I was feeling inspired in the shower, moments ago, to pen this post.
Before coming to America, Cass and I talked and she mentioned that coming here would provide a good opportunity for me to feel like a minority in a place unlike Singapore, any other Southeast Asian countries I’ve been to and of course, China. I assumed that I’d never have to experience the whole “feeling-like-a-minority” coming to UR since the non-native Asian student population here is big enough for me not to stand out among the rest… but it turns out no. And how could I also see the Asian population the same way as non-Asians do, as a single racial category, when I am aware that within the category it is still very much diverse?
I have always think of myself as more Eastern so I always acknowledge that I am a Chinese by race but only today: I was told that I neither belong to the East nor the West. And since coming here, I have been using the term “homophily” so often and only now it made me realized that: the following is probably how the ethnic minorities in Singapore feel.
In school, I remember having this one ethnic minority close friend (i.e. Indian) who’d join the group of Chinese friends whom I hang out with. She would say that she feels like she doesn’t belong in our group and she’d feel left out when we converse in a mix of English and Chinese but I would say that we have tried to conduct most of our conversations in English. Nevertheless, it remained difficult for her to engage in meaningful conversations with the rest of us. I’d think in my head that she’s overthinking, maybe abit feisty about the whole thing, but we’d still reassure her that we were OK and we were more than happy to have her in the group. Then, a year or two after, I come across comments on Social Media, parroting exactly what that one friend told me.
Come to think about it now, the closest friends I’ve had and the people that I hung out with in my school years are Chinese by race. But, I would never think of myself as having any prior intention to selectively go with a certain crop in the population or rather, the crop which I belong to. The thing about “homophily” is that: it is probably not a conscious choice. The tendencies to go with what is most familiar to us. So much for a multiracial society, right? We could coexist without slashing each other’s throats and subconsciously making only brief shoulder-brushing sessions (i.e. surface interactions) with someone of another race… we tell ourselves that different races don’t matter as much as us being part of one human race but it is all talk and no action unless we are aware that homophily happens to even the most unprejudiced people among us and that we must have the intention and the effort to counteract that.
So what happened today was that the cultural adviser in our dorm held a cupcake party in the basement. I decided to go alone and was filled with hope that I could make a friend or two so I stayed throughout the hour munching on that one cupcake I had so I didn’t look awkward hanging around to observe and eavesdrop on the conversations other people were having. I didn’t attempt to cut into their conversations although I came to realize that most people do that here and they do it so well. The last time I tried to inject a question into a conversation that I was already in but I supposed I didn’t have much of a resounding voice to make that come out of my mouth as an inquiry that I genuinely wanted an answer to that. The conversations I tried to strike with some who were sitting around me didn’t went beyond them talking about their majors and then ending it right there.
The roommate of the cultural adviser, who is a Chinese, came over to talk to me. Perhaps during that moment, I appeared overly-excited to have someone to talk to, that she might have thought that my reaction comes from talking to people of my own race, plus I initiated to get the address of the Asian food market that she told me about. Halfway through the conversation, she traced off to greet the other students and started to talk to them as well. There, I was silent and continued to listen to the conversations around me. Later, she got back to me and indicated that I should try to talk and make friends with the other Exchange students from Europe. I told her that I did make a suggestion to my neighbors that we’d hang out during weekends to hike or visit the famous river here but she told me that it’s too much for strangers to do that the first time they meet. They’d respond that they will consider despite a hinted “deadline” and nothing heard afterwards.
But I think I’d still ask them the same thing if I see them on the way and that I have plans during the weekends. It is still nice to have extra company and to get to know someone new beyond the hi and bye-s in the hallway. It feels like a one-sided relationship but it’s all part of stepping out of your comfort zone (and the embarrassment from what appears to be like my persistent interest towards them would only last for that four months), right?
I told her about the homophily I observed in the dining hall, among African Americans, White Americans, Chinese students and other nationalities sparsely scattered all around. She’d nod her head and gave me the “yes I know but still…” look. I also told her that my social circle here comprises of mainly the Chinese students who are freshmen that I came to know when they come over to sit with me in the dining hall. She said something like, being the minority (neither the East nor the West from a place like Singapore) that doesn’t belong to any major international clubs here, is not a bad thing so it would not be difficult for me to approach those other Exchange students who come from Europe and my sentiment from what she’d told me is that perhaps they’d find it easier to accept me as part of the community.
I think her other comment that goes along the lines of: “try harder“, “don’t think too much and try again“, “not too much but still make the effort” to try to assimilate in a certain community strikes me to think about the thought I had in my mind when my Indian friend was telling me about how difficult it was to blend in with my friends. How effortful is it to walk up to a table of Europeans, or Chinese (in my friend’s case), in the dining hall and then join in their conversations? And perhaps we’d try to go beyond talking about our majors. I think I gave up the same way as my friend did hanging around with us. Did it now become the minority’s responsibility to “work” extra hard to get the majority to accept us as one of the members in the same community?
I am slightly tired to continue thinking and writing about this. I may or may not continue writing after the last question I asked but I guess, that is good enough for an end to this post.