Chicago, fall 2016. In a few weeks we would wake up remembering the presidential election, but right now Trump mattered only in an atmospheric kind of way. Right now, we were a class of aspiring writers, we were the future, and he served only as the antithesis to our debate on identity politics, a debate so inclusive, articulate, and honest—this must be what democratic citizenship looks like!
But you’re Singaporean, said a voice in my head, putting me in place as a cultural alien. Should I have a voice in this conversation? Should I speak as a diplomat, or as a citizen? Who will grant me this permission?
Perhaps I have appropriated a liberal American identity to enter an American conversation. To tell the truth, I have always aspired to the Western ranks. While Claire Vaye Watkins “watch[ed] boys do stuff,” I grew up watching the US and Britain do stuff. When you come from a small country that shed its “third world” label only two decades ago, you are acutely aware of your limits and anxious to transcend them.
Shortly before my birth, Singapore migrated to the first world and never looked back. I, however, had always wanted in on the old world. A few years ago, my father told me a story from his childhood: After school one day, he boards the public bus with shaved ice in his hand. The bus driver warns him not to let it drip, so he picks a seat by the window and sticks his hand outside. The bus begins to move. As it picks up speed so does the wind outside—in a moment, the shaved ice is blown away and my father, left with sticky hands, cries.
The image made me want to laugh-cry. At the story’s end, I looked at my father and felt, for the first time, understanding; until then he’d seemed impenetrable. I saw his innocence. As I write, I see, too, heartbreak and dispossession—the other cruel winds that had swept into his life and left him an empty-handed, vulnerable child. Times my mother had hinted at, but my father still kept to himself.
Some stories never get told, because they are taboo or distressing, or because there are no willing storytellers. There are many such stories in my family’s and in Singapore’s past. Stories I have only caught glimpses of in unearthed photographs and documents. Frustrated with silence, I began to take liberties with these documents, using them as the circumstance for imagining and narrating stories on paper.
In the past year, the writing process has become, for me, a way to navigate between the present and the past, between what I have access to and what I will never know. Back in the US, when several of my college classmates questioned our rights to write about—and even our ability to imagine—others’ experiences, I felt my body endangered. I worried I was guilty of appropriation. I feared the ethics that deem all forms of appropriation improper and limits one’s imagination to the bounds of one’s prescribed identity.
My father is the other writer in the family, but he writes in our mother tongue, Mandarin. Being versed in my patriarchal language, English, I struggle to penetrate the depths of his writing. My father and I are bilingual, but our bilingualism is the product of an affair gone stale—while in Singapore, our patriarch took on three official mistresses: Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. From these unions emerged Singlish, a creole child.
When I was thirteen, my family relocated to Beijing. There, I learned my Singaporean accent was laughable in Mandarin and incomprehensible in English. Embarrassed, I kept mum for three months while experimenting with ways to mold my mouth. In five years, I developed molds for American, Chinese, and Taiwanese imitations. I wanted to acquire a local’s privileges wherever I went.
My parents, being among the last cohort in Singapore to learn Mandarin as their first language, lacked such privileges in their birth country. By the time they graduated from their Mandarin-speaking university, the job market had spoken—a year later the university was shut down. Goodbye to the streetlight where my mother waited for her first date with my father, to the pavilion where he whistled The Butterfly Lover’s Violin Concerto for her, to the debate society where he was president and she secretary. Goodbye to the Mandarin-dominant world of Singapore and the places my parents had carved out for themselves. Hello to lower wages and the glass ceiling of the English-speaking job market.
Today, all Singaporeans learn English as their first language, and a mother tongue as their second. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, our nation’s first Prime Minister, conceived of bilingual education as a necessary evil for a homogenous national identity. Were we to become monolingual in English, “we would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world.”
I am grateful for my bilingual education, which allows me to assimilate into the global labor market while maintaining a tenuous connection to my heritage. But does that mean my identity comes from Chinese culture alone? Are my fellow Singaporeans and I to have no identity within the English language?
It seems, too, that we can hold no claim to a creole identity. In 1999, the Singapore government launched the “Speak Good English” campaign to promote “proper” English and curtail the illegitimate Singlish, or “broken English.” As if we shattered the language with our inability to speak correctly; as if we couldn’t be trusted with it; as if we were a disgrace. As if the language was a Renaissance vase—fragile and locked up in a glass box of a museum.
The English language took the word “appropriate” from the Latin “ad-propriare,” to take something as one’s own. Appropriation unsettles because it echoes the imperialist’s claim of lands and peoples as property. It is an echo that still rings, an echo that threatens the hope of progress. In this way, the fear of appropriation is the fear of history repeating itself. It is the fear that those already privileged by history will continue acquiring assets by capitalizing on exotic objects and practices, such as yoga or headdresses or kung pao chicken, and in the process render them unrecognizable, just as colonialism left our homelands unrecognizable to us, and us unidentifiable to our homelands.
We are nostalgic for a purer past, one before the fall to colonization and commercialization. We want to live again as Adams and Eves, sovereign over our garden and way of life. Today, politicians worldwide use nostalgia as a disguise for fundamentalist agendas: Trump vowed to “Make America Great Again,” the Vote Leave campaign promised to restore “Global Britain,” Xi JinPing committed to a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan promoted a revival of the glorious Ottoman Empire.
Fundamentalism appeals as it identifies a singular and indisputable source of authority in an unpredictable global order. Anti-appropriation ethics arise from a similar fundamentalist attitude that pronounces identity as the authority over experience; it sacralizes the right to self-define. This standard of authenticity assumes that selves, identities, and cultures are innate and stable over time.
