Assimilation: When do you get to be American/Singaporean?

About a month ago I got into several heated exchanges about Singaporean politics.  It was intimated in one instance and said outright to me in another that I had no business even voicing an opinion because I wasn’t Singaporean.  There was an other exchange where someone presented a very narrow view of who a “Singaporean” is.  Finally, there was an offensive Straits Times article (won’t link, behind a paywall) that showcased 4 children of mixed Singaporean and some other nationality who did not appear to be Singaporean but surprise! were–offensive because what it really did was perpetuate the narrow definition of who a Singaporean is and what they should look like.

The idea of writing a post about assimilation and at what point, if ever, you stop being an outsider in a new home began to percolate.

Then came the Boston Bombings.  I spent that week glued to my tv, and since the death of Tameralan Tsarnaev and arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I’ve been keeping up on events via an e-subscription to the Boston Glob as well as other news sources.

It’s ironic, really, then, that the article I’d already wanted to write was now applying to my home country as well as my adopted country. In the news coverage I’ve read, Dzhokhar’s American citizenship is almost never mentioned, although his foreign birth constantly is.  More frequently I read about his brother’s troubled past and while it is noted that Tamerlan was denied US Citizenship (when it is mentioned), it is not mentioned that he held a green card (PR).  The distancing of the Tsarnaevs from their American citizenship status is furthered by referring to Tamerlan’s wife as his “American wife.”

You can argue that a silly dustup online calling my Singaporean-ness into question isn’t anywhere on the scale of the attacks that has inspired the media’s court of public opinion to ignore or metaphorically revoke the American-ness of the Tsarnaevs.  At first glance, they do seem very different.  But they share one similarity-there was an infraction committed by one party, and the other party decides that the infraction is large enough to revoke their claim to Singaporean-/American-ness and does so.

Is being born a citizen enough to ensure that your nationality-ness is not questionable? Ask Barack Obama. Although entitled to American citizenship via his mother, his foreign parent has been the foundation upon which many lies about his citizenship have been built, to the point where a portion of the US believes him to not actually be an American. Further, his time abroad seems to call his American-ness further into question. As the parent of a third-culture kid, I have watched this phenomenon with interest and concern. I believe that my children would never commit such an act, nor do I expect them to run for president, but I’d be lying if I didn’t haven’t stopped to think that were my kids in either set of shoes, there would be some amount of “foreign-raised” or, in Rhi’s case “foreign born” rhetoric getting tossed around as well.

Americans are a very insular people. Less than half of Americans even hold a passport, much less have left the country, for perspective. Evening news is very local centric, and the only real international news is that which somehow involves the US.  Even given that, I’d argue that a large percentage of Americans couldn’t find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map if you offered them cash, and we’re involved in military actions in those countries. We also believe ourselves to be unique and special in the world-having drank the “America is the best” kool-aid.  As I’ve written before, the picture of an American is a white person, and persons of color do not enjoy the privileges I do as a white American, so my perspective is skewed by that position of privilege. Further I am in the position of privilege of having been born American, so it’s easier for me to critique my home country.

By comparison, in Singapore I am very aware that I am not a citizen and that I do not hold a similar position of privilege here. I will never physically pass as a local-I am all too clearly an ang moh, and plenty will look at me and always see an outsider even if I converted my citizenship. I can call Singapore my home, but I don’t know what it’s like to go through a local school as a student. But I do love Singapore as well, and I am invested in Singapore’s future, regardless of my citizenship.

Personally, I don’t believe that there’s a magic formula as to when you get to care about a country enough to voice an opinion. I am an American and I care about the future of the US. But after three years, I feel that I have the right to voice informed opinions about Singapore and to care equally about the future of my current home as well. It’s not acceptable to call someone’s worthiness to have an opinion into question (whether that opinion is valid, sure, but not the right to have an opinion).

What do you think? Do you get to claim ownership of a country only when you hold a passport from that country? Do you have to live there for x amount of time? Take permanent residency or some other demonstration of loyalty? If you’re an expat (in any country) do you feel a part of/ownership of your non-passport country?

