On Becoming a Person of Color


When I arrive in America, no one seems to understand me even though English is my first language. My college roommate observes politely that I have an accent and I want to say that she does too, a thoroughly American one. She flicks her perfect honey-brown hair and the pearl studs in her ears gleam like the luminescent scales of a dead fish. Her blond friend stares at me with a mixture of curiosity and subtle distaste, and I sense that my comebacks will not be welcome. So I keep my mouth shut and my accented words in, and that is the beginning of what I later learn is called “assimilation.”

“Is it British?” My classmates ask. “Chinese? Indian? Vietnamese?”

When I tell them where I’m from, they respond with mild confusion: “Where is Singapore, anyway?”

I realize people think I don’t speak English because of my Singaporean accent. On the one hand I think, fuck them, they go to an Ivy League school and don’t know the difference between “their” and “they’re.” On the other hand, I start curling my “r” and flattening my “t.” When someone asks me what I’m majoring in and I say Comparative Literature, “literature” rolls off my tongue all smooth and buttery, a newly formed possibility.

I think to myself: I am in America, so I should make American friends. But my white classmates are distant, my Latinx and African American classmates wary. It will only be years later, when I understand anti-blackness and other forms of racism within Asian communities, that I will understand why. My Asian American classmates, however, seem to take it for granted that we will be friends. So I accept invitations to karaoke nights, even though I have never been to karaoke even once back home. I attend parties thrown by Asian American student associations and pretend to know the difference between soju and sake. When eating out at Chinese restaurants, I feign aptitude at eating rice with chopsticks, even though back home I eat rice with a fork and spoon.

As I learn new ways of being Asian, I also learn new ways to describe myself. Foreigner. Minority. Person of color. Words that feel as unnatural on my tongue as the American accent that grows more perfect, more seamless by the day.

I learn the meaning of the word “fobby” from a soft-cheeked Chinese-American boy who would not be considered attractive in Singapore—he is too fair-skinned, his hair too tidily coiffed, his jeans too baggy—but who appears to be the heartthrob of the freshman Asian American community. I learn that having what Americans call an accent is fobby, although in my mind the definition of an accent is that everybody has one. I learn that cooking rice in the shared kitchen is fobby but going to karaoke is not. I learn that bangs are fobby but hair ironed straight and glossy is not. I learn that I am fobby. Everything is different here.


My formative years were spent in an all-girls school in Singapore, having the time of my life. We reeled through adolescence wreaking havoc in the way only teenage girls could, making teachers cry with our secret codes and intractable defiance and the things we insisted on hiding behind blackboards (ghostly wind chimes, pungent durians and on occasion, ourselves). We played basketball from behind our desks, later sneaking whatever furniture we’d broken into dusty storerooms and claiming it had inexplicably vanished. Our school was a top school and we studied hard. Because there were no boys, we were never told they were better at science or math; or that we should aspire in any way to be their wives. Our teachers (our poor, long-suffering but relentlessly dedicated teachers) seemed to take it for granted that whatever we became—engineers, doctors, artists, lawyers, architects—we would be the leaders of our fields.

Home wasn’t that different from school. My father left when I was nine, so I was raised by my mother, a single working parent. We lived with my grandmother, a woman who had herself lost her husband young and raised five children on her own. Since my mother was usually at work, it was my grandmother who would make sweet barley water to cool a fever when I was ill, who would spend hours brewing thick broths of blackened chicken, bitter gourd, and lotus roots to nourish my growing body. Every Sunday, my mother’s three older sisters, my aunts, would come visit, bearing unsought financial advice, fragrant homemade sambals, industrial-sized packs of contact lens solution procured on road trips to Malaysia.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex. I read these words in an undergraduate philosophy class and forget them right away. I only think of them years later, when I become a woman myself. Becoming happens in ways that are heartbreakingly tedious: being groped at parties, talked over in conference rooms, asked to smile, again and again.

