Excuse me, are you Singaporean?
Five Singaporeans with mixed heritage tell what it is like to grow up and fit in here. -ST
Mixed marriages have become more common in Singapore. In 2011, one in five marriages (19.8 per cent) was an inter-ethnic union, up from one in eight (12.6 per cent) in 2001. But the offspring of these couples still get asked awkward questions about their identity. Five Singaporeans with mixed heritage tell what it is like to grow up and fit in here.
Five-year-old picks up Singlish
But ask five-year-old Isabel Gonzales which she likes most - Chinese, English or Spanish - and she replies confidently: "Chinese."
Her mother, Ms Ong Meow Cheng, 42, who is self-employed distributing health and beauty products, is not surprised.
"She will take a Chinese story book from the shelf and ask me to read it," says Ms Ong, who is Singaporean.
Ms Ong and her husband, Mr Manuel Gonzales, 48, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Peru in Singapore, met in 1996 while they were both working in Canberra, Australia. She was then a stenographer at the Singapore High Commission in the city.
They got married in 2007, had both their children in Peru and moved to Singapore in 2011.
The couple say their children, Isabel and Alfonso, three, had no problems fitting in from the get-go.
In Singapore, because everyone spoke English, Isabel did not have a problem communicating with her school mates.
Even Chinese has not been an issue.
Her mother made it a point to read Chinese books to her when they lived in Peru and would look for Chinese programmes on cable television for her to watch.
When Isabel came to Singapore, her Chinese language teacher said she was at first shy and looked away when questions were asked. But now, she raises her hand and speaks in Mandarin like the other children.
Ms Ong says she is relieved: "I was scared she would come back and say she didn't like Chinese."
Language is an important way for Ms Ong and Mr Gonzales to share their culture with their children.
Says Mr Gonzales: "We want them to have good exposure to Singapore culture. But we also want them to know that part of their identity is Peruvian. One way of doing that is teaching the language."
The diligent father reads Spanish story books to his children twice a week and teaches them Spanish words using flash cards.
But Isabel, who has not been back to Peru since 2011, has also picked up a fourth language - Singlish - from her friends.
"We tried to teach her proper English, but what was taught was undone in school," says Ms Ong, shaking her head.
But the parents do not seem to mind too much that their daughter's English has taken a local turn.
"I'm fine with it as long as she is able to switch to speaking proper English when the situation arises," adds Ms Ong.
When asked what her favourite food is, Isabel answers in her Singaporean accent: "Spaghetti with tomato sauce, croissant, noodles." Then, with a smile, she adds: "Roti prata."
'Ang mo' in the army
When Robert William Straughan turns 21 this May, he will have to choose between his Singapore and American citizenship - a choice he dreads making.
"Everyone says it's a bonus to have two passports. But it's not a bonus, it's just who I am," says Mr Straughan, the elder son of two academics.
His mother, Associate Professor Paulin Straughan, 49, is deputy head of sociology at the National University of Singapore.
His father, Dr Robert Straughan, 54, is a senior mathematics lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic.
"People perceive that I can just make a choice, but it's not like that. Being American and Singaporean is a single identity," adds the young man.
Born here, Mr Straughan attended local schools and went through national service.
He attended Fairfield Methodist primary and secondary schools, and then Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC) and intends to study at the National University of Singapore.
Assoc Prof Straughan says she and her husband made a conscious choice to send their two sons - her younger child Timothy Ashby is 17 and a student at ACJC - to local schools because the "expat culture is foreign to both of us".
"We wanted them to be raised the Singapore way," she adds.
In school, her first-born also took Higher Chinese which, he says "added to my Singaporeaness".
He scored B3 for the subject in his O levels.
"I'm enthusiastic about speaking Chinese, but people make fun of me because of my accent," he adds.
To demonstrate, he orders a makebelieve bowl of fish ball noodles, with chilli, in his slightly American-accented Mandarin.
And when he speaks English, people ask if he has lived overseas, even though he has only a hint of an American accent when he says the word "can't".
While the questions about his parents and identity do get repetitive, MrStraughan says it is not frustrating.
"I think it's important to explain my parents' heritage and not use a blanket term to label it," he says, launching into the story of how his father and mother met in the United States in the 1980s, while both were pursuing their doctoral degrees at the University of Virginia, and how his father left his family and moved to Singapore for his mother.
They were married in Singapore in 1990.