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25 Responses to Assimilation: When do you get to be American/Singaporean?

  1. Dawn says:

    Personally, I think the media has made it abundantly clear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen, including making a stink about him not being Mirandized immediately. They don’t need to mention it every time they talk about him. At this point, it’s pretty much moot. The fact is, he was anti-American, whether a citizen or not. There are anti-American citizens (e.g. Ted Kazinski), and anti-American non-citizens. The point, here, is that the media is trying to discern where the “anti-American” sentiment came from. If they can identify an external source (e.g. his Russian/Chechnyan heritage), then that’s less scary for the public than if he’s a simple home-grown terrorist. Either way, though, identifying the source of the anti-American sentiment that drove him to the bombings and other planned activities may help to prevent similar events in the future. The fact that the deceased brother had a green card is pretty irrelevant to anything of note. I can’t imagine why it would matter for anything. And “American wife” is accurate as long as he wasn’t a citizen (which he wasn’t, yet).

    All of this, of course, has nothing to do with your Singaporean politics discussion. Personally, I think you have every right to voice an opinion on politics in the country in which you reside, or even one you have business or other relations with, including tourism. If you have any relationship with the country at all (and living there is a big one), then the politics will affect you, so you can and should say something about them. There are plenty of foreign people who have their say about American politics, and some have never even been to the U.S. (Lots of political coverage of the elections involves sentiment abroad.) Whatever Singaporean thinks you shouldn’t have a voice is just plain racist (or, more accurately, nationality-ist).

    • I tend to disagree with your assessment of the media coverage of the Tsarnaevs and how that might be perceived by your average American. For example, there was a Boston Globe article that argued Tamerlan’s body should be sent to Russia when they are not from Russia, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of the Soviet breakup and the independent states. Or the people calling for us to invade the Czech Republic because they don’t know what Chechnya is. The only media outlets I saw expressing concern about the Miranda rights (as opposed to reporting that the Miranda-izing had been delayed without a tone) were the more left leaning media outlets, and far more in the blogosphere (although of course I am incapable of being completely on top of US news with or without my google tv and slingbox set-up). I would expect my friends to know all of that because you guys are smart individuals.

      I think the point I was making by connecting them is that there is Nationalism at play in the case of the Tsarnaevs, and whenever someone leaves the US (as in Obama) to be an expat.

  2. I lived in Germany from age 9 to almost 20, and I remained an American citizen, albeit officially a permanent German resident while I was there. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules about when one truly becomes a citizen of any particular place, I think it’s very individual. I know that personally, I struggled greatly with my identity. I lived completely immersed in German culture/life, yet I considered myself an American. My German friends considered me German, with an American passport and access to the U.S. military base. The fact that I don’t have an American accent when I speak German certainly helped. I suffered HUGE culture shock when I returned to the States, and it took me many years to adapt to American culture. Now I feel completely at home and fully “Americanized”, though my experiences and further travel (living in Okinawa, Japan for four years, for example), make me a bit out-of-the-norm for the typical American.
    I’ve noticed that Massachusetts residents in particular rarely stray from their towns, moving “out West” means moving to western Mass! I don’t know, maybe being a military brat means I’m not really the typical American anyway…
    Pardon my rambling!

    • Not rambling at all. I think you add great perspective (and wish you’d write a guest post or five about your experiences-even on your blog and then letting me link/reprint?).

      I think the reverse culture shock does give me pause. I experience it when we go back and I know Ellie will have difficulty (and possibly Rhi depending on how old she is) adjusting to life in the US.

      You do make an excellent and valid point about Mass (and New England in general) residents–we do tend to stay put. I’m not sure how it is in other parts of the country, and it’s not everyone, but the vast majority do stay (or return) close to home. I could’ve happily lived Boston adjacent for the rest of my life (although of course we’d travel and such). I don’t regret that we no longer do live anywhere near Boston, but I could have easily done so.

  3. When I lived in New Zealand I cared about Kiwi issues and politics (what I could understand of it anyway, being new). It was a place that I was living in and although I never felt as comfortable commenting upon local issues as I do in my own home country things that were happening in Kiwi society were affecting me as well. And even if they weren’t they were affecting friends that I cared about, which was enough.

