Stop calling me an Oriental

In a big, diverse city like London, it probably would have happened at some point; and it did, two months after I moved here for graduate school.

I was bashing the bags in a grotty Muay Thai gym where, not unexpectedly, I was the only Asian among the mostly young white male crowd, when someone came up and asked hopefully if I was Japanese.

No, sorry to disappoint you, but I'm from Singapore.

The guy said he was learning Japanese and thought he could practise his newly acquired language with me.

We chatted about this and that for a while, before he said, with the same anticipative look: "You must have lived in London a really long time. Your English is so good!"

Okay, I thought to myself, time for The Explainer.

Press play for the story of why Singaporeans' English is "so good"; the same tale I've had to recount whenever my ability to string coherent, grammatically correct English sentences together is met with surprise.

Truth be told, I was far less annoyed than I was amused.

He had meant it as a compliment and I took it in that spirit, rather than feel offended and accuse him of being culturally condescending, racially presumptuous and generally ignorant.

Singapore doesn't even register on Google Map when you view it on a scale of 2,000km.

So, I don't expect everyone to know where we are, let alone the fact that English is the lingua franca of the (sometimes visible, sometimes not visible depending on zoom level) little red dot, and we pick up the ABCs as young as two years old.

To get annoyed would be to feed a sense of entitlement and self-importance; like those laughable "don't you know who I am?" stories you hear so often.

In fact, when you're in the ethnic minority in a country, expect a healthy dose of cultural stereotyping to hit you in the face. It's hardly ever malicious; most times, it's just plain funny.

A man - a dentist, he claims - slithered up to me at a bar recently and his opening line was: "I love Oriental women."

Maybe he's had one too many cocktails. In the dark, shadowy murkiness of the swarming saloon, there is a small possibility I could pass off as a mellower version of Shu Qi or Zhang Ziyi.

But back to his pick-up line: How does one respond to a statement like that? Geez, thanks? I'm flattered? Yeah, I'm as exotic as they come?

I had thought, these days, "Oriental" is used to describe antiques, not people.

In the United States, legislation was passed six years ago putting a stop to government agencies referring to people of Asian descent as "Oriental" in public documents and forms.

But that's the US and they set the gold standard for political correctness.

One of the things that befuddled me when I first landed in London was how the word "Asians" was reserved for people from the Indian subcontinent, since they form the largest ethnic minority group in the United Kingdom.

Hey, what about me and my favourite roast duck seller in Chinatown?

Well, we're "East Asians" or, yes, "Oriental".

When it comes to East Asians, the Chinese rule - again, based on strength in numbers.

When I went to a hacks and hackers networking session last week, a man of about 40 stopped me and asked if I was a writer. Yes, I said.

He launched into a bizarre spiel about how he is setting up an online magazine about music, fashion, movies and he is looking to hire writers.

I hadn't muttered any other word besides "yes" up till this point.

Suddenly, he asked: "Are you from China?"

I wondered why he decided to go with China, instead of Japan, Korea or Taiwan. I've been mistaken for a native of these countries many more times than I've been asked if I was from China.

He could even have gone with Vietnam, Indonesia or Mongolia.

It's like meeting a Caucasian person for the first time and without even trying to make an informed guess from his accent, immediately ask him: "Are you from the US?"

I know being so self-righteous isn't going to do me any good. I'm as guilty as the next Singaporean of mindlessly mouthing "ang moh" whenever I refer to a white person, even though there is no ill-meaning.

Perhaps it stems from a sense of insecurity about Singapore's smallness and newness - that despite all the bravado about its accomplishments and all-round wonderfulness, we are, like Google Map on zoom level 2 - inconspicuous.

Perhaps it stems, too, from a lack of security about my own language proficiency - that despite all the crowing about our language education policy, our status as native speakers of the English language is still not a shoo-in.

When I applied to my university in London for my master's programme, I was somewhat indignant that the offer was a conditional one; I had to show proof of my English language proficiency since I was a "non-native speaker".

In the end, simply sending over my A level transcript did the job of securing the Tier 4 study visa, but it did nothing to soothe my crankiness.

Maybe it's self-induced pressure, fuelled by cultural baggage, nationalistic pride, and what I saw as the hypocrisy of my former colonial masters. But they all conspired to make me feel like I had something to prove here.

Part of that exercise involves calling out (to myself) bad grammar, misspellings and other linguistic boo-boos I enjoy spotting in newspapers, billboards and magazines.

A-ha! That big poster outside Iceland Foods says Low Prices Everyday!

Bad English! Says the Oriental person whose English is so good and whose ancestors are from China.

dawntan@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Feb 09, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.