Most of us experience some degree of culture shock upon arriving in Singapore. But this story is one that we hadn’t heard before. Mandy Gray explains why her first few months in Singapore sent her spiralling back to her childhood and helped her gain a greater acceptance of herself.
I guess you could say I have always stood out from the crowd. While sometimes that was based on an extremely positive event (like winning the cake walk at a carnival or placing first in a speech competition), most of the time it was because I was Korean in a Midwest US metropolis.
I was adopted from Seoul, South Korea when I was just three months old. People often ask what it was like to find out I was adopted, but really, I don’t remember. It was something I always knew, understood, and loved my parents even more for, because of their choice. The gift of life is always precious, but I grew up feeling special because, in a way, my parents chose me.
Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, my sister (also adopted from Korea) and I were two of only a handful of non-white students at our elementary school. I remember being teased for my squinty eyes, asked why I didn’t look like my parents, and even told that my olive skin looked green. For any young girl who dreams that her puppy love crush will approach her with wide eyes on the schoolyard, the last thing she wants to hear is “Why don’t you have normal eyelids?” Needless to say, having low self-esteem and not understanding where I fitted in, I had few friends growing up. Thankfully though, through the haze of childhood teasing, I had a strong big sister and a loving family to comfort me each night.
As we got older, the teasing stopped, but the damaged feelings lasted a bit longer. While I continued to struggle with acceptance through junior high and high school, as I reached college I finally began to realise it was I who had to accept who I was. Letting go of the past and focusing on my strengths instead, my confidence began to build and, believe it or not, I started to like the fact that I stood out.
Once in college, I began to embrace the fact that, walking into any room, I would stand out for my beautiful differences. I began to enjoy the positive attention, but while my outside was unique, inside I was still culturally aligned with all of my friends.
I remember that in one of my undergraduate classes, we did a demographics activity where the instructor kept separating the class based on differences, to physically see where the majority was. First, males were instructed to move to the right side of the room, women to the left. Next, Caucasians to the front right corner, African-Americans to the left front corner, those from Asia-Pacific to the left back corner, and all others to the right back corner. Not even thinking, I followed all of my Caucasian friends (and the clear majority) to the front right corner. My friend in class burst out in laughter, and in realisation of my error I said a meek “Oops.” It was true though; without a mirror, I often forgot I was Asian.
As the years passed, I thought less and less of what I considered my negative differences. I married a wonderful man, we had a beautiful daughter together and life felt, well, normal.
Of course, just when you think you have your world figured out, a new challenge is put in front of you. In December last year, my husband was offered a career change that would require relocation to Singapore. After several difficult conversations, tears on leaving friends and family, and excitement about starting a new adventure, we made our way here to Singapore in mid-February.
In my first weeks here I knew I would experience some “culture shock”, as it’s called. I prepared myself to be open to new ideas and customs, adventurous with food and welcoming towards large changes in lifestyle. Still, I had not prepared myself to feel so alone and, once again, like an outcast. The emotions I once felt seemed to rush over me as if I had never left grade school.
I wasn’t expecting to finally be surrounded by people who look like me, but feel like I had nothing in common with them culturally. Nor was I expecting the people I had previously most assimilated myself with to no longer see me as special or standing out.
Struggling to make new friends, I researched programmes to get involved as much possible in the community. As we neared our third week in Singapore, I took my then six-month-old daughter to a Gymboree class at Tanglin Mall, in the hope that Emma could meet friends while the commonality of being a mom might connect me to other women. I scanned the class quickly, but before I could introduce myself to anyone, it was time to begin.
While in the class, I watched as the babies interacted in their own language, not interested in race, religion or cultural differences. They had such great curiosity, wanting to reach out to one another and learn from each other.
As I met several moms that day, some very different and some similar to myself, I realised it was not about standing out or fitting in. While I had fought to be like everyone else when I was in grade school, and embraced my diversity as I got older, I realised that it should not have been my physical differences that made me stand out. At the end of the day, we are all different. Stand out for your kindness or because you want to make a change in the world around you. Stand out because you want to teach others and learn from them.
Today, I am still approached at least once a week by someone speaking to me in Mandarin, Korean or another language I cannot identify. I am given looks of surprise when I start to speak with a clear American accent and diction. I get questions in Emma’s playgroups about my background, and I still need to explain to cab drivers why I do not know exact locations or directions to places here. Thanks to my now nine-month-old-daughter though, I always remember this is my opportunity to stand out. This is my opportunity to be patient and teach others so that maybe one day, my story won’t be so stand-out – it will just be understood.
My time in Singapore so far has without a doubt been an emotional roller coaster. Still, Singapore has taught me more about acceptance and kindness than I have ever known before. I am so thankful to be raising my daughter in a place where this is possible.