    I don’t think people need to gain citizenship to comment. Oftentimes there are issues in which nationality really doesn’t matter – people do.

    • I think it can be hard to separate people and nationalism. I definitely get defensive of Singapore when I hear people critique it, and the same goes for the US–I have to stop and consciously think about whether it’s a valid critique. I know that not everyone does (people who are deliberately ignorant about their various privileges even when it’s pointed out to them, for example).

      Thanks for sharing! Do you still follow Kiwi politics, or at what point did you disconnect? Do you follow UK politics more closely now that you’re in Wales?

  4. Pingback: Daily SG: 7 May 2013 | The Singapore Daily

  5. nginsing says:

    3 years is not long enough to be assimilated. Your perspectives will change as you continue to live in Sgp longer. Ppl who have citizenships of other countries always have ‘an exit’ if situation goes bad in the country they are residing hence the reason why locals feel these group of ppl are not entitled to comment on local issues as they are not fully ‘invested’ .

    The simple question is do you have one foot out the door or are both your feet inside the door? Do you still compare how things, attitudes etc are different in the States or do you try to fully understand the Singaporean way of life..?

    • Exactly how many days/weeks/months years is required to be assimilated?

      Here’s a question in return. If you move to another country/culture as an adult after over 30 years in whatever you perceive to be your home country (passport country or otherwise–my kids are Singaporean to the core, and have no understanding of US culture outside of Sesame Street, McDonalds and so forth, but hold US passports) do you think that on some level you won’t always compare how things are different? Comparing doesn’t mean that there’s a more/less than dichotomy happening.

      The reality is that I can’t understand what it’s like to be born Singaporean any more than I can understand what it’s like to be born male. I can give up my US citizenship and I’ll still have grown up with an American framework for understanding and interpreting the world. The question is whether I am aware of that framework, and if I am critical of that framework. Do I then use that framework to create greater/less than dichotomies? Or do I use it as a starting point to figure out where I need more knowledge, or to make sure that I’m aware of projecting a value judgment?

      Can I fully understand the Singaporean way of life–what is the Singaporean way of life? It’s very different for my friends who are Singaporean Chinese versus Indian. For men versus women. For gay citizens versus straight. Do I check my ethics at the door because they don’t happen to coincide with current political reality (377a is the first thing to come to mind) or do I try to understand what LGBT empowerment means within the Singaporean context instead of insisting that they try to force an American framework/solution upon the problem of the government’s choices with regards to the LGBT citizens?

      Of course my perspective will change over time. I need only to look at the entries from my first year to see growth. But that’s not just true of Singapore. My perspective changes over time because I grow and change (as we all do) over time. Just because someone is raised to be evangelical christian doesn’t mean that they will always be so. Opinions should be fluid as should understanding–because rigidity is the enemy of growth.

  6. Katrijn says:

    While living in Ireland, I had the chance to vote on a referendum on abortion. I chose not to vote. The reason being that I, as a Dutch woman, have very strong views on abortion, which are very different from those of most Irish people. I did not want to force my Dutch-culture liberal views on another people. I think I should respect the culture I’m living in and not try to make it into the culture I have come from.

    Having said that, it’s always very hard to draw the line. Were I living in Saudi Arabia, would I still respect their cultural views on how to treat women? Not so sure.

    On the whole, I personally would probably err on the side of keeping out of political or culturally sensitive issues. I try to find out more about them, I try to understand the culture I’m living in, I might even volunteer for an organisation if there was a cause I believed deeply in, but I would not take a leadership role in such an organisation or vote on referenda.

    I would however vote in elections, were I to have that right, as I am living in that country so the current policies are very much in my interest.

    An example in Singapore of an issue that I’m keeping out of, even though I have very strong views on it, is caning in schools. I have talked to several people about it, I have read research on it and I’m trying to understand the Singaporean beliefs and reasoning. But personally, I find it very hard to accept that it is practised and I’m not sure I should. So, I’m talking and listening and thinking. It’s very hard to draw that boundary, when is it the local culture and should be respected and when is it all right to want to change certain things?

