Race Gets in the Way

…I am more a citizen of my country here

In this land that is not my own

Than I have ever been in the land that I call home.

(Written 13 January 2011)

I grew up in a country that prides itself on being multiracial. Social Studies and History classes in school taught me about the conflicts that occurred between races in the past and the consequent importance of maintaining racial harmony in our nation today. With the rest of my schoolmates, I celebrated Racial Harmony Day once a year and daily recited our national pledge, which begins, “We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race…” (italics mine). As a member of the racial majority, I never had to worry about being racially marginalized, and the public rhetoric surrounding the pursuit of racial harmony relieved me of any burden I might otherwise have felt of having to think about race or racism.

In some regards, then, the extreme visibility of race allowed me to treat it as though it were invisible. At the same time, however, the racial reality persisted and grew increasingly visible as I grew older. The current position in which I find myself – an Asian, international student studying in the United States (and an American Studies major, no less) – serves as an illustrative example. There are numerous ways in which race intersects with my experiences and, thus, a multitude of ways I could approach this essay. It ought, therefore, to be noted that the subject I have chosen for this essay is in no way an exhaustive nor summative account of the impact of race in my life, but merely one of many lenses through which that impact can be examined.

Race is spoken of as an identity, “a category that sets the terms of belonging and exclusion” (Ferguson, 2007, p.192). My experience testifies to that. When defined by race, it seems I fit in nowhere.

I was born and grew up in Singapore, a small country situated on the southern tip of Southeast Asia. I am Chinese, the majority race in Singapore, but while I look and speak Chinese, I do not always act Chinese, and it is for this reason that my friends often, in good fun, call me a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I do not eat spicy food; prefer a hamburger to white rice; love potatoes in any color, shape and size; and speak and write in English better than the average Singaporean. Among Asians at home, I am the resident angmoh (“White person”). [1] The title is a dubious one, changing in significance depending on the context. At times, it casts me as an outsider; other times, it positions me as one who has achieved something superior.

Singapore is often described as a place where East meets West. While our racial and ancestral heredity is rooted in Asia, as a former British colony and avid consumers of American television, we are also greatly influenced by the West. In school, we were taught that we owe our metamorphosis from an undeveloped nation into a developed, international center to the Western minds that lent us their knowledge and expertise. Hence, like many others, I spent most of my life looking towards the White culture as superior, even though I may not have recognized that. White culture (culture here being defined as “the way of life of a people, group or humanity in general”) became, in many ways, synonymous with the notion of being cultured (culture here having to do with “intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development”), and one’s cultured status was most easily recognized in one’s linguistic ability (Yúdice, 2007, p.71). I would cringe when I heard people speaking English with a Chinese accent or English that was full of grammatical mistakes. My friends and I felt embarrassed by what we judged to be the inferior acting and production found on local media productions, comparing them to the highly polished and sophisticated productions of the West.

It was clear, in my understanding, that not all Asians were the same. Some were better than others, and those who could, in every way apart from appearance, pass as Whites were better. Despite this, however, no one wanted to be identified as being culturally White – such an identification meant that one had sold out and rendered one, once again, an outsider. Passing as White was laudable only if one was, first and foremost, securely Asian. Caught in the middle, I struggled to form an identity, simultaneously aspiring to and resisting these contradictory standards.

As I made my way across the Pacific Ocean to the United States, the struggle grew in complexity. The concept of the “looking-glass self” in social psychology suggests that we see ourselves as we think others see us. From barely being considered Asian at home, I suddenly felt that being Asian became the only thing my identity consisted of, simply by virtue of how I thought others saw me. Here, this put me in the same group as those from other Asian countries, yet I saw many differences between them and myself. Most of the other Asian international students spoke a first language other than English and were strongly rooted to their culture. They spoke of experiencing culture shock upon their arrival in America, something that I, having been exposed to much of the culture, could not identify with. I did not resent them, but I experienced the tension of feeling as though I did not fully belong in that group and yet being thrust into it by my racial appearance. I felt as though the labels “Chinese” and “Asian” spoke little of who I was.

Once again, however, I was caught between resisting one definition and reaching only tentatively for another. Many of the Americans I met quickly recognized that I spoke differently than the other Asian international students, and some even thought I had lived in the United States all my life. On one hand, I was happy to be mistaken as such and accepted as “one of them,” but on the other, my (albeit limited) identification with my Asian friends reminded me that I did not really belong with the Americans either. If neither “Asian” nor “American” accurately nor sufficiently described me, then what was I? Who was I? There was no room for me between the two, no middle ground in which I could comfortably reside.

Coming to America forced me to confront my race in a way that I had never done before. I never thought about race very explicitly, but here, it seems like the one thing that everyone talks about. There is a resulting pressure to define yourself by your race, but as I have experienced, race merely seems to get in the way of achieving a sense of belonging and a sure identity. Attempts to define myself by race left me feeling trapped by definitions that were imposed on me where I had yet to be defined. What does one’s race tell you, apart from their race? Nothing, I argue. Although race is, in many instances, closely related to culture and one’s upbringing, it will never be sufficient to tell who one is. We are too varied, our experiences too diverse, to be summed up in a single label. If anything, race might be a useful means of identification, but it should never constitute one’s identity.


Ferguson, R.A. (2007). Race. In Keywords for American Cultural Studies (pp.191-196). New York: New York University Press.

Yúdice, G. (2007). Culture. In Keywords for American Cultural Studies (pp. 71-76). New York: New York University Press.

[1] The term angmoh is used to describe Caucasians. Its usage conflates Western (especially American) culture with White Caucasians. In this essay, in order to preserve the racial and cultural environment in which I grew up, I use the terms “White” and “American” interchangeably, though I am aware of the inequity it otherwise perpetuates.


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