“You’re Not Like Other Indians”: The Identity Crisis of a Mandarin-Speaking Brown Girl

“Aunty 我要这个菜, 那个魚…” 

(Aunty I want this vegetable, and that fish…)

“Woah 阿 girl 这么厉害!话语讲得真好。” 

(Woah ah girl so impressive! You speak Mandarin so well.)

*awkward laughter* “沒有啦 aunty...” 

(No la aunty…) 

Cai fan aunties have been my biggest fans because of my seeming prowess in speaking Mandarin since I was a kid. Of course, the source of these praises was not exclusive to them. Being a brown girl with Mandarin as my “mother tongue” in primary and secondary school did in fact turn a lot of heads. 

“You’re not like other Indians,” was a common sentiment among my mates who regarded me as though I was an exciting brown artefact to boast about to their other friends. I was that token brown friend who could speak better Mandarin than my Chinese friends. I used to wear these praises like a badge-of-honour. It made me stand out and like any young kid, I liked the attention. For a while there it seemed like my lack of brown-ness was a cause for applause.

It was only as I entered my twenties that the displacement I felt in my community became more apparent. I became the brown girl who was not considered Indian and clearly not Chinese. “You’re not a real Indian” began to be increasingly thrown at me as a joke –– and it hurt. It’s not funny that I don’t know how to speak my actual mother tongue because it was not my choice. 

My parents still keep the consent form issued by my primary school as per their request to change my “mother tongue.” It is preserved along with the certificates I’ve earned over the years like a prized possession. They saw my acceptance in the “Chinese circle” as a prerequisite to my upward mobility in Singapore. My Indian parents bombarded me with Chinese tutors and never spoke to me in Tamil. For the longest time, I distanced myself from the people who looked like me. A little part of me wanted to fit in with them but I was not in the same Tamil classes and was seen as an “outsider.” I felt like a betrayer of sorts.

I don’t blame my parents though, they were merely a reflection of the disadvantages they’ve faced as Tamil-speaking Indians in Singapore –– and I, a product of this anger.

As I grow older, I wonder about my identity as a Tamil-Indian a lot, especially in the jarring disconnect I feel in a room with Tamil-speaking people. Over the years, my grandmother has been the most vocal about my “phony” identity. Our conversations barely go anywhere with her limited English and my abysmal Tamil. She’d often call me a வெள்ளைக்காரி (vellakaari) out of frustration. It translates to “caucasian girl,” a strange way of addressing her brown grand-daughter but in essence, my grandmother sees me as a foreigner. Perhaps this term carries an unspoken sadness that she’d never be able to connect with her grand-daughter in her tongue, and I share that sadness.

I wonder what kinds of conversations I’ve missed out on with my grandmother.

It’s hard to put a finger on this strange displacement I feel. But I feel it in the alienation from this language that is supposed to instinctively roll out of my mouth; I feel it in the inability to comprehend Tamil movies without subtitles; I feel it in my lack of affinity to Tamil music; I feel it when I butcher the pronunciation of Tamil foods, and I feel it when I see my Tamil name spelt out in Tamil characters –– “Who is this person?” I wonder. 

“Then go and learn Tamil la,” they all say. But it’s not easy picking up a new language when institutions do not offer it as a third language (a “third language” that’s what my mother tongue has become). It is also a privilege to find the funds and time necessary to learn a new language. Add to that the unaddressed trauma and shame of not knowing my supposed roots. I am a foreigner in my own skin and the systems around me naturalise this. It’s like they’re trying to convince me that I don’t need Tamil to survive in this majority Chinese society anyway, like what taxi uncles never fail to remind me of, “Learning Chinese is good!” 

But I think I stopped believing that after my ‘O’ Levels. I’ve grown to realise that without my language, my brownness risks being silenced. This is why I think it’s important to acknowledge and reclaim the identity that I was displaced from. I’m sorry cai fan aunties, I’m actually not that 厉害 (impressive) –– but I’m working on it.