Thursday, May 05, 2005

Vignettes of Races and Racism

Any serious photographer would know what's a vignette (pronounced "vin-YET"). Vignetting is said to occur when the edges or corners of the picture are darkened, often because the lens angle of view is too wide for the lens hood used, or simply because the lens is poorly-designed. Still, photographers and artists sometimes create a vignette effect on a photo for artistic effect, normally in Photoshop, by making the borders darker.

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Dark-skinned people tend to be the victims of racism, for some reason, and fair-skinned people are often viewed as superior. A universal association of white and light with purity and righteousness and all things good, with black in diametrical opposition? Perhaps.

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I was the dark-skinned one in class, once upon a time. The kids used to chant "Chinese, Japanese, don't forget to wash your knees" which I found amusing, only because we were all too young to understand the racist undertones. I knew I was different - it was obvious - but we were all colourblind, and treated all alike, just having a fun time like any kid should - going to one another's birthday parties (in those days I still celebrated birthdays), drawing our favourite cars, having races on the school playground...

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Races are pretty much skin-deep - that's what some scientists would tell you. The genetic difference between 2 individuals of the same race is more than the overall genetic difference between 2 races. In other words, the difference in genes between Tan Ah Kow and Lim Ah Beng is greater than the difference in all the genes of the Chinese averaged together and all the genes of the Indians averaged.

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"Indians are smelly," according to mom. She never did say that outright, but as they say, actions speak louder than words. There must have been numerous occasions when she grimaced while standing behind an Indian woman in the lift, enough for me to get that impression. "And Malays are lazy." Maybe she did say that. But I wouldn't consider my parents racist, for they treated everyone of all races well, and we had family friends from the different local races.

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But it's not difficult to develop racist feelings here in Singapore, mixing around other kids who had parents who were actually racist. It would have been so easy for me to turn out somewhat racist too, because of the impressions I got from those around me.

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My primary school classmates were all Chinese. There were a handful of Indians and Eurasians in the school, but they were never my classmates. And we had no Malays. I sometimes played Chinese Chess with the Indian kid from the next class. We were having a fun time like any kid should.

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In secondary 1, my class had 3 Malays and 3 Indians. I didn't really mix with the Malays. I didn't like Asli because he was the class monitor, not because he was Malay. Ismail was okay - I thought he was kinda smart as he did Higher Malay - but I didn't mix much with him because he was pals with Asli. But I got along quite well with Mas actually - we even sat together in Design & Tech class - and I respected his artistic talents - until one day he tenderly placed his hand on my thigh. I would have broken his nose, but he was too feminine, and I could never get myself to hit a girl, so all I could manage was to swipe off his hand in horror, and place my school bag on the bench between us from that moment on.

I got along with the 3 Indians better. Much better in fact, as we were always hanging out together - Ezekiel, Raj, Kumar and me. I guess I stuck with them because they were the only ones who spoke only English, and that was my type. And Ezekiel had an impressive vocabulary - he actually knew what "apocalypse" meant (okay, my vocab sucked real bad then). The four of us would walk to the bus stop together, playing pranks and basing one another, having a fun time like any kid should.

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In secondary 2, I was banished to the "condemned class" where most of the problem kids ended up. All Chinese. Sec 3, sec 4, all Chinese. I spoke more Mandarin then.

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In poly, my classmates were all Chinese, all the way. And if you read an earlier post of mine:

Eventually, an interesting phenomenon would always set in. While I was perfectly comfortable using Mandarin with my classmates, more and more of them would start speaking to me in English (Singlish). Soon, they were speaking to me in English, and I would reply in Mandarin, and that would be how we communicated. And we were perfectly comfortable with that. I wonder if the linguists have any term for that phenomenon.


I'm still looking for the technical term for it (it's not called "code-switching"). Maybe there isn't one yet, so it's up to me to term it. I think I'll call it a "chiasmic exchange" - it sounds obscure and pretentious enough for linguists.

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The problem with writing rambling posts like this is that you don't know how to end it, leaving the reader dangling because there's no closure. Terrible feeling, and I feel for you.

But do check out the other meanings of "vignette" if you don't already know them.

3.
a. A short, usually descriptive literary sketch.
b. A short scene or incident, as from a movie.

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