Elanor’s identity

Two years ago, Elanor often identified purely as Singaporean or Indian, so we began to explain that she is American.  Not in a “here is our flag, learn the pledge, sing patriotic songs, learn the composition of congress” way, but reinforcing that while home is Singapore, HOME is the US.  Over the past year, she has begun to say “I’m half American, half Indian, and half Singaporean,” which is so damn cute I can’t bring myself to correct her fractions.  My impression, though, is that she was very comfortable in her identity.

I always expected that we’d have discussions about identity and confusion and other typical third culture kids concerns at some point down the road.


Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 9.24.59 pmThen came National Day, 2014.

We sat down to watch the National Day Parade last weekend on television, and over the course of the program, I watched Elanor get very twisted up over identity.

“We are all Singaporean”  “But I’m American”

She had a difficult time with the constant repetition of “we are Singapore.”  Obviously as an adult, I can understand that of course it’s going to be full of nationalistic rhetoric.  Every time I end up at an American hosted event like Toys for Tots, I get a dose of nationalism as well.  Separating rhetoric from fact is a skill that many of us learn over the years.  But at five, Elanor is still quite literal and it’s tough for her.

“This is your president, Mr. Tony Tan”  “But he’s not my president, is he?”

The idea that yes, Tony Tan is her president because she lives in Singapore, but that Barack Obama is also her president even though she doesn’t live in the US is something she is still processing.  I was listening to an NPR (national public radio from the US) podcast in the car, and they referenced Obama.  Elanor piped up with “YAY! Obama is my president.”

Worth noting–she couldn’t identify Obama if I lined up a bunch of pictures.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 9.49.58 pmRhi’s National Day outfit for her school party

Does that mean Elanor is rejecting Singapore?  Or that she no longer thinks of herself as Singaporean?  No.

When it came time to say the pledge, Elanor stood up and tried to say it.  They have been learning it in school, but she couldn’t remember all the words.  She also knew the song Majulah Singapura (the SG national anthem) but not the words.   Singapore is still very much her home.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 9.52.55 pmBecause it’s a cute photo of them and their dad that happens to be in SG

Ravi and I are taking this for what it is…her way of expressing her confusion.  Those discussions we thought were months or years down the road are here right now, and they’re going to be present for years to come.  In January E will start Primary 1 at a local school.  Every morning as part of the morning assembly, they raise the flag and say the pledge and so forth.  She will need to decide for herself if she wants to say it (which she may, and I have no issues with) or if she’ll stand quietly and politely instead.  We can’t decide for her–ultimately it’s her life and her choice.  It might feel really uncomfortable to be the only kid in a class of 30 who doesn’t say the pledge, and she may want to say it to fit in.  Or she may decide not to because she’s choosing to identify more strongly as an American.

Right now Ellie is also struggling because we’re not going back to the US this year.  It’s been 8 months since she has seen her grandparents or her friends (apart from facebook and Skype).  In the past she didn’t have this active sense of loss because she was too young to have it, and she’d often forget even going in between trips.  December 13/Jan 14 is very recent, and she has very strong memories of playing with her cousins, building snowmen, going to NYC, spending time with friends and family…and she misses them.  Being told that our next trip to the US is next June at the earliest (school holidays) is hard on her.  I get it.  To be totally honest, I’ve been missing the US, too of late.  But for me it’s more of a “I wish I could be at my friend’s birthday party physically instead of via Skype” or “I’m really craving some food I can’t get here” or “I want to go to Target.”  Unlike E, though, I have perspective and I know that the homesickness will pass.  I understand that our calendar is just full of commitments between now and next June, and that sometimes we have to be practical even if the choices make us sad.

As a biracial third culture kid, identity is going to be something E will wrestle for years to come.  Her people are from Mumbai and Gujurat, but also have been in the US for almost 400 years.  She’s half gujuarati, but her second language is Mandarin instead of Gujurati or Hindi.  She’s half caucasian, but her sister is the one who can pass for white.  (And in Rhi’s case, she’s half Indian and looks caucasian.)  She speaks a hybrid of Singaporean and American English with a Singaporean accent–she gets annoyed that I say “herb” the American way (erb) or that I say aych instead of haitch when I’m referencing the letter h.  And on and on and on.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 10.10.42 pm

What Ravi and I can do is answer her questions.  Ellie and I have been reading books from the “American Girls” series, which is giving her a connection to the US.  I keep meaning to show her a picture of Barack Obama online.  She’ll visit the US plenty over the years.  We’ll support her, and help her in her journey to figure out who she is as best we can.  And when it’s appropriate, we’ll also keep our mouths closed.  The rest will sort itself out over time.

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5 Responses to Elanor’s identity

  1. Katrijn says:

    So very interesting! I love to read how Elanor’s sense of identity develops and how she makes sense of things.

    E. knows that she is from “Holland”, and that we live in Singapore, but I suppose it’s easier for her, as there are only two options. Or maybe it’s easier because there are two different languages: Dutch at home/parents/family, and English with friends/school/Singapore. It has also in a sense made it more obvious that the helper is not part of the family – she does not speak our language. Interesting thoughts! We’ll see how it develops.

    This is also a lovely take on the whole thing: http://www.bedu-mama.com/2013/08/home.html

  2. I can relate to R and her potential issues of being half Indian (for me Native American) but looking more Caucasian and how that can make you feel a bit of a disconnect from the rest of the family who are “darker”. Its insulting and disheartening when you are viewed as “not native enough” by those outside of the family because of it. I couldn’t imagine adding a nationality angle to it.

    • I’ll admit to worrying a bit more about Rhiannon, and if she’ll have much of an Indian identity when she’s 20, or if her skin color will make her feel like an outsider. The flip side, of course, is that she’ll benefit from white privilege by virtue of passing, while Elanor will get “what are you?” or “where are you from?” her entire life because she looks exotic.

  3. Pingback: “Am I Black or White?” | Expat Bostonians

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