Growing up (and even today), I am constantly challenged by the people around me on my identity.

“No no, you are not a Singaporean! You are a Thai! You have a Thai surname and you don’t look like a Singaporean. And you don’t talk like a Singaporean!”  Granted, it was done in good humour and respectfully and it was out of curiosity and not malice, but it still triggered many questions in me.

I still remember a little game that my primary school friends and I played during our PSLE breaks – Miss Universe!  While everyone was fighting for the make-belief crown, choosing the country that they wanted to represent to have the highest chances of winning, I was constantly switching between being Miss Singapore and Miss Thailand. My 12-year-old self decided that  I had to be “fair” to both countries,  since I am half-half – “a mixed blood”.

Primary School Friends Singapore
One of the “Miss Universe” contestants and I along the classroom corridor where we used to do our “catwalk”. Image source:Li Woon Churdboonchart

In secondary school, I even remember telling a girlfriend that I suspected that I was a “Eurasian” as no definition that I knew in English could properly describe me. Even the Peranakans got their own unique identity in Singapore so why not a Thai-Singapore mix?

An ideological identity crisis

When I started work, I was “properly classified” as luk chin (Thai and Chinese mix) rather than luk khrueng (Thai and foreign blood mix) by my Thai colleagues. It was so nice to feel at home when I could communicate in Thai with them – it’s like our secret language!

Nowadays, many taxi uncles would mistake me as a Chinese or Taiwanese because my Mandarin makes me sound non-Singaporean . Funnily enough, sometimes I get asked if I am from Japan or Korea because my English accent doesn’t have any hint of Singlish. In China, my Chinese friends asked me to identify myself as 北方人 (bei fang ren, or Northerner) as my Mandarin accent would fit better and I wouldn’t be treated as a 海外华侨 (hai wai hua qiao, or overseas Chinese) or a tourist.

When I am in Singapore, people think I am Thai or Taiwanese or Chinese or Japanese or Korean, but never a Singaporean. When I am in Thailand, most people accept me as a Thai as I can get by with my very limited Thai. When I am in a non-Asian country, I am just a non-local, no matter how much I try to integrate into their cultural and social norms.

So what am I? And most importantly, where would I call home?

UK University Classmates
With my MBA classmates when I was studying in Bath, UK in 2003. Image source: Li Woon Churdboonchart

Many many life experiences have shaped me – some good, and some not so pleasant. My experiences as an Australian permanent resident for six years and a student in the UK for a year made me realise what I am and what home means.

In Australia, my Thai friends claimed ownership over me, and “fought” with my Asian friends who could appreciate the fact that I am Singaporean. My non-Asian friends just thought I was Chinese because “isn’t Singapore part of China?” I still remember I had to point out our little island on the world map to convince an African friend that there is such a country called Singapore!

The more I began to defend my identity, the clearer it got for me. I realised that I am not even a luk-chin by the strictest definition as I don’t have a single drop of “authentic” Thai blood – my dad is Thai Chinese (Hainanese), and my mama is a Singaporean Chinese (Hainanese)!

So at least, I’ve got one part of the equation sorted. I am a true blue Hainanese – and that defines my heritage, culture and practices. My paternal grandfather decided to root himself in Thailand, while my maternal grandfather settled in Singapore. Both of them went down south from Hainan island during the 1930s in search of a better life, a better home. So where is home for me – Singapore born and bred, but with a Thai surname and an Australian PR?

Defining moments

High School Friends in Perth
With a Thai friend in high school in Perth who acknowledged me only as a Thai! Image source: Li Woon Churdboonchart

The defining moments were slowly and surely building up when I was in Perth from 1994 to 2000. I still remember my family (my mum, brothers, cousin and I) had to fight racism every single day being a minority race in Australia. It became worse when right-wing populist Pauline Hanson started her nationalist political party in 1997.

All of this we had to silently endure as immigrants. I guess the final straw for me came when I witnessed first hand how the Asian community – Indian, Chinese and immigrants from other parts of Asia – was used as chess pieces to gain Asian votes in guild and state politics. I realised then that we weren’t being acknowledged as equals, but treated rather as second-class citizens.

It really started me thinking – why would I want to contribute to a country where not everyone treats me as a fellow 子民 (zi min, or citizen)? Yes, I had a great future in Australia and could easily get any jobs through the network that I had built within the Chinese community there, but was Australia really the place I wanted to be for the rest of my life?

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Coming home

Luckily, when I was at that crossroads, my mama reminded me that it was time to come home. Yes, HOME.

Singapore is my home and I am forever grateful for the great head start in life. After spending time overseas, I’ve come to appreciate its world-class education system, its safe and secure environment even on quiet streets late at night, and how it looks out for my interests and well-being with no discrimination from anyone who chooses this country as their own.

Even if I argue with fellow Singaporeans of all different races, religions and cultures till our faces turn blue, we’d always argue based on facts and on equal grounds.

Unlike some of my experiences overseas, we never crossed the lines as we valued our racial and religious harmony above our differences in opinions. This is what a home should be – we can argue with our closest ones like crazy but we are still a family because blood is thicker than water! Remember that family is the basic unit of a society. We are a big big family on a tiny island!

I have realised that being a Singaporean goes beyond how we look and how we speak. It is so much deeper. We are all so diverse but yet we have learnt to appreciate each other (not tolerate ah), and give each other community support and respect for individuals.

We should focus on our commonalities to make sure that we have cohesion and consensus, and not conflict.  We would also 尽地主之谊 (jin di zhu zhi yi, or be a gracious host) to the people who make this their home away from home, while they contribute to our nation too. My mama always says, we need to treat everyone kindly as they are after all, someone else’s son or daughter.

Volunteering in Singapore
Some scenes while volunteering in Singapore as part of the Volunteer Switchboard. Image source: Amalus Barakna

Yes, Singapore has its imperfections, but hey! No one, and no country is perfect! We have to accept the good and the bad, and make it even better together! We have been blessed with a lot more than most people in other countries, and I am eternally grateful to this little red dot.

So, when I came home from Australia in 2000, I decided to give back to this country and its people as much as I could (that’s how I started my volunteering journey).

After all, there’s a Chinese saying, 取之社会 用之社会 (qu zhi she hui, yong zhi she hui or whatever you have received  from society, you should use it for society). I may be a global citizen with many amazing friends all over the world, but Singapore will forever be my home.

In Chinese, 国家 (guo jia) means country. The literal translation of each character is 国 = Country, 家 = Home. I’ve always believed in the Chinese saying that goes 有国才有家 (you guo cai you jia), which means only when you have a country, then will you have a home. Some of my friends have argued that  it should be the other way round – 有家才有国, that is only when you focus on family, then will you have a country.

And I challenge them, the sequence wouldn’t matter if you make Singapore your home. And if that doesn’t convince them, I remind them of the selfless spirit of our front liners when they put their lives on the line to fight Covid-19 to protect our nation and its people. These courageous silent heroes really showed us what it means to love our Singapore and put the nation above community, and society above self.

Singapore has taken care of me since I was born, and now it’s my turn to protect my home and its people.

What makes you Singaporean? What makes Singapore your home (or home away from home)?

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Top Image: Li Woon Churdboonchart