The following is a Facebook post by Zhang Jingna. Jingna was born in Beijing, China and moved to Singapore at the age of eight. She was in the national shooting team and was awarded Sportsgirl of the Year in 2006 by the Singapore National Olympic Council for her performances. She is now a professional photographer and her Facebook lists her as living in New York, USA.
I thought the xenophobia I experienced as a child was just a number out of a pool of random experiences. Surely, I would grow up to be in better company than the strangers who told me I was about the same as shit, or that I would always be of the lowest classes of citizens compared to local-born Singaporeans. I was wrong.
The hating on foreign nationals on my feed has reached a point where I am beginning to feel sick. To realize that some of these people are ones that I had once worked with makes it all the more painful.
Here are a few of my thoughts on the various threads of conversations that have come up, from the other side.
1. “The government should have spent more money on people like Schooling”
Joseph’s story is a golden and idealistic one. It’s really incredible, no doubt. But in hindsight, it is of course easy to say all of these after he has already achieved what he has. But it doesn’t always start and end like this. I know of local-born Singaporeans on scholarships overseas who never came back. If, for example, Joseph was indeed sent to the US on Singapore’s dime and a) didn’t win, b) never came back, or c) quit. I bet a lot of people would change their tune, and blame the government for wasting money on a Singaporean who wasn’t trained on Singapore soil, by Singaporean coaches.
2. “We should just cultivate locals”
This is casual and easy to say. But it’s not so simple. There is a lot of prejudice against kids who want to pursue a career in sports or the arts. I’m certain that even someone who lives under a rock knows that, for we have long talked about how talents like Stephanie, Kit and JJ only managed to become super hits because they did not stay in Singapore.
If you had children, chances are that most of you would hesitate to believe and invest in your child to go into such careers, because it’s risky, unproven and with little chance of returns. You want them to have a stable, happy life, a secure job, that’s only natural.
As someone who tried to pursue what I loved since young, I have been called uneducated because I deferred my studies to prepare for the Commonwealth Championships and Games. I have been called stupid by a teacher in front of class in art school, for leaving RGS to pursue art. Most people don’t realize how difficult it is to actually cultivate locals, when the whole society scoff and look down upon them and tell them how stupid they are to think about it. The government is not the only problem—the people hold the key.
So what the government probably thought was that if the locals didn’t want to do it because they saw no hope for their children in pursuing these fields, then maybe, if we had some medal winners, these parents might change their minds. That once we set a precedent, perhaps slowly, some of these parents would allow their children to pursue their dreams, now that that we have set up an environment for them to learn, train, and could possibly excel in.
Certainly, it may not have become the outcome, and the government might have had other choices and had not picked the best one, but faced with this type of dilemma, you should not be surprised at the path taken.
3. “I’m a purist, I will never be proud of someone born elsewhere”
I sure hope your grandparents and theirs don’t hear you saying this. It’s heartbreaking.
The greatest thing about Singapore is that we tell people that this is their home, that we accept everyone regardless of race, language or religion. When my American friends ask me about Singapore, I used to tell them proudly that we are a multi-racial and accepting country. I am saddened that I might have been wrong, that my experiences as a child were not merely flukes, and that the xenophobia and discrimination has only proliferated through social media. We all came from somewhere, we all benefited from the immigrants that our parents, grandparents and forefathers were. So let’s stay civilized and not use racist and discriminatory words like ‘purist’.
4. Foreign Talents
People do things for a multitude of reasons—a better quality of life, a better career; family, love, fame, money, passion, excellence, whatever it may be, there is not much to achieve by hating on someone who is just trying to do their best.
Don’t look down on Jiawei just because she said she hated table tennis. How many of you knew what you wanted to do as a kid, are still doing it, and continue to have passion? I can assure you that the conversion rate is not 100%.
I know plenty of people who hate their jobs but continue to do it for a long time. Those of you who know me may be surprised, but I am also one of them. We are human and we change. Sometimes we start on a path early in our days, get good at it, and want to strive for the best. But along the way, we get tired or jaded. 18 years is a long time to be doing one thing, over and over again.
Sometimes, we also get hurt by the people we encounter, and eventually this passion becomes something we loathe and loathe ourselves for because we can no longer tolerate it. To overcome that is strength, but not all of us are strong enough to remain unbroken. So if we wanted to do something else? I don’t think that’s so wrong.
I was on the national team for close to 6 years. I broke a record at the Commonwealth Shooting Championships and just wanted to focus on getting better. I wanted to go to the Olympics one day, too. But when things went bad, I was told to figure it out myself when I asked the sports council for help. I eventually quit the team.
I suffered from traumatic stress and was suicidal even years after. So whether it’s due to a sense of duty or to just keep surviving by having a job, Jiawei’s 18 years of commitment to table tennis is no easy feat. I admire her for that.
Joseph Schooling and his family did a great thing for our country and I am bloody proud that he won. But that is the achievement of Schooling and his family. Not the society who would have judged his family for spending over a million dollars as stupidity, or him for pursuing something that seemed like an impossible dream as poor choice and irresponsible parenting. However, he did draw Singapore in the place-of-birth lottery, and it makes me wonder how different the narrative would have been had he not been born here.
As a child I kept quiet because I thought the insensitive and hurtful words were what I deserved, for being born where I was despite being raised in Singapore. As an adult, I know now that these comments are not right.
Before you pass judgement the next time, please remember that people don’t get to choose where they were born or what skin color they were born with. At the end of the day, we are all the same on the inside—flesh and blood and bones, and a heart that’s only trying to find our places in the world.
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