It’s not classy to take pot shots at one’s own country now that one is thousands of miles away. However, I feel, the following has been and will be a significant part of my exchange experience.
My identity, being a Malay and Muslim, does not really stand out here in the diversity of students in GWU. Yet, somehow, I feel who I am matters in the sense of the nuances that it brings to my perspective of life in DC.
I am reminded again here, like in my freshman year, of the desire to do well. It has something to do with being new to the environment, having to revisit my identity and express it.
I must first give some form of context for you to follow. Firstly, being Malay in Singapore is socially interpreted as being Muslim to the same extent that Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese are just perceived as a monolithic “Asian”. Secondly, the academic “underperformance” of Malays as and our “general socio-economic well being” behind the other major ethnic groups are among the most discussed social issues in Singapore. A local equivalent – although really much different – is probably a mixture of the African-American and Native American social issues the American society may be concerned with.
So – and some of you may already guess my tone while trying to be politically correct here – that it stands as an “achievement” that a Malay is here in GWU and doing well in school.
What more if he scores full marks for an essay, topped his class, and claimed a free cupcake from Sprinkles.
For most students here, doing well in college is just a product of effort and an expression of academic desire and is part and parcel of college life. Some people get As. Just a fact of college life.
For me though, having been through an education experience that included various extents of racial ideas and emotions, doing well is proving a point.
Sometimes “doing well” is disproving the idea that my culture and religion is in any way inferior to the nauseating overtures of Confucianism stuffed down our throats in an attempt to somehow demonstrate Asian values. Also – and this is rare and some of you may find it strange that such ideas still persist – “doing well” shows that I am biologically and genetically equal with my fellow Chinese Singaporeans. Not to mention that a good “academic performance” in seeking knowledge, is not merely “Asian” in the state-defined Confucian sense, but is also part of my identity as well.
“Race” is a messy and complicated issue that would hardly fit on this blog post even if I talked about it in all my posts.
Just to keep things simple for now: even though my grades don’t count and I just need to get a pass, getting an A in GWU meant something to me, no matter how small the assignment or test, because it has always meant something to me throughout my life as a Malay and a Muslim. I am not overly competitive. It just means that aside from being grateful, I have a small emotional dynamic to the psychological process of grading that would lead me to say something like:
“I am happy to be a Malay-Muslim doing well in my short time in GWU”.
Religious and Secular
My imagination of life for a Muslim here would be one that is much more difficult than life in Singapore. After more than a month here, a simple comparison tells a different story.
Food is something I take for granted in Singapore. Two words: abundance and cheap.
Therefore, I can safely put aside that variable, despite my Halal dietary requirements, because any Singaporean would argue that the food here is more expensive, or that certain ingredients are hard to find.
Enjoying a hearty but relatively “cheaper” meal in Mehran’s, a Halal Indian food outlet in the area.
The expression of the “religious” and “secular” presents itself as the independent variable.
As in Singapore, there are mosques here in DC, which are accessible by private and public transportation. There are even similar niche religious-activities I would usually go for.
What is different though is where religion expresses itself in public areas, especially schools, which would usually be reserved as “secular” in Singapore. A heated and sensitive issue is the wearing of hijabs for those in uniforms such as students or nurses.
Sitting amongst locals and foreigners in an Islamic center sharing stories after a session of the remembrance of “God” and the prophet (peace be upon him). I wore this in the Metro all the way to Shady Grove where this event was held in an attempt at participant observation. Hardly an eyebrow was raised throughout the journey.
The issue of footbaths in American colleges: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/07/world/americas/07iht-muslims.4.7022566.html?_r=0
A weaving of religious into the secular goes for all religions here. There are churches among buildings here in the Campus.
The most commonly heard “reprimanding”-statement used by politicians and community leaders alike in Singapore when we ask for more “space” for us to practice, is that if space is given to one, space must be given to all; something along the lines of: “if we allow you to pray in school, then we must also built temples for the Buddhists and churches for the Christians”.
A footbath here is a huge blessing, let alone an entire room. In Singapore, prayer areas for Muslims are unofficial and technically illegal (sometimes it is a hidden staircase) and ablution (that’s washing parts of our body before we pray) is a messy process.
Being a Muslim undergraduate in Singapore is an enriching and lively experience. The experience here in GWU is similar, if not better in many ways.
Again, it’s not classy to take “pot shots”, and I did not intend to at all throughout this post. I am merely highlighting some of the key differences in student life.
Despite my own qualms with education in Singapore, I am somewhat proud to be its product.
In proud defense, my home university is ranked 29th in the world by “Times Higher Education”, 22nd in “World Reputation” by the same evaluator, 24th by QS World University Rankings, 17th in the world for the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, 2nd in Asia.
For god’s sakes we’re not in China, we speak English and certainly, we’re among the best schools in the world – and I have a free cupcake from Sprinkles for my A-graded essay to prove it.