    • For me the line is also a difficult one. I don’t want to project my US form of feminism or LGBT politics onto a local community, but I’m also going to call bullshit at things like retaining 377a, or slutshaming. I can respect the culture I live in, but there’s also the question of can or should you check your ethics at the border?

      Caning is definitely an issue I am uncomfortable with and baffled by. I’ll be honest that I’m glad I only have girls (as girls/women are not caned). Not that caning doesn’t still impact me (no pun intended) but far less so. I’m not sure I could make the same school choices if I thought my child could be disciplined in a corporal manner. I was very forthright with daycares about asking what forms of discipline they use.

  7. Interesting piece! What comes to mind for me, in comparing Singapore and the US, is that they are both immigrant countries. Basically none of these people calling themselves ‘local’ have been there for for more than a few generations at most (and you can probably say the same for every country in the world, if you go back long enough, I mean, my ancestors ‘only’ crossed the German border to Gelderland around 1600) Why do people feel that they belong more just because their parents were there a little bit before yours?

    Being an expat child myself I have been dragged all over the world, and therefore I do not feel at home all that much in my own country (the Netherlands) I like to compare myself to a snail, my home is where I am. If people think that you do not truly belong anywhere unless you have lived there for years/ decades/ generations, where does that leave me? Stateless? I have never lived anywhere longer than 6 years.

    I must admit I felt at home really quickly in Singapore, because it is such a multicultural society, and that suits me. It is also an expat (and I mean not just the rich western kind) town, and if anything, being an expat is what defines me most.

    Yet, like you, I have sometimes felt that there are Singaporeans which consider this city theirs rather than mine, just because they have been here longer. Personally I feel that anyone who lives in a place has a right to an opinion. That does not mean that you should not be respectful, or barge in like someone who knows it all better, especially when different cultures are concerned… when I lived in the UK I always felt that I was not really considered a foreigner. Is that just because of my white skin colour, british accent and being from a small and un-intimidating country just across the channel? I have had people rave to me there about Eastern Europeans, and when I commented I was one of ‘those foreigners’ they objected to, they did not seem to agree, I seemed to be ‘allowed’. I always felt very welcome, but realised at the same time not everyone was. Would a relatively new Chinese immigrant be seen different from us westerners here in Singapore. Just because their culture and appearance is more similar? No idea…

    Singapore, in that sense, is a complex place. Superficially it is like a paradise, but as we all know there are more layers. And let’s not get started about the US, haha… this is where the respect comes in, I have not lived there and prefer to be a bit careful with my opinions. Having said that, one of the reasons I have no desire to go home right now it the attitude to immigrants in Europe, which is as bad as anywhere… scary, really..

    Keep on writing and making people think, thanks!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience.

      I hope that my girls will grow to be as comfortable traversing the world as you are–I like the idea of being like a snail-that your home is where you are.

      I also definitely understand what you mean when you talk about certain immigrants getting critiqued, and how skin color can be either a marker or camouflage. In the US, a white immigrant is seen as delightful and easily assimilated. A non-white tends to get treated in relation to how that minority group is perceived (Asian kids are expected to be smart and so forth). A latino is likely to get the short end of the stick, as most the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric is aimed at Latinos.

      I hear a lot of anti-foreigner rhetoric here in SG-progressively moreso over the past three years (even sometimes amongst those I call friends) and when I bring up that I’m a foreigner, I always hear “no, not you–I mean the X, with X most frequently meaning PRCs. A PRC (meaning a person from the People’s Republic of China) is a commonly targeted group-for taking up spots in university/taking jobs. FDWs and laborers get a lot of racist crap thrown their way (among the worst I’ve seen is that FDW’s should have to use stairs instead of the elevator, and that they shouldn’t be allowed in the pool). And so forth.

      I always have more to learn, and as I try to make sense of things, I’ll definitely keep writing.

