Royal Copenhagen Tea House was as full as always today, filled with people from various genre and background. I was not sure why, but the place seems to be a popular place for Singapore’s upper-middle class society to hang out, spending their mundane afternoon (and their money too). Maybe because of its strategic position right at a corner of Takashimaya, or the fine Danish porcelain makes their tea more savoury.
Whatever, the reason, the crowd always creates delightful scenery for they really know how to ‘display’ themselves. I scanned through the crowd and made note on the latest fashion, if the squared white gold necklace is back to trend or if a waist-line jean has made a come back. But my eyes strucked at a table at a corner, formally placed for special reception.
It seemed that they were having an engagement high tea celebration for the ones sitting at the centre, were this young couple.
The man was this tall Chinese guy, a lean and fair man. His face was what the Chinese would call the ‘face that brings fortune’, for his face was relatively wide and incredibly fair, shining with huge smiles.
The lady, was this Northern Indian lady, slim and slender with wavy long hair. Her eyes were bright hazel and with her dimples, she had an adorable smile.
Both seemed to come from well-to-do families, judging from the clothes, the jewels, and the manner they put. What a couple, one might say, if not for the racial difference.
I could clearly see that none of the family actually appreciated their children’s choice. I would say so because if not because of this young couple, the two families might have as well not sit together. They were split into two, the Indian family on the left, and the Chinese family on the right.
Throughout the tea reception, the couple seemed to enjoy themselves most, sneaking holding hands and exchanging lovely gaze. Yet, the rest of the families were eating in silence, their eyes tucked on the plates in front of them. Sometimes, when the guy chatted happily with his girlfriend, a man, whom I assumed was his father, would give his disapproval look, wondering how on earth his son fell in love with someone who was notChinese.
The girl’s family did not behave differently, for the mother, who sat right next to the guy’s father, maintained the very minimum contact with her in-laws. Throughout the eight courses of meal and dessert, she gave that snob look, tried to raise her pride with the glowy accessories.
The rest of family followed that trend. When a little boy, maybe the girls’ brother asked for a simple meal instead, the Chinese family gave a insulting look, perhaps on the taste that boy developed.
I did not stay until the end of their reception, but what supposed to be a party, for me was more of a wake of someone’s death. Or was that so for the family? For they saw death when their gorgeous children picked the least likely spouse?
This incident reminded me of a story two years ago, when a guy stood up and said at a ministerial forum, something like:“It makes me shiver to see two person of different races holding hands.” That statement, frozed most of the listeners, including the youth minister, who is a Chinese-Indian born.
People would have easily blamed that guy for being racist and the two families who ‘celebrated’ their kids engagement as backward.
But then later I met a cleaner, who challenged me to think, could parents avoid or hide their disappointment? Is there any deeper reason why a couple of different race could not be together?
Let me share my cleaner story. My first encounter with her was when my morning bathing was disturbed by sudden knock on my bathroom door. I was living in a dormitory then, and had to bathe in a communal bathroom. I could not open the door directly as I was full with bubles and soap. The next thing, I was blasted with allegation in Chinese. From my poor Chinese ability, I caught up words of ‘room key’ and ‘where do you live’. I hardly searched for my room key and passed it to her through the space below the door.
She was still asking me a lot of questions. I finally gave up. I grabbed my towel and with that, I faced my enemy, the lady cleaner. There she was, right in from of my door, looking at me suspiciously. She then once again asked me if I lived in that block. I said yes. Of course she did not believe me, she said that area was the boys’ dorm. So I had to (with my towel, mind you) showed her where my room was, and opened it using my key. It was by no means that my room was near the bridge connected to the boys’ dorm.
No apologise given. She was rambling about how she had never seen me, and that a lot of girls stayed over at their boyfriend’s room and loitering the toilet, giving her hard time. I said I had been living there for two years. She muttered, “Malay girls..,love to sneak around…no morality.”
I told her I was Chinese. It did not help that I have a caramel color skin and eye lids. She still distrusted me. She asked how come as a Chinese I could not speak well. I told her I was Indonesian born Chinese, never mind that my maternal grandmother was half Arab and my paternal grandmother practiced Kejawen.
Our relations only turned better when she saw me eating roastpork with rice. “You eat pork?” she asked, half amused. “Yes, I’ve told you I AM Chinese,” I said, tiredly. She nodded with approval.
In order to better our sour relations (she was my cleaner after all), I gave her a piece of a nice clothing, together with some Indonesian cakes. The next day she once again questioned me if I was really Chinese. “My husband asked me if the one giving those was Chinese, we are not to accept anything if not from a Chinese,” she explained.
At that time, I was close with a guy, a quarter French, a quarter Dutch, a quarter Vietnamnese and a quarter Chinese. But nevermind the mix, he looked Indonesian. She suspiciously watched over us. But when my other Singaporean Chinese friend camped in my room after a full night doing project and came out of my room at 10 o’clock the next day, she did not say anything. “Boyfriend ah? Boyfriend?” she asked with full smile.
She was indeed racist. But could I blame her for treating me that way? Later, after we were closer, she told me about her only son. She took great pride of her son, the bright and the handsome. One day the son married a Malay and converted to Islam. He no longer joined the Tao pray and celebrated Chinese New Year together with his family. “All I want is just a child who will pray for me and my husband after our death,” she lamented. “Our Chinese New Year is so empty now, we wish he could just come and drink tea with us,” her eyes were watery when she said that. I somehow could feel the pain and the loneliness she felt. She did not hate the Malays, she simply missed her son.
During Chinese New Year, she gave me hongpao. I was really touched by that. She was not rich at all, yet, she spared that amount of money to wish me well. I came for the tea celebration and lifted the josstick although I did not pray a word. Honestly, I could not imagine myself growing old and celebrating a family reunion not with my own son, but with a random young girl.
From that experience I realized, it might not the race that created issue, but the custom, the togetherness that could no longer be preserved. For her, as a Confusian, she believed that the world of the death is interconnected with the living. If she died and no one burnt incense, cars and things to prepare her life after death, how could her spirit rest in peace? As a convert, her son could no longer pray with josstick and praise the Monkey God. But it was really a sad experience to pray alone when the other families were uniting in a temple.
For the last part, I would like to discuss a research done by the International Relations Faculty. The research, published several months ago shows that Singaporeans were very much educated on racial harmony. For example, 99% Chinese would not mind working with people from other race or having superiors of other races for that matter.
But when it comes to marriage, the percentage drops. Only 33% willing to have spouse from other race, drawing sharp division between private and public sphere.
I met the professor who does the research, questioning if such condition shows a hypocrite society, where you uphold racial harmony, as long as it does not touch yourself. Deep inside, you doubt the idea that people from different race could live harmoniously in the dearest, most private way.
My professor, an Indian Chinese who married a German, said that even 33% was indeed a good enough ratio. He said that it was normal for anyone to prefer marrying someone of the same ‘kind. “When it is work, you gotta be professional, race and your personal matter could not hinder your way. But when you marry someone, you brought him/her to your personal matter, your custom, your culture, your beliefs. Some people just could not accept the stark contrast and we could not blame them to opt that way.” He said.
This research and my cleaner’s story did not mean to undermine interracial marriage. I applauded those who do fight for their pure love and build a strong family foundation from that. But way before we blamed someone as skewed, backward, or racist, please think about their background. Perhaps there are more than just skin color that gives obstacles.