In a world where we are so often told—even with the best of intentions—that being a woman is a disadvantage from birth, I realize how lucky I was to grow up feral, in spaces filled with the raucous, joyous, insistent voices of women. Where women were self-reliant and ambitious; where men were, for the most part, absent or irrelevant. I was born amongst women, and, in so many senses of the word, raised by women. Even as I feel the world trying to tell me my place, as I feel myself pulling in my corners, I can also feel, deep inside me, the voices of the women from my youth—teachers, classmates, mother, aunts, grandmother. Those voices are a secret power, an invisible privilege. No matter how loud the noise gets, if I stay very still and listen very carefully, I can always hear them rising above the din.


I mentioned my father left when I was nine. On the one hand, he bankrupted my family, leaving my mother to raise me and my four-year-old brother. We lost our home and everything we owned, and the three of us moved into my grandmother’s spare bedroom, living off the charity of relatives and my mother’s S$800 (USD $600) a month salary as a receptionist.

On the other hand, I’d won the lottery of birth. Born and bred in Singapore, I grew up in a country deemed by the UN to have standards of living equivalent to those of Japan and Australia. A receptionist’s salary wasn’t much money to raise a family on, but when we fell sick, we had access to subsidized healthcare at government-run polyclinics. When we needed to travel to work or school, we used the cheap, reliable buses and trains. When we couldn’t afford books or school fees, we received bursaries and financial aid.

My memories of that time are characterized by loneliness and scarcity. I would often cry myself to sleep on the thin mattress laid out on the floor each night, missing my father and unable to speak of my pain to my harried and overburdened mother. I didn’t have enough money for both recess and lunch, so I stayed hungry most mornings, saving my pocket money for the afternoon. We scraped by, as best we could. If someone had told me I was lucky back then, I would have balked. Yet while temping at a recruitment agency many years later, I became aware of the number of advertisements that mandated not just Singaporean citizenship, but also fluency in Mandarin as a job requirement. My mother was able-bodied and Chinese, and had been able to get her receptionist job relatively quickly after my father left. But what if she hadn’t been? What if she had been a foreign immigrant, what if she had not been Chinese?

Instead, my mother did get the job and successfully supported us through childhood. School in Singapore was free and of high quality, so I still received an excellent education despite our financial situation. This allowed me to win a government scholarship that would sponsor my undergraduate degree at Columbia University, land me a well-paying job in finance and provide me with the stability to pursue my secret dream of being a writer. Today, I live in a comfortable apartment, which I can afford thanks to a generous fellowship from my MFA program. My debut novel will be published, in the US and UK, this July and translated into over half a dozen languages.

On the one hand, I know my life has the gleam of the impossible. People who hear my story often marvel at what they call my grit, resilience, ambition. On the other hand, I know that my life would have been impossible in many alternate universes—if I didn’t have a supportive extended family, if I hadn’t grown up in a country that invests heavily in free education and other public services, if I weren’t Chinese in a Chinese-majority society, if I didn’t speak English in a world where fluency is a prerequisite for success.

Would the trajectory of my life have been possible in America? Sure, I live here now. But today I am college-educated and financially stable. What might my life have looked like if my family had been living here twenty years ago? How would my mother have fared, a woman with a high school diploma, a single parent with two young children, without a home?

When I am called a person of color in America, what do people see? Do they see the invisible privilege of being foreign-born, of having come from a country that afforded me the upward mobility my life benefits from? Do they see that while the color of my skin today renders me a minority in America, I spent most of my early life an oblivious, privileged ethnic majority? Racial privilege in Singapore, like anywhere else, is complex and multi-faceted. The Chinese enjoy certain advantages for being the majority, but this can be further broken down into dialect group, fluency in English and class, with English-speaking Peranakans historically being at the top of the pecking order. While not raised within this specific sub-segment of privilege, through education, I now undoubtedly belong to it when I am in Singapore.

But I do not live in Singapore. I live in America, where on more than one occasion, I have been told to go home. Even as the familiar rage quickens my pulse and makes my hands turn cold, a part of me feels guilty. I think to myself: you, you with all your invisible privileges, who are you to be angry?