"He gave up a lot... I think he's a bit disappointed that he couldn't teach me and Tim baseball," says the school debater, who was head councillor in his secondary school in 2008 and an active member of his junior college's student council.
During his army days, Mr Straughan was a signal instructor.
And although some of his friends in the army affectionately referred to him as "ang mo", they never viewed him as foreign or different, he says.
He would also consult his section mates on Hokkien phrases he did not understand, but says Mandarin was more prevalent, so he spoke that quite often.
As for the American side of him, he says it comes very much from the stories his father tells him about how he would take road trips across America, or about his grandfather being a Vietnam and Korean war veteran.
"When I was much younger and American warships would dock in Singapore, I remember clearly that my father would take me to see the ships so that I could be 'proud of my country', in his words," says the bachelor, who goes to the US about once a year to visit his grandmother in Georgia.
So what happens when he turns 21?
"I can't really come to a decision. There is really no methodology I can use to choose," he says.
Even if he has to give up one citizenship, he adds: "I will still consider myself of both (nationalities). I will continue to sing the national anthem of either country vehemently."
Left out of school discussions
Ms Nuraidah Mariko Pathorr Rahman remembers attending a Malay language class at four years old, where food was shared, but she did not get any.
When the Singaporean, whose father is Malay and mother is Japanese, asked why she did not get any food, the other children told her: "You're not Malay".
It was then that she began to understand how others viewed her.
In Evergreen Primary School, she says, pupils with physical similarities, such as the same skin tone, would group together for activities or group discussions.
She would be left out, but that never got her down.
"I was quite outspoken so I would just take the initiative to ask to join a group and it would be fine," says the National University of Singapore student, 20, who has yet to declare her major at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Her parents, in their 50s, met in Singapore when her mother, Ms Chiseko Hayashi, came here to work in the 1980s.
Her father Pathorr Rahman Saini is a tennis coach.
Ms Nuraidah, who has lived in Singapore all her life and attended local schools such as Tanjong Katong Girls' School and Anglo-Chinese Junior College, says she goes back to Japan to visit her mother's family at least once every year.
As she speaks fluent Japanese, she feels comfortable there, but says it is not her home.
"To call a place home, it's more than just the blood in us," she says.
Home, she adds, is Singapore, where she "knows the story of the country, the goals of the people and their concerns".
She has helped to organise youth camps and was part of the ChildAid concert in 2010 which raises money for The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund and The Business Times Budding Artists Fund.
Mr Pathorr says the only time he was worried about her fitting in was when she was in primary school.
The family, who is Muslim, usually eats Japanese food at home and he was worried his daughter could not get used to the food in the school canteen.
"But she came back very happy and told us she ate nasi lemak, or mee siam, so we stopped worrying," he says of his only child.
The only thing that used to frustrate her about being of mixed-parentage was being called Chinese, says Ms Nuraidah. "I was frustrated that people couldn't tell the difference between Japanese, Korean and Chinese."
But with time, she has made her peace with that. "If your attributes don't match Malay or Japanese, they will try and categorise you as something else."
But what makes her Singaporean is not her physical appearance, says Ms Nuraidah.
"I spent 20 years of my life here. I care about what happens here."
Netballer proud to represent Singapore
Singapore won the gold medal at the Asian Netball Championship in Sri Lanka last year and, as the national anthem played, Shelby Koh, who plays wing attack, says she was hit with a deep sense of pride.
"I think being in the national team is a huge part of what made me realise how much I love it here," says the 18-year-old Singaporean, whose father is Singaporean and mother, Australian.
"There is a sense of pride that you can't really explain when you are standing with your team singing the national anthem right before an international tournament, let alone when you win it."
Her family lived in Singapore for a year when she was a baby, before moving to Perth, where she grew up.
When she was about 14 years old, her mother was offered a job in Singapore and moved here with Shelby and her youngest sister Kaitlin, 16.
Mum Andrea, 52, is a teacher at an international school.
Her three older sisters and her businessman father, Mr Jerry Koh, 59, remained in Perth.
In 2010, she enrolled in the Singapore Sports School.
In 2011, she transferred to St Joseph's Institution International because she did not like the boarding school aspect of the sports school and was a grade below what she should have been.
She also did not enjoy the two hours of supervised study every night.
"That is not me at all," says the 175cm-tall netballer.
Shelby says she was upset about coming to Singapore at first because it meant being away from her Australian friends, but she has grown to love it here.
Her father and sisters are still based in Perth and she visits them at least once a year.
