By: Suranthi Fernando
I was born in Sri Lanka but I was raised in Singapore. I only went back to Sri Lanka during school vacations, but they were my favourite part of each year as I would suddenly have over 25 other kids to play with, who spoke the same languages I do and looked the same way too. I learnt over time that they were my cousins
However, despite having so many cousins to play with, I was always alert and wondering about the drastic difference in living conditions. My home in Singapore was relatively small and cramped, but it was modern and right smack in the middle of a fast-paced city that never sleeps. In massive contrast, we would be living in a less modern village-based house in one of the larger provinces in Sri Lanka. There was large sprawling forests beyond our backyard, with rivers gurgling along and various hidden animals screeching away. It was a near-daily event where us children would swim and fish till our fingertips became wrinkled up, following which the older children would shimmy up various fruit trees and throw down a feast of refreshing, sweet and sticky mangoes, rambutans and pears. Being used to a strictly-clean modern setting in Singapore, I would almost always get sick each time I went back to Sri Lanka. Despite that, I was happy. I was an only child, so having many cousins kept me moving and busy at all times.
The joy of going ‘home’ over the vacations slowly faded over time as I grew up and started going to school. I realised that hygiene levels were nearly zero, as children would roll around wrestling in the mud and dust, and as soon as they found fruit or received food, would eat them with bare hands without ever washing their hands. If juice dripped down their fingers, they would slurp up the juice along with goodness knows how many millions of bacteria.
The hustle and bustle of city life was non-existent in the village, with the only traffic being the occasional bullock cart or a heavy logging lorry rumbling past. There were paddy fields, fruit trees, fish in the river and even chicken coops to tend to as part of daily chores, instead of vacuuming or throwing clothes in a washing machine. There was so much to do yet nothing to do for me, who was definitely not used to walking half a mile to chop firewood of collect fresh water. Can’t we just drink from the tap? I used to ask. Once I did just that, and ended up getting hospitalized for a week due to a severely low level of immunity required to handle raw tap water from Sri Lankan taps.
I was also getting self-conscious in school back in Singapore. My mom packed lunches for me that were healthy and more palatable for a Sri Lankan as compared to the canteen food which was sweet and oily (which children tend to love). As soon as I opened my lunchbox, children would crowd around, but not in a positive way. “Ewww…what’s that smell,” they would whine. “That stuff looks so gloopy, how is that curry? My mom makes curry that looks so much better, and she is Chinese! Your mom can’t cook!” I would cry and throw my lunch in the trash, but having no pocket money, I would go hungry all day.
I started to dislike going back, as I felt I was going back in time to caveman days with wood fires and no clean water. I even lied to my classmates that I was born in Singapore and spoke to them in Chinese in order to cement that I was indeed one of them. I would even tell my parents to speak to me in English, and would refuse to answer if they told me to practice my Sinhalese. This lasted for at least 6 or 7 years, until I graduated from high school.
When I enrolled in a private polytechnic for my diploma, I met students from all over the world and interacted with them. I immediately felt that I should represent Singapore, as they were in this country that I grew up in. To my surprise, most of them had also grown up in Singapore, but they were so proud of their heritage that they introduced themselves as nationals from their own countries!
I asked one of them why they didn’t want to fit in here in Singapore, and his answer left me in awe.
He told me that even though he had grown up in Singapore, he was proud of the fact that he was from Brunei and that there were cultures and traditions that made him unique from his Singaporean counterparts. He had an identity that he could call his own, and yet, easily incorporate it into his life in Singapore.
After hearing that, my life was not the same. I no longer wanted to separate myself from my heritage. I wanted to show to the world that I was not only raised in Singapore, but also a Sri Lankan at heart. I began wearing traditional clothes, but with a modern twist. I learnt how to cook food that was native to Sri Lanka, and introduced them to my friends (who were not mature enough to try food without immediately showing negative emotions). I would now proudly say that I was both Sri Lankan and Singaporean, to whoever that would ask me where I was from. I decided that only I had a say in how I felt about being Sri Lankan, and that if I didn’t fit in in social groups simply due to my nationality or appearance, then so be it. I am who I am, and nobody can take that away from me.
Suranthi is a college student studying International Trade and Psychology at Uni@Buffalo (SUNY) in Singapore. She enjoys reading, writing, photography, listening to music and watching movies during her free time. Upon graduation Suranthi hopes to pursue a career in either one of her majors or both majors combined, but also to be a published book author on the side.