2 semesters + 1 term later:
What someone told you when you were starry-eyed and filling up your common app was that it would be hard. You laugh, pack your inflated self-importance, and walk through the gates at the airport without a single tear. It will, you are sure, look just like the view books and Instagram accounts you’ve spent years perusing. What they tell you also, but what you have to experience on your own, is how it is a fight. There is always a fight and there are always things to be overcome.
You will, for the first time in nineteen years, hear how grating your accent sounds, and you will wonder if people actually understand. There will be those who lean forward when you speak, eager to offer the flatness of your speech their consoling ears, and those who frown and look away. And you will notice every one. It will take you weeks to raise your hand in class, and the first few times your heart will beat louder than anything in the room. You look forward to Japanese, where accent is not your hindrance, and each class in the language centre, where you feel, maybe, that you have just that little bit more power.
You will learn different ways of answering ‘Is English your first language?’ Sometimes, politely. ‘Your people colonized my country, so what do you think?’ In Philosophy class discussions you will become the authority for China, Chinese cultural practices, and anything remotely associated with East Asia. The face of the product of a soulless education system. The mouthpiece of a benign dictatorship. ‘So do you speak English in Singapore?’ In the UK, the same tutor who asked you in Week 3 if you grew up in China, will spend half an hour giving you a grammar and spelling lesson at the end of Week 9. On the first day of an American literature class in Freshman fall, the professor will ask, ‘so where did your ancestors come to this country from?’ You, for lack of anything more clever, will say, ‘they didn’t. I’m not from here.’ Each space you thought you might want to occupy came with a set of labels: ‘International’ or ‘Asian’ or ‘Singapore’, which you find came to mean the opposite of ‘White’ or ‘Well-Assimilated’ or ‘Successful International Student’. You will want to be the special, exotic foreign student, but see yourself more as the characters of the Asian-American stories you read throughout school: bumbling, inadequate, and stripped of the means of being heard.
You will perpetuate that system by developing a vague way of introducing yourself. You will be your Chinese name to Singaporeans, friends, and whoever you assess as being ‘Asian’-enough. Anyone you believe will have a hard time squeezing the Chinese pronunciation from between their teeth, gets to hear your English name. It will sound unnatural to you, but you will convince yourself that it is part of changing; part of refining your identity. After all, that is what you came here to do, isn’t it? There will be a TA who tells you to stop using a fake English name, and that will be your first fight. It will be the first time you cry over a class, and the first time you call someone out. Two semesters later in Japan, over the summer, you will catch yourself thinking ‘I’ll just use my English name to make it easier for her… no one seems to be able to get my Chinese name’ before introducing your English name, and you will suddenly hate yourself for it. The blind desire to fit in. A softness of self that is shaken by that re-affirmation of the labels you thought nobody else could see if you cloaked yourself in a neutral name and an unassuming attitude. That is one battle you will win, and you will carry it on from there. You will learn to ‘disrupt the status quo’. You will make sure you keep disrupting it.
(8 December 2016)