  8. AsiaIsNotACountry says:

    As a Singaporean who has been living in Connecticut for the last three years and who has been visiting the US for over 15 years, I am in the reverse situation.
    The first question I’m always asked, when meeting someone for the first time, is ‘Where are you from?’. To my delight, as the years passed, I’ve been hearing less of ‘Which part of China is Singapore in?’ and much more of ‘I’ve heard is a great place!’ Thanks, I’m sure, in no small part to the efforts of Americans like you who are very vocal and forthright about what you like, AND what you don’t like.
    As a green card holder, I’m not entitled to vote in elections. But in this great culture, everyone is entitled to have an opinion and I’ve had many a beer and steak with Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and what have you, sharing opinions, humor, and frustration at the developments in this country.
    This does not detract from my tuning in to Singaporean radio through the internet, maintaining a news feed to link me to anything related to SIngapore (like this story), AND participating in mycarforum, hardwarezone, and the like.
    I stay up late (or wake up early) to follow election news in Singapore and Malaysia. I follow newsfeeds on New York, Connecticut, and Boston, and am just as informed as anyone can be on current events here. I read the news about Newtown and Boston with sinking hearts and know people in both locations. I frequently visit Boston and know exactly where the bombing occurred.
    My children go to local elementary school in a great town, and have playdates weekly. For all intents and purposes, they speak American.
    My wife and I frequently socialize with local residents in our town – Americans, Europeans, other expats. It does not matter.
    I do not call myself American. I do not find my nationality an issue.
    I care about the country I was born in. And I care about the country that I live in.
    I have never blindly criticized. Neither have I constantly talked about the how one country is better than the other.

    • Thank you for sharing and commenting!

      First things first–have you been to Rein’s NY Style deli on 84 just north of Hartford? I haven’t been to New England since last August and I’ve found myself thinking of them quite a bit recently. The word “Connecticut” was enough to get me salivating 🙂

      I think you make excellent points-I guess it’s easiest for me to talk about experiences and such in terms of “American-ness” and “Singaporean-ness” as shorthand for what issues I’m allowed to talk about and where I’m seen to have the experience to have an informed opinion.

      Do you think that you benefit from the Asian “model minority” stereotype when it comes to acceptance? I was just noting to someone that most of the American anti-immigrant vitriol is aimed at Latinos. Europeans and Asians are automatically assumed to be highly educated in my experience whether or not that is true. Latinos are often perceived as being less educated and thus more likely to end up needing public assistance (again, whether that is true or not). When you see anti-immigrant rhetoric, it is very clearly aimed at Latinos (such as the whole build along the mexican border nonsense). When Mitt Romney ran for president, he argued that his FIL was an immigrant–except that the immigrant experience of a white Welshman is going to be radically different from that of a recent immigrant from the Domincan Republic. Another way of putting it is that with regards to Arizona’s law where they can ask anyone they suspect of being illegal for their papers–at the time it was passed, Selena Gomez (pop star) was dating Justin Beiber (pop star)-and the valid question was who would get asked for their papers under this law-American Gomez or Canadian Beiber? (Gomez)

      I think that what is true with regards to both the US and Singapore is that there is a lot of misinformation out there (without which it’s easy to “other”), and legitimate frustration being aimed. I also think that there is a very vocal minority rather than the majority having anti-foreigner sentiments.

      My kids are definitely culturally Singaporean and Ellie speaks Singlish (just as yours speak American). The US is where grandparents live and where we go on vacation. But when we’re in the US, Ellie always wants to know when we’re going “home” (meaning Singapore). I think the move back to the US would be hardest on her as the oldest child, having lived here since she was 17 months-she doesn’t remember living in the US at all.

      I think I’m always going to have a connection to Singapore-I have friends here (some of whom I’ll likely lose contact with and others who I know I won’t) and my youngest was born here. I think what may be more interesting is seeing what sort of connection the girls feel to Singapore as they age, and if spending their youth abroad makes them more likely to move abroad or not.

  9. Tabea says:

    What if a Chechen-born scientist working at MIT won the Nobel prize? Do you suppose the media would highlight their birthplace, or would they just be described as ‘MIT scientist’?