“Inferiorization is the native correlative to the European’s feeling of superiority. Let us have the courage to say: It is the racist who creates the inferiorized,” said Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. I read Fanon in graduate school and this time, unlike when I first read de Beauvoir’s words, I know exactly what is meant. One is not born, but rather becomes, a person of color.

I know exactly what Fanon means because I am no longer nineteen, no longer a new arrival in a place where for the first time, I will be othered. Ten years have passed since the Chinese-American boy told me what it meant to be fobby; it’s been ten years since I first encountered what it meant to live as a racial minority in Western society. In those years, I have lived in New York, London, and now, Austin. I have explained to both Americans and British alike that not all Asians are good at math, that even if I am good at it, it is not because Singaporeans “learn by rote” (as if math could be mastered by pure memorization alone). I have gently pointed out that indeed, Asia is a vast and varied continent, that English is my first language, that it’s cool you went on vacation to Korea last summer but I really don’t see what it has to do with me being from Singapore. I have had a white classmate whisper to me in seminar that he loves “Oriental women” for our “small and delicate waists.” I have had men trail me in the streets when I am walking home at night, repeating the same word over and over again from the shadows: Sayonara! Sayonara! Sayonara!

I say that I became a person of color for the first time when I came to America, given I come from a place where I belong to the racial majority. That is not entirely true, for Singapore is, after all, a post-colonial state. White dominance and Western hegemony are, after all, global phenomena. The inferiorization that Fanon points to has always been an invisible force in my life, a force that indubitably shapes Singapore itself, a shiny city state that often seeks to remake itself in the Western world’s image even as it charts its own path. I talk about the American policing of accents, but the same policing of language happens back home, where a strong grasp of English is an indicator of status, a remnant from colonial times when speaking the language of the ruling powers was a reliable way to get ahead. Singlish—the local pidgin language, a mix of English, Mandarin dialects, Malay, and Tamil—is deemed unsavory, uncouth, inappropriate for professional or formal settings. Growing up, we read British books, watched American movies, studied French and German in schools.

All this is obvious to me now. Yet when I take on the label of person of color in America, an uneasy tremor still runs through me, the feeling of being a fraud. Did I not grow up as a member of the racial majority in a country that in many ways offers greater social mobility than the US itself? For the first eighteen years of my life, did I not have the privilege of being the racial majority, of not having my abilities and personhood called into question on the basis of my race?

When someone shouts “Go home!” to me on a darkened street at night, do I not, indeed, have a home to which I could go?

On the one hand, racial majority. On the other hand, racial minority. On the one hand, colonialism. On the other hand, the world’s “most successful colony.” On the one hand, fobby. On the other hand, a place to call home. On the one hand, poverty. On the other hand, free education. On the one hand, an absent father. On the other hand, a resilient, loving mother.

Some nights I lie awake in the dark, tracing the contours of my thirty years of life. I tally up the economic disadvantages and personal setbacks, the slurs and unconscious biases, trying to square them with the personal blessings, the racial privileges, the strokes of sheer, unbelievable luck.

I count them on my fingers, first on the one hand, then the other. I finish counting and start over, trying, always, to solve the equation of myself. Woman. Foreigner. Minority. Person of color. I say the words in my head, over and over, uncurling my ”r,” sharpening my “t,” hoping one day, I will sound like myself again.


Rachel Heng is currently on tour for her debut novel, Suicide Club, and you’ll find her in conversation with our Editor-in-Chief Marisa Siegel in New York City on July 18.


Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.

Rachel Heng's debut novel, Suicide Club, was published by Henry Holt (US) and Sceptre (UK) in July 2018, and will be translated in eight languages worldwide. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, Prairie Schooner's Jane Geske Award, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post, ELLE, The Rumpus, and NYLON. Short stories she’s written have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Offing, Prairie Schooner, The Adroit Journal, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Rachel is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers, UT Austin. More from this author →