When my son said “Why are you not Chinese like me and daddy? You’re not one of us.” It made me reflect on being married to a Singaporean Chinese and how I could better teach my kids about their dual identity
A few months ago, my son asked me a question that I would never forget. We were watching the National Day celebration on TV and, out of the blue, he asked me, “Mommy, are you one of us?” I looked at him, bewildered, and asked him what he meant. He answered, “I mean you’re not a Singaporean, you’re a Filipino.” So, I showed him a picture of my citizenship ceremony and exclaimed, “I’m a Singaporean too! I’ve changed my citizenship long ago.” He still wasn’t convinced and asked again, “Why are you not Chinese like me and daddy? You’re not one of us.” I was stunned and thought long and hard about how I should answer my son.
Before I reveal what I told my son, allow me to tell you the story of how a Filipina like me came to live in Singapore. I fell in love with Singapore in 2008, when I came here for a holiday with a good friend. I could still remember that day like it was just yesterday. Singapore took my breath away the minute I stepped out of the airport. It felt like a dream walking the clean streets of the city and trying the mouth-watering dishes found only at hawker centres here. Oddly enough, I felt at home. Singapore was beckoning to me to uproot my life in the Philippines to live independently in one of the safest countries in Asia. Singapore is a melting pot of culture and food, which was another reason I vowed to return the moment my plane touched Philippine soil. I searched tirelessly online every night for a job opening until a private laboratory finally hired me as a medical technologist in 2009. I met my husband at my first job, and he has since been a great source of support for me both professionally and personally. We became good friends and started dating. The rest was history. Fast forward to today, I am celebrating 12 years of residency in Singapore -happily married and with two kids.
Now, going back to my son’s question, I answered him, “I’m Singaporean Filipino just like Daddy is Singaporean Chinese. And, do you know that because you’re my son, you’re also part me and part Daddy? Which means half of you is Filipino and the other half is Chinese. Therefore, Mommy IS a part of you! He looked at me wide-eyed and said incredulously, “You mean I’m both?! But my birth certificate says Chinese!”
After that conversation with my son, I reflected on what life was like for me being married to a Singaporean Chinese. It wasn’t much of an adjustment for me culturally since the Philippines is also home to a lot of Chinese-Filipinos. I’ve been exposed to Chinese culture, and, in fact, Chinese is one of my favorite cuisines. I live for Chinese food, that’s why Singapore instantly appealed to me! Not to mention that Manila is just a three-hour plane ride away. But the thought of my son’s unawareness of his Filipino heritage was gnawing at me. Was I not doing enough to incorporate that part of me in them? We’ve been doing Tagalog time almost every weekend for the last year, although English is the main language that we speak at home. I have been cooking Filipino food at home- in fact one of my husband’s favorite is tocino, a Filipino cured sweet pork fried and best eaten with garlic fried rice.
We’ve travelled to the Philippines, too, to visit my parents and friends, and for them to get in touch with my heritage. We observe Filipino Christmas traditions such as midnight masses and Noche Buena as part of our family tradition. What else could be missing? It seems like my kids identify more with their Chinese heritage than the Filipino.
I guess the difference lies with incorporating the culture in our everyday lives. Whereas all things Filipino are reserved for weekends, we practice everything Chinese daily. I even tried drinking bird’s nest during my first pregnancy and did confinement after giving birth. My kids are more fluent in Mandarin than Tagalog because they speak to my husband and my in-laws in Mandarin. My parents address them in English because they never got around to learning Tagalog when they were younger. I guess, unconsciously, I didn’t try harder because the prospect of my kids being viewed as “not Chinese enough” in a country that is predominantly Chinese scared me.
It may have influenced the way I parent them, as well. I pushed my kids harder because I was afraid that they won’t measure up to Singapore society’s standards. It’s true what my son said, their birth certificate reflected Chinese only because there is no way I could register them as mixed. Do I think that system is flawed? Maybe. It doesn’t help biracial children in any way to categorize them as such. It’s like making them choose who they love more.
Do I regret being in a mixed relationship because of this? No, I knew from the start that there would be challenges. I just didn’t realize that they would hurt sometimes. Like that one time when a cab uncle told me that my employer must really trust me a lot since they let me pick up their son by myself. Just to be clear, I picked up my son from the childcare at my workplace and we took a cab home. He thought I was my son’s nanny because my elder son looks so much like my husband, very Chinese and not a single trace of me. My younger son looks more like me, still looks a bit Chinese but you know from looking at him that’s he’s mixed.
Or that particular time when we went back to the Philippines and the immigration officer couldn’t believe that I’m married to a Singaporean just because my last name never changed. I took care of that when I changed my citizenship. I had Mrs Wong added in and nobody had ever bothered me at immigration ever since. So, no, I don’t regret coming here to Singapore and building a life with my husband.
Even if I meet my younger self, I wouldn’t advise her otherwise. I would instead tell her to brace herself for discrimination, and to persevere in immersing our kids in Filipino culture. It’s not enough that they know they’re Chinese. They should be proud to be Filipino too, because I am. It doesn’t make me less of a Singaporean by being so. My allegiance and my life already belong to Singapore. Part of what I loved about Singapore is the racial diversity because our ancestors are all immigrants from neighbouring countries.
I would tell my younger self to teach my kids to whole-heartedly embrace our origins as immigrants because regardless of race, language or religion, all Singaporeans have a deeply-rooted love for the country.