[content warning: mentions of partner/family violence, child sexual abuse, racism and colorism]
I’m a human being with a basic right to self-expression & self-determination, regardless of what any individual, social group or government tells me. I’ve learned this after struggling with being queer and transgender my entire life in Singapore, and after living as a racial and cultural minority in both Singapore and New York City. If Singapore is the sum of failures of the last generation’s dreams, then New York City feels like the place where these old dreams fall apart. There is so much pain with the loss of my former self. But loss is not the end, I’m finding. Life is a constant process that doesn’t end with death. Death only creates the conditions necessary for new life.
New York City is constantly on the verge of falling apart. That’s what drew me to it. I knew that the values I was raised with – white supremacy, the cultural superiority of Chinese Singaporeans, sexual and political conservatism, criminalization of LGBTQ lives and the strong culture of silence around sexual and domestic violence – would not help me survive. So I hoped that coming to New York City would help me unlearn these beliefs. What I didn’t expect was how incredibly painful the unlearning process would be – and that this pain would actually be worthwhile. These days instead of feeling like I simply have no choice but to accept toxic values unquestioningly just to survive, I am better able to work with whatever is around me, to shape a more humane life for myself and the communities I’m involved in.
As a multi-ethnic nonbinary transgender person, I have been forced to hide my entire life because that was the only way I could stay alive. Despite being racially and culturally mixed, I’ve always been read as just ‘Indian’ in Singapore because of my dark brown skin. To be an Indian person in Singapore is to never be seen as fully human: Chinese racism, while spoken about at family gatherings and among friends, was never something adequately publicly addressed when I lived there. I believe this was due to the climate of fear around discussing racism – that such dialogue might disrupt the state ideology of ‘racial harmony’. And anything that disrupts state ideology in Singapore feels terrifying to say or do, as freedom of speech is not something we Singaporeans have. Racism from Chinese Singaporeans coupled with white supremacy has taken a massive toll on both my mental and physical health. It is a daily struggle to live in a world whose institutions are created to suffocate and slowly destroy people like myself, but somehow recognizing the reality of this trauma has enabled me to move beyond denial and feel more like a person than I ever have.
My childhood and adolescence were nightmares. The Singapore I grew up in was a cruel and unforgiving place to live. I attended single-sex Christian schools for 10 years of my life, where I noticed that other racial and cultural minorities like myself were bullied and abused by staff at a highly disproportionate rate to the Chinese majority. Gender roles in the communities I belonged to clashed strongly: as an Indian woman raised in a patriarchal Christian family, my father expected me to exist solely to adore him – never to have any opinions of my own nor criticize his actions, even as he beat my mother and almost killed her. As a Eurasian woman and native English speaker who felt closer to Western cultural norms, I was constantly slut-shamed and sexually abused as a child, often by Chinese men who oddly viewed themselves as morally superior to me.
I understand that much of this is the result of European colonial trauma and believe me, I know that people in the region have fought hard to survive that. I have much empathy and understanding for the trauma of many of the people I used to know and care for, but I cannot excuse their abuse nor their refusal to listen to younger people, many of whom are actually far more politically aware. Like the United States, I see Singapore as another violent settler colonial nation, where militarism seeps into our culture, creating a brutal and empty existence with plenty of flashy things that are supposed to make up for all that we lack in care, community and creativity. In Singapore, we had it beaten into us that there was no other way to live.
For reasons almost entirely beyond my understanding, I always had hope and I still do. I protected my dreams of a life free from oppression, recorded them in my artwork, saved it all for a later date when outer conditions would be favorable to their growth. New York City can be incredibly brutal because it is, after all, the dark heart of the US empire, but its difficult lessons have helped me understand and find a language for the weight of oppression. Here I have found community with other queer and trans people of color. We share art, discuss our various histories of colonial and family trauma, and cook nourishing food for each other. I see the faces of so many other survivors and realize that I am far from being alone in persistently hoping and creating despite all odds.
This is fertile ground. Here, I am making a home in myself. In my choices, my learning, in my communities. In sharing with others. In rediscovering creativity and experimentation. For most of my life I couldn’t argue with Lee Kuan Yew – widely credited as being the founder of modern Singapore – when he dictated that “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”. But just last year, I discovered this quote from Audre Lorde, that exposes Lee’s cynical dystopia for the sham it really is:
“… poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
GRAY is a disabled QTPOC migrant figuring out how to survive oppressive societies and who believes in the possibility of rebuilding life, a little bit at a time.