When I was in primary school, I forgot that I was Asian.
I mean, I saw a cheeky boy with black hair and almond-shaped eyes in the mirror and, at dinner time, mastered the most efficient way of inhaling rice—my lower lip perched under the edge of a porcelain bowl as I shovelled its contents into my mouth with chopsticks like an excavator moving earth (though, as I was often told by my grandma, I held my chopsticks the ‘wrong way’, like a pencil)—but, for all intents and purposes, I never really saw a difference between me and my other friends at school.
Typical conversations with my mother, a driven and hard-working woman who raised me single-handedly in Melbourne, working as a secretary in the day while studying for her business degree at night, often played out like a never-ending volley of frustrated questions:
“You went cycling with your friend Nathan today?” she’d ask. “Where is Nathan from?”
“But where are his parents from?” she’d persist.
“I think they also live in Ivanhoe.”
“But where are their ancestors from?”
“I dunno,” I’d reply, annoyed. “I haven’t met them have I?”
“For example: is he Asian, Australian or African?” she’d finally say, rather exasperated.
“How am I supposed to know that?!” I remember blurting out.
“Well, if he has black hair like you, then he could be Asian as well.”
“I thought I was Australian?”
Turns out, Nathan was Italian.
In retrospect, knowing what I know now—that is to say, an adult conditioned to understanding racial and ethnic stereotypes through media, societal generalisations and, well, just life—the signs were all there. Nathan often had pasta for lunch. His family grew olive trees in the backyard. And his surname ended in a vowel. As I said, stereotypes.
It wasn’t until I was riding my bike one fine summer afternoon—on our way to Darebin Parklands with the eucalypts rustling in the breeze and the smell of dry dirt whipped up with the scent of freshly mowed grass—that I realised that I wasn’t exactly the same as Nathan. Or Bonnie who I climbed trees with. Or Michael who I played tennis with.
Riding her BMX with her left hand while using her thumb and index finger on her right to pull back the corners of her eyes, a blonde girl a wearing a white T-shirt tucked into washed denim jeans, just a few years older than Nathan and I, sped pass yelling: “Ching Chong! Ching Chong!”
“Was she talking to us?” I asked Nathan.
“I think she was talking about you,” he said.
For the month of August, to coincide with Singapore’s birthday, we explored that muddled pond of identity.
Who are you if you were born in Malaysia, grew up in Singapore and now find yourself working and living in China? Well, in this case, you’re our cover star and actor Lawrence Wong—that handsome devil who shot to stardom playing imperial guard Hai Lan Cha in the most downloaded TV show of 2018; that’s right, Story of Yanxi Palace.
He returned to local screens in Channel 8’s romantic drama, My One in a Million, where he played the lead male role originally planned for the late Aloysius Pang who tragically died during reservist training earlier this year. See Wong rock Virgil Abloh’s second runway collection for Vuitton with chameleon-like deftness—styled by fashion editor Eugene Lim and shot by Gabriel Chen—as he discusses perception and reality in our cover story.
These are the three questions we have posed for you, esteemed reader, to answer—either anonymously or otherwise—in our online survey to uncover what Singaporean men are thinking about themselves today. We published our favourite confessionals online—click the links above to see what people have to say about personal identity.
As always, there are some great features: check in on English actor and screenwriter Will Poulter in an exclusive profile shot by Charlie Gray; see what your home and interiors say about you in the photo essay by Sean Myers; and read about the relationship between violence and masculinity in the research piece by Josh Bozin. Esquire Singapore is a tirelessly produced collection of stories that attempts to filter the murky waters of identity; to remove the dirt so you can see your reflection.
Looking back, it’s funny how our identity as children isn’t informed by race or ethnicity as much as it is by the sports you played, the hobbies you had and the friends you kept. I excelled at racquet sports, loved to ride my bike to explore the neighbourhood, could often be found scaling the rocky cliff faces at the nearby creek and surrounded myself with friends who did the same. I was the only Asian kid at school and felt like everyone else until I was told I was different. I hated it. I wanted to be the same.
But if I could go back and tell my ruddy 10-year-old self just one thing, it would be this: it’s all in your head, kid. That, and also, throw a stick in that girl’s bike spokes.
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