Yet, my Singaporean identity, which I regard as my most salient, is a product of constant adaptation and redefinition. As a small city-state, Singapore will always have, at best, a negligible say in defining the international order. When we gained independence in 1965, assimilating into the global financial network was our only chance for survival. At the same time, assimilating provided us the opportunity to appropriate the English language as a common ground for improvising a creole identity. If the Singaporean identity grew out of assimilation and appropriation, are we fundamentally illegitimate?
We could argue that Singapore has no authentic culture, in which case I would identify with my Chinese identity. Yet this standard unravels when it encounters contemporary identity of Chinese, which stretches from Mainland China to North America, Malaysia to the UK, Taiwan to Australia. Within each category, experience is mediated by a host of differences, such as language, socioeconomic status, political inclination, gender, religion, age—the list continues, fracturing all possibilities of collective experience. If identity politics is taken to the extreme, the earth will become a globe of sovereign individuals, and every conflict a war.
Suppose we limited our discussions to the essence of Chinese culture without delving into specificities. Suppose we decided on the People’s Republic of China as the motherland and standard of authenticity. This is viable, until we remember that the PRC appropriated Communism and Capitalism from the West, and that the Cultural Revolution was a revolt against China’s imperial history and Confucianism. At this point, we may declare the PRC inauthentic and look further back in history for the original China—until we find that imperial China was a construct of the Qin dynasty. An identity appears singular and stable only because it hides behind the facade of a noun. Preventing identities from mutating, assimilating, and appropriating is as futile as preventing history from unfolding.
Many of us who grew up in between definitions find identities claustrophobic. My identity consists of qualifiers that divide the world into a Venn diagram, where I exist only in the intersection of third-generation Singaporean, ethnically Chinese, international school kid in Beijing, college student in Chicago. With each division my world becomes smaller, and my wider identities threaten to pull my body apart.
I sought to remedy these struggles by identifying as a world citizen, imagining the world as a single nation, and I as its native child. But if there was a universal community or political agenda I could pledge allegiance to, I didn’t find it. Eventually I dismissed world citizenship as a failure, and retreated into the singularity of my body.
I encountered world citizenship again in university, not as a vague political ideal, but as a frame of mind: “The world-citizen view,” writes Martha Nussbaum, “insists on the need for all citizens to understand differences with which they need to live; it sees citizens as striving to deliberate and to understand across these divisions.” I realize now that, in my past attempts to identify as a citizen of a “world-nation,” I had acted as an imperialist. I had imposed my vision of a universal community onto a world whose common trait is diversity.
Rather than eradicating borders to create a uniform space, world citizens regard borders that shape identity as permeable and negotiable. Claustrophobia arises when we view identity as an insurmountable barrier to experience: a view organized by such identity politics generates distrust by creating what Nussbaum describes as a “marketplace of identity-based interest groups jockeying for power.” The capitalistic world churns out new qualifiers to brand experience, but what we need is to renew nouns, to create new definitions that travel across differences. Perhaps, we all need to appropriate identity.
“In modern Athens, vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai,” writes Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life.
To go to work or come home, one takes a “metaphor”… Stories could also take this noble name: every day, they traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them. They are spatial trajectories.
The Chicago El comes to mind. Traveling above or beneath ground, it traverses neighborhoods separated by private roads and highways, wealth gaps and differences in racial makeup. On its map, the most segregated city in the US becomes an interconnected constellation. At the same time, it provides an aerial view of reality, of how the infrastructure systematically maintains divisions and disadvantages certain identities.
Perhaps we could conceive of the world citizen view as a metaphorical landscape, one that points to new ways of travelling across differences. These spatial routes surface when we disrupt how imperialism and racism define and confine peoples within artificial identity lines. Linguistic adaptation is one such process that unsettles identity boundaries. Singlish, for example, is the common ground that emerged when speakers of Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and other languages and dialects appropriated English as a metaphor to travel across linguistic differences. What began as submission to Anglophone dominance not only facilitated our economic success, but also developed into a means of communication. In addition to recognizing appropriation as inevitable, we must capitalize on appropriation as a strategy for resisting dispossession.
In the contemporary world, traveling across boundaries can be an invasive experience. To get through customs, I must submit not only my possessions, but also my body. I show my bones and let strangers run their hands over my skin. The atmosphere is one of suspicion and denunciation, and for some, traveling is downright demeaning. The current administration—through travel bans and mass deportations and enforced border controls—legally brands terrorism onto bodies of difference. What Trump puts forth as American “sovereignty” has to do with neither security nor free will, and everything to do with privatizing American land and assets for the “right” kind of American.
Today, English is a metaphorical landscape that suffers from border control, where those labelled “improper” are left to wander along the outer periphery. In an interview for Bitch Media, Zen Cho remarks:
I got a lot of rejections, but that’s par for the course for any writer. I did get a couple of weird responses, like editors would tell me to improve my English when I was using Malaysian English.
Policing a language like English—making sure it’s said with the right accent, diction, and grammar—is about policing privileges: who gets to dominate the global job market, who gets to have a voice in conversations, who gets to reinvent conventions in literature and earn the title of the avant-garde.
Notions of propriety privatize language by delineating its place, so that any unconventional attempt to enter is read as an act of intrusion and violence. Instead of enforcing these arbitrary divisions, we must take off the lens of security and view, as Rey Chow puts it, “the reality of languaging as a type of prostheticization, whereupon even what feels like an inalienable interiority, such as the way one speaks, is—dare I say it?—impermanent, detachable and (ex)changeable.” Viewing languaging as such involves doing away with notions of a stable proper, so that any unconventional attempt to travel across this property are read not as assaults or corruption, but as a new way of making meaning and constructing collective identity.
Languaging can be a metaphorical technology, one that allows us to remap language as an intercultural and global space defined by a variety of local languaging practices. Perhaps, then, we must encounter language as an improvisational international airport, as a space of experimentation and possibility.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.