    • Absolutely spot on. They would absolutely be an “MIT scientist”

    • octopi says:

      Who ever refers to Einstein as an “American scientist” anyway? People call him “German”, or “Jewish” or “Swiss” but “American”?

      When you see Martina Navratilova, do you see a Czech or do you see an American?

  10. Michael says:

    I absolutely agree with you that it is sad and sometimes disheartening for individuals to be ignored and disrespected on matters regarding assimilation. Especially, in your case as an Expat, who has made Singapore your home. I believe that due to the fact that you have adopted this country as your home, and you have family and friends who you care about who also call Singapore your home- you should have the same rights as a born citizen. The legislation and policies that are in place for the country of Singapore (or any country for that matter) is blind to a person’s physical appearance. I can’t seem to wrap my head around the concept on the perceptions that many people hold on who has the right to be true (American, Singaporean, or any national).

    Specifically with the situation of Dzhokhar, the media has inappropriately defined him as a foreign national, despite however, that he was an permanent American resident for over a decade, who attended American schools, and lived a very American lifestyle that included sports, extracurricular activities/trips and hobbies. What makes me believe that the media is portraying him as a foreign national is due the fact that he did not technically become a naturalized United States citizen until the year 2011, and perhaps his faith/religion also aligned him with the stereotypes that the media portrays a terrorist (radicalized muslim, non-American, male). Even with the case of his brother, (as you mentioned who was denied an American citizenship) still enjoyed a life very similar to that of his brother, where he had aspirations to join the US olympic boxing team (which unfortunately did not happen because of his citizen-status).

    I can relate very well to the example you provided about President Obama. I am an American born to naturalized citizens who emigrated from Trinidad in the 1980s. They have since adapted to a very American lifestyle (including education and African American culture). However, throughout my upbringing, specifically during middle and high school, despite physically appearing African American, there was many differences that my peers often would notice right away that made me automatically an “outsider”.

    From a broader perspective, where you make points about Americans being insular, I believe that they are exactly true, even to the point where I theorize that because of this natural born citizens adopt a “this is my country and not yours” mindset. I also believe that due to this idea, individuals who reside in other countries create a false perception and stereotype people who reside in different countries and regions (American is a white person, and persons of color do not enjoy the privileges [you] do as a white American).

    To answer your questions – I cannot lie, I often do claim ownership of the United States, as an individual who has been given so many rights privileges that I am everyday thankful to enjoy. I have been born, raised and educated with plenty of government support that many countries do not offer to their citizens. For that same reason, I am grateful and sometimes very protective of how the United States has established me as an citizen. Simultaneously, because of the fact that I hold a passport, and have had the opportunity to travel to many locations around the world (through opportunities from my Boys & Girls Club, traveling to Trinidad with my parents and other community organizations), I understand the development of emotions for a country and community. I would assume the same way that the American government has instilled such beliefs is similar to you and your family in Singapore. I am just as curious on how a person can display such emotions as an expat to individuals for them to understand that your feelings are the same as theirs, even though you are not a born citizen in a physical sense.

    • Something I’ve heard recently is that even if we became PR, we’d always have an escape hatch. Which is absolutely true. But the ability to leave doesn’t mean that I don’t get to care to about where I live. It reminds me of those who, upon hearing me criticize the US to tell me I should “love it or leave it”–and often have no idea how to respond to me when I say I do love it, and I have left it.

  11. chewy says:

    This is a really interesting post, and I commend you for trying to take on something that is so difficult to grasp. I am a “Chinese” American, although I am more American than Chinese. The term is baffling in itself, as if I am not American enough, and need to qualify it, but at the same time not Chinese either. I think it developed as a way to differentiate children of immigrants from white Americans, but who knows.

    I’m currently living in Singapore, where if I don’t speak (considering my Singlish accent is poor) I could blend in pretty well. I’ve also lived in China for quite some time, where I can blend in a little better since I can speak Mandarin. I don’t consider myself Singaporean in the slightest or Chinese (though I do follow a few traditions), but it does bother me that I could be treated differently based on how much I can blend in with the population.

    Great article and something we should really think and talk about more!

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