NOTE: This piece is not written with the intention of promoting any particular argument. The intention is not to make any conclusions, but to be a beginning to what I hope will be a fascinating dialogue.
Questions of identity have never been easy to resolve (if they’ve ever been resolved at all), which is probably why they make such wonderful topics of discussion. In this light I invite anyone and everyone to share their thoughts, experiences and feelings on this issue in the comments below, so that we may learn and develop a deeper understanding of what is so much a part of us.
11 countries. 620,000,000 people. Hundreds (perhaps even thousands?) of languages and dialects. Differing religions, traditions and histories.
Amidst so much diversity, what makes a Southeast Asian? And how does a Southeast Asian identity figure in our lives?
What is it that bonds us to this region? Do we even really feel bonded in the first place, or is it something that we’ve conjured up for ourselves through ASEAN business pacts and regional tourism ad campaigns? Does our sense of Southeast Asian identity differ depending on which country we’re from, what language we speak, or even how well-travelled within the region we may be?
My own experience
I was brought up and taught to think of myself as Chinese. My grandmother once referred to China as the “motherland” (despite the fact that she was born in Penang, Malaysia). My father – born and raised in China, only moving to Singapore in the late 1980s – still watches TV programmes from China, and finds a way to draw almost every conversation to something happening in China. In Mother Tongue lessons in school we were lectured on how embarrassing it would be if we, as Chinese, did not even know our own language, culture and history.
Because my family very rarely travelled within Southeast Asia, I never really felt that much of a connection to the region.
But I have begun to realise that I am more than “just” Chinese. Growing up in Singapore has exposed me to so many different cultures and traditions. I have certain traits and habits that cannot be described as Chinese, only Singaporean. As I began to travel and befriend people from other Southeast Asian countries, I discovered a whole Southeast Asian side of me that I had previously never considered.
But what does that mean? How do we define a “Southeast Asian”? Can we even define the term?
It was something I talked about with some friends last night on Twitter:
— Adrianna Tan (@skinnylatte) March 8, 2012
@kixes yeah but I do know what you mean, there’s that “feeling” – streetfood & cheap dangerous transport & general humidity & tiger airways
— Wei Fen Lee (@weifairer) March 8, 2012
Does everyone else in Southeast Asia feel this way? What does being Southeast Asian mean to you? How do you frame your Southeast Asian identity? How does it affect your life and the way you interact with others within the region and without?