She also noticed many differences between teens in Australia and Singapore when she first came.
"Everyone gets tutored here. In Australia, nobody gets tutored," says Shelby, who speaks with an Australian accent.
She also noted that it was the norm for students to get part-time jobs in Australia, but not so the students in Singapore.
Despite the cultural differences, she was able to fit in quite well, particularly because of netball.
"They definitely formed another group of Singaporean friends," says Shelby of her teammates.
After training, she often hangs out with them at hawker centres.
In particular, she will look for Indian food. Very often, because of her pan-Asian looks, stall holders will politely warn her that the food is spicy.
But she says: "I love Indian food, even if it's spicy."
While she is often asked where she is from, she becomes irritated only when she is dealing with government agencies such as the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.
"The officers ask me if I'm Singaporean, after they have seen my pink identity card.
"To confirm, they also ask if I have a red passport," she says incredulously.
While loving Indian food and bubble tea, which she drinks once every few weeks, are part of her Singaporean identity, she says there is more to being a Singaporean than food.
"To me, being a Singaporean means immersing myself in different cultures, learning about different parts of the world and, at the same time, exposing others to customs that I have experienced overseas," says Shelby, who is dating a Singaporean Indian. "Being open to the world," she adds.
"It means having a sense of pride in and loyalty to this island and appreciating all of the opportunities it offers. And just being grateful that I have another beautiful place I can call home."
When Olive Yuen, 13, goes to the hair salon, the stylists sometimes comment on her thick, curly hair in Mandarin.
Little do they know that Olive, whose parents are Ghanaian and Singaporean Chinese, can understand what they are saying.
"I'll whisper and tell my mum what they said," says the Singaporean teen, who scored an A for Chinese Language in the Primary School Leaving Examination.
She says the comments do not affect her and she has never felt out of place in Singapore, either in school or elsewhere.
The Deyi Secondary School student says she has been in situations where peers her age do a double take when she speaks Mandarin.
Their reaction? "Wah, you so pro!"
And when she tells them that she is half-African, half-Singaporean Chinese, they go, "Wah, so cool!"
Although she was born in Ghana, she moved to Singapore in 2006, when she was seven and has not been back since.
Her father, Mr Paulson Yuen, 56, met her mother, Ms Sabina Donkor, 36, in Ghana in 1998.
They were married according to Ghanaian customary rites by the end of the year.
They registered their marriage in Ghana in 2005 and in Singapore in 2007.
When they met, Ms Donkor, who holds a master's degree in hotel and tourism management, was working as the food and beverage and banquet manager in a leading resort chain.
Mr Yuen, who worked in Ghana for 19 years, was then the project director in charge of overseas operations of a construction company.
He worked on a highway from Ms Donkor's town to the city and her home was just by the roadside, so the two would bump into each other regularly.
They moved to Singapore in 2006 so that Olive could start her primary school education here.
In primary school, the girl took part in a variety of co-curricular activities (CCA), including guzheng, harmonica, badminton, basketball and Chinese dance.
She chose Chinese dance because some of her friends were also joining the CCA.
"It looked quite interesting, so I just wanted to try," she says.
Now, she is part of the school's track and field team and her best event is the 100m sprint.
Her parents proudly point to a number of her trophies on top of a shelf in their three-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh.
Like many of her classmates, Olive hangs out at Ang Mo Kio Hub after school and does her homework with friends at a fast food restaurant in Ang Mo Kio Central.
Her friends, she says, are mainly Chinese, but there are other races too; all are Singaporean.
Says Olive in a completely Singaporean accent: "I feel more Singaporean than African because I have been here a longer time than I've been in Africa."
In fact, she has lost touch with the Ghanaian language, Twi, which she could speak when she was younger.
But she likes having a mixed heritage.
"It's more exotic," she says. "It's more fun and people are more interested."
Indeed, strangers are very curious when they see her with her parents.
"People try to figure out if we're a family or not. They turn back and look again... if people don't stare at us, I think we'll feel funny," says Mr Yuen good-naturedly.
Ms Donkor was a guest service officer at Far East Organisation for a few years, but quit to help Olive with her PSLE and has not been able to find another job since because she is not a permanent resident.
While Ms Donkor sometimes feels she is "not accepted here because they keep rejecting my PR", she is glad her daughter has fully integrated.
Mr Yuen agrees: "She came when she was young, so she does not know what she misses there."
Ask Olive where she would choose to live and she says: "I don't know why, I just prefer it here somehow."
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