The Realities of A Non-White Expat Life

“I wasn’t asking you.”

The customs officer’s blunt phrasing and cool expression directed at me after I helpfully provided extra information about my husband’s reason for coming to Chicago immediately woke me up from my  jet-lagged state after a 24-hour flight all the way from Singapore. Like a pail of cold water splashing on me after all my anticipation about starting a new phase of life in America, that encounter was a rude shock to me and a pre-cursor to reality as I strive to forge a new life in Chicago as a trailing spouse to my husband.

3 chidings within 2 weeks

While I have met my fair share of friendly and genuinely nice Americans, but I have also met people who hollered at me for cutting the queue (though there was a huge space between the queue and the counter so obviously I didn’t see the queue), coldly told me to keep my camera when I was snapping pictures in a neighbourhood art fair ( I swear I didn’t see the no camera sign), and viewed at me with distaste because I guess the amount I tipped for the delivery man was not enough? While these actions of me cutting the queue and snapping pictures when they were disallowed were my fault to begin with, but I believe I could be told nicely instead of being chided. This is something that I have to get used to when I am here in America.

In fact after 3 consecutive chidings within my first 2 weeks here over really minor stuff, I got so paranoid that I rather not speak at all for fear of being chided again. It is really quite embarrassing to be chided in public and this is something that seldom happens in Asia. Even if we don’t agree with some behaviours, it is our own opinion and we don’t enforce it on others or tell them in public where they might feel offended or embarrassed.Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever being chided before in public till I came to Chicago.

Of course, these episodes could just be due to my own unluckiness. But because I am not white, I am of a minority race, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sensitive about my race, thinking that maybe if I am white, I won’t be treated in this manner.

White expats will feel more welcomed

Expats are often viewed in an enviable light, but the stark reality of life is that a white expat will find it easier to assimilate or to blend in than a non-white expat. Never mind if the white expat cannot speak the local language. Because if you are blond, white and you can speak English, you are wow-worthy! Locals, even if they are shy to approach you, are welcoming to you.

It is easier for a below-average white to find success in Asia than for an intelligent Asian to find success in America. For a not-too-impressive Caucasian in their home country, they might find that girls flock to them and they are placed up the pedestal when they move to an Asian country. However if the roles are reversed ie. a capable Asian goes to an America, success is not guaranteed. No one is going to be impressed by your amazing credentials because there are so many more people in America who can brand themselves way better than you.

Feeling Inferior to Whites

White superiority sounds like a dirty word, but I think it definitely exists. It is true not necessarily because all whites deem themselves superior to others, but because even non-whites cannot help feeling inferior to whites at times (Don’t ask me why but even I am guilty of feeling this way and perpetuating the myth) which results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If a white goes to China for instance and try to speak mandarin, locals will be delighted by this show of interest in the language. Never mind if you say it in a funny accent and that it is pretty much unintelligible. But if a non-American or non-white speaks English in a different accent, it is probably just taken as speaking English wrongly.

Speaking Mandarin is uncool in Singapore

Even in Singapore, where we have to learn both English and Chinese, there is this view that speaking English is cool and speaking good mandarin is uncool. Youths find it “cool” and funny when they speak bad mandarin or when they forget how to write simple Chinese characters. But it is laughable when you pronounce an English word wrongly. Sometimes I really wonder how this whole America and American behaviours are great mindset comes about, because sadly enough, sometimes even I find it hard to stay true to myself and embrace myself for who I am when I am in the U.S.

When I first reached Chicago, and I discovered that there were servers who cannot understand my English at times, I was tempted to sign up for an accent reduction class. But the more I think more about it, the more indignant I felt about the fact that I actually thought of reducing my Singaporean accent and switching to an American accent, when I am a Singaporean! What is wrong in sounding like a Singaporean? And why should I care that I sound like a Singaporean? No one is going to ask an American to tone down on the American accent when he or she goes to another country. And this is the unfair reality of life.

I have been to India, Japan, Korea, China, Thailand etc, but I have never once felt uncomfortable about my Singaporean or foreigner identity. But here in America, every now and then, I feel wrong-footed. Like I am somehow not as good. Which has never happened before when I stayed in other countries. And actually I think this is how a lot of Asians feel in America, even if it is a bit politically incorrect to say so, or even if they might claim that everything is just “awesome”. Dig a little further, and a lot of confusion and unhappiness may just come out.