and much more, but I felt like the family interviews were the most useful. For example, there was one in Jakarta with a couple, and through the interview, I learnt about how experiences of migration differ between men and women; and through an interview in Manila with a father and son, I learnt about how age, social media, and attitude also attribute to how individuals’ experiences vary. Despite a large interview pool, it is not completely accurate in terms of portraying how the Chinese live in those locations, because the cities we went to were the capitals, and the Chinese living in other parts of the countries will have different experiences in terms of discrimination/privilege, and different answers to our questions. However, because it’s hard to talk to these people without speaking the local languages, we have to acknowledge that our research is limited to individuals in a high socioeconomic class living in the central urban areas, which are huge factors in determining their experiences.

Additionally, the settings for our interviews were an indication of how comfortable people were in their environments. For example, in Jakarta, all of the interviews took place in my house because people did not want to talk about politics (eg. the 1998 riots) and people’s experiences with that in a public setting, as it puts them in a vulnerable spot. On the other hand, in Manila, our interviewees were glad to meet us in public settings such as Starbucks and polo clubs, probably because Chinese people are not as much of a target in the Philippines.

Moreover, despite a lot of people “fitting” into their societies, it’s obvious when it comes to mentality, the people that I talked to still stick to “Chinese” values. The interviewees in Jakarta and Manila often bring up that Chinese-Indonesians and Chinese-Filipinos are mostly rich because their ancestors were hardworking and saved up all their money, and the locals live from paycheck to paycheck, and are unwilling to stay after-hours to build up their careers. In this sense, mentality and work ethic within the Chinese identity have been preserved from generation to generation.

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I’d also like to bring attention to the article that Annette sent us, called “The Myth of Authentic Travel” by David Sze, which really centralized on the fact that ‘“authenticity” within a culture is flawed’, as it suggests that certain cultures are not as important, or as authentic as others. The author used the example of Khao San Road (which Anmei and I went to!), essentially Backpackers Street in Bangkok, saying that people think the culture on Khao San road is not as authentic as a hidden village in the countryside, because of our tendency to think that “modernizing, globalizing and prospering” culture, is not authentic, as it is not as different as what we are used to seeing at home. Sze claims that this myth “attempts to freeze the essence of the country into a traditional, premodern past (even though this past is often constructed in the present”. I think it couldn’t have been put in a better way, since essentially, we are in denial of a changing culture by holding onto and trying to force preservation of the premodern past.

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It’s difficult to have control over our own identities, as there are too many socioeconomic factors influencing it, but there are ways to become comfortable with our identity and embrace who we are. I have become much more conscious about how I want to situate myself in new cultures and have learnt which parts of my national, ethnic, and personal identities that I want to keep, and which parts are constantly, actively changing. A  large part of this trip was self-growth and I can now tell people that I’m half-mainland Chinese and half-Singaporean, which I have never really publicly announced. Hearing other people’s stories have made me more confident and able to breathe in my own skin because I’m not the only one with a different family history. Some parts of my identity I can’t change, so I would be better off accepting it and embracing it instead.

Although the travel fellowship has come to an end, I feel like it’s the start of something new. Now that I’m more comfortable talking about my national, ethnic, personal identities, I will start to engage in more conversations regarding this matter, and use my new knowledge to better situate myself in foreign cultures!

One thought on “The End or the Beginning?

  1. Thanks for this great post Nicole! I really appreciate the complexity that has come into your reflections on identity; nationality, culture, ethnicity and SES etc. These are definitely important conversations to keep having on campus, as you all get to know yourselves better but also engage in opportunities that influence your senses of identity. Can’t wait to hear more when you and Anmei are back on campus, about the challenges of travelling and the rewards!

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