Top Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo
In the blink of an eye, we’ve made it to February—and with it comes the Chinese New Year festivities. While it signifies fresh starts and joyous reunions for many, the mixed-race tapestry of Singapore reveals a different, often nuanced reality. For those who may not fully resonate with the ‘Chinese’ umbrella, how much does their ethnic identity truly intertwine with these festivities?
As someone with mixed parentage, I find myself grappling with the same old identity issues each passing year. Am I too ‘Malay’ for Chinese New Year? Why do I not feel ‘Chinese’ enough?
And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
While Chinese New Year is often lauded as a celebration of unity, it can sting with a feeling of exclusion for some. We spoke to biracial Singaporeans to explore their complex experiences of navigating an identity caught between cultures and not feeling ‘Chinese enough’.
“It’s kind of a funny story because my Thai mum still gives us [my brothers and I] ang baos even though she doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. She even had to learn how to speak Mandarin and Hokkien after moving here from Thailand!
People tend to associate being Thai with Thai Disco, so I’ve faced a few insensitive comments during gatherings, such as calling me ‘Siam Bu’. How original.
I’m more Chinese passing, but I identify more with my Thai side as I used to visit my hometown, Chiang Mai, often. I like the pace of life there. And I never really learned to enjoy Chinese food; it tastes weird to me. It’s strange because I don’t feel Chinese enough when I’m in Singapore, but I don’t feel Thai enough when I’m back in Thailand.”
— Kelly, Chinese/Thai
“I’m basically a potato; yellow inside but brown outside. My mum didn’t really teach or show us her culture since she doesn’t have family here in Singapore. So I don’t even know how to speak Sinhala. Even though I identify more as Chinese, sometimes I still feel like I’m not Chinese enough.
I’ve noticed that distant relatives usually look at us with confusion when they see us in my grandma’s house or when we go for visits. I tended to stick with my parents when I was younger to prevent relatives from thinking I came into the wrong house.
There’s always the ‘Wah you mixed ah no wonder so pretty’, which is always very awkward for me, despite them meaning well. And comments like ‘So you can speak Chinese? Wah, you speak very good,’ which makes me feel a little bit alienated because… why wouldn’t I speak Chinese? I was brought up Chinese, and I am Chinese, so obviously I can speak Chinese, right?”
— Rslyne, Chinese/Sinhalese
“My cousin’s new partners always do a double take when I grab a piece of bak kwa because of my skin tone.
It’s a strange feeling—having to send somewhat telepathic signs that I am indeed half-Chinese, and this is fine. It’s almost like having to justify why you’re with Chinese people within a Chinese home during Chinese New Year. I can’t speak an ounce of Mandarin, so relatives often deal with my broken greetings. The only judgemental glances I get are from new additions to the family.
But I guess we shouldn’t have to be made to feel like this.”
— Sarah, Chinese/Malay
“Chinese New Year has always felt like dipping my toes in Chinese culture, but not entirely.
We don’t play games—I’ve never played mahjong in my life. There’s no gambling whatsoever because my dad is a pastor. On the table, you get Indian food, and then you’ve got a bit of Chinese food. And then you say a prayer before eating everything.
I don’t feel connected to either side, actually. Music-wise, I don’t listen to a lot of Jay Chou, and I’m certainly not going to pick up a microphone and do Chinese karaoke like my friends. Perhaps things would change if I was close to my Chinese relatives. It has always felt like I’m an outsider looking in at my own culture.
I don’t know about the whole Chinese-passing thing and what their reality is like because I can’t relate. I guess I’m Indian-passing. But then again, I’ve always never felt Indian enough. When I tell people I don’t know that I’m half-Indian and half-Chinese, they also don’t really know what to make of it because it’s such a strong contrast between two very, very different cultures.”
— Joshua, Chinese/Indian
“I tend to be a bit jealous of people who are fully Chinese.
When both sides are Chinese, they have plans for both days. For me, I’m free on the second day onwards because half of my relatives reside in Italy. So there’s no one to visit. It can feel a little bad on the second day [of Chinese New Year] when everyone’s still out visiting their families.
I’ve gotten used to it now. I just see it as an opportunity to spend more time with my Italian mum and do non-CNY-related things such as going to the movies or even going for a walk!
Don’t get me wrong, CNY is still a great way for me to stay connected to my roots and embrace the fact that I am Chinese. It’s a part of my identity, even though it’s not very strong and I don’t speak Chinese on a daily basis. I need to embrace the fact that these are my roots; this is where I come from. And these are the traditions [if I end up marrying a Chinese person] that I will carry on into the future.