Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Problem With Ching Chongs

Years ago, when I was having a hard time fitting in at secondary school, I often consoled myself that I would soon be away from it all. Away, especially, from my schoolmates, who were like creatures of a different species - speaking a different language (Mandarin), caring about different things (Mandopop, TV drama serials), holding different priorities in life (vacationing in Taiwan or Hong Kong, owning a logo-bedecked LV wallet). Good riddance to all that! I thought at graduation.

Ironically, work has since brought me back to the same milieu I thought I left behind 11 years ago.

I teach in a newly created suburb, and many of my students fall into the same category as my former classmates - the "ching chongs", as I derisively labelled them. The stereotype holds so depressingly true, in every case. The flip flops or Crocs, the jumbled stream of Mandarin and Singlish, the HK-style cafes and Korean pop stars, the defiant loudness and overconfidence, the casual, unthinking racism and sexism. All there, all accounted for.

A student once rudely insisted that there was no such thing as a restaurant that didn't allow people to wear flip-flops or T-shirts in. She didn't believe me when I told her there were even restaurants where you had to make a reservation. They were not present in her universe; ergo, they must not exist at all.

It's not the lack of worldly knowledge that I find troubling. (At that age, I'd never been to a fancy restaurant either.) But what is most disturbing - the essential point about being a ching-chong - is the total and absolute lack of curiosity about the outside world, except where things like money and advancement are concerned.

My former classmates, who are mostly upwardly mobile professionals, now drink wine and celebrate their birthdays overnight at Marina Bay Sands. They dine at Au Petit Salut and spend their holidays in Europe and Japan, according to Facebook. But nothing else has changed, no inner being has emerged or developed. They go to Rome for the Prada store, not for the museums or art. One restaurant or bottle of wine is generally as good as another, but the best ones are the most expensive ones. Books are always of the self-help bestseller variety. There is no connection to anything greater than the sum of their lives - nothing but empty darkness outside their brightly impenetrable spheres of work, friends, family. The rest of the vast and richly varied human race exists only as mild entertainment, or a source of income.

I know most of my students will grow older along similar lines. And to them and their families, it will be just peachy. But no wonder our society is so unhappy, so dull and seething with deep discontent. How can there be more Singaporean art or music, design or architecture, books or films, when there are so few artists and writers and intellectuals, or even an audience? All those scenes are dominated by the English-speaking products of top schools and Ivy League universities, flown home to set up galleries and artisan coffee shops and macaron bakeries. A heavily outnumbered demographic, and one that is also inclined to sticking with its own kind.

Immigration is not helping matters, since in this case it means an influx of people who don't have a tradition of questioning or thinking. But then, how can you fault the Indian or Chinese student, who just wants to keep his head down and cement his family's position in the middle class? You can't ask them to indulge in creativity when their home countries are only just emerging from poverty. Like their parents before them, they must be economists and scientists, not curators or visionaries. (We never seem to extend invites to the whistle-blowers, the activists and starving artists.)

Perhaps their presence - while arousing a good deal of resentment from the ching chongs - is also, bizarrely, a safeguarding of the ching chong ways. There is no need to speak English with the China-born. No need to leave one's comfort zone - they stick to theirs and we stick to ours. No need to push for gay rights or social welfare issues, not with new citizens who are still conservative enough to believe that homosexuality is a perversion and people should pull themselves up by the bootstraps. True globalisation would have resulted in the collapse of the ching chong's insular mindset. This carefully calibrated version just extends it, like how the Great Firewall of China preserves Chinese ignorance by only letting approved information in.

Anyway. Maybe I'm being pessimistic, and snobbish, and too Westernised - all things I have been accused of being. But as I walk through the teeming crowds at Compass Point, or try to persuade yet another recalcitrant student that she needs to speak English in the classroom, I think to myself that maybe - just maybe - I'm right.