It was five minutes of queuing before I found myself in front of the cashier.
“Lunch tap,” I said.
“What does that mean?” asked the cashier, looking at my College ID. I looked at her in a daze. In my head I knew exactly what it meant.
“You mean meal swipe?” she clarified.
I finally found my words. “Yes, a meal swipe.” I was starting to feel hot under all the layers I hastily bought from Uniqlo.
I took a quick glance behind me and the person next in line was typing away on her phone, chewing a piece of gum. I was relieved.
“You have to be clearer in the future, darling.” The cashier keyed in my order and I swiped for lunch. I smiled at her again and walked off.
Back in Singapore, the college where I’m from has a similar system. There’s a cafe in school where students are allowed to use meal credits when there’s no time between classes to lounge at the dining halls. As you’ve already guessed, we call this a “lunch tap.” Our public trains and buses also have a system where we “tap” our travel cards at a machine that beeps and deducts a certain fare. It’s like the New York City metro’s version of a swipe.
The word “swipe” is hardly used in Singapore.
Of course, being an exchange student this spring, this is only the start of my adjustments to a new environment.
I’ve made other observations too. When someone tells me that I’m “all set,” I wonder what exactly I’m set for. When I’m at Chipotle and I’m asked “black beans or pinto,” I wonder what the latter is. During running practice I cannot help but notice my GPS watch beep at the kilometer mark, but no one else’s does until we hit the mile.
All these are just quirks of being in a new place, minor inconveniences, almost.
But there are moments when my difference turns against me and makes life harder than it should be. This happens when class discussion veers to American politics or a brand, place, policy or famous American that I do not yet know exists. It happens when I have to repeat myself when I say something and I’m forced to rephrase, round my words, take on an accent I know is not my own but is not quite American either. It is an accent that is stuck between two places. It is an accent that floats, as if part of a dream but not quite grounded in reality.
Sometimes in class I rehearse what I’m about to say in my head before I say it. My heart rate is tremendous. I’m afraid that I will say something distasteful. I prefer to write because the page becomes the great equalizer, turns everything two-dimensional and forces someone to read before they form an impression. In the classroom I feel like half the battle is already lost when my accent and cultural inexperience come between the crowd and me. I am aware that this is my own battle to fight, my own fear to confront.
On some days everything I do seems an attempt to adapt. But I know most of the struggle happens between my ears.
I come from a country where I am part of the vast majority. Thirteen percent of the Singaporean population is ethnically Malay and 9 percent are ethnically Indian, while 3 percent are bundled under the “other” category, which might comprise Filipinos, Eurasians, Thai, Vietnamese or any race that is severely underrepresented. On the flipside, 75 percent of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese. This is the rung to which I belong.
Once during Chinese New Year I heard some distant relatives talk about how there should be measures to stem minority populations. “Once they take over the government, we’re over,” one of them said.
Back in high school there was an Indian boy in my class who received the brunt of racist jokes. He would always laugh along to support what seemed like misguided childhood innocence. There were jokes that revolved around skin tone, economic status, grades, class rankings. He would laugh along but I don’t know if it was because he was being nice, or because he believed it.
When I entered college I had a Malay friend tell me that she was always annoyed when people in class talked to each other in Chinese when she was in earshot. She also told me that there were people, namely Chinese, who would insist that she could eat anything just as long as there was no pork. “That’s what Halal means right? Just remove the pork and it should be all good.” There were times where she had to explain to the same friend over and over why she had to wear a headdress and why no male (other than an immediate family member) could see her hair. There were times when she tried explaining the history of her religion only to get dismissive stares.
Is this what it feels like to not belong? I’m no longer as close to that friend from college, but there are times that I do feel like dropping her a text to apologize.
I want to apologize for only thinking of these stories now, because as I adapt to these new shores I find myself becoming strangely empathetic to the trials that many around me had faced back home. I’m lucky because I’m part of a community that is learned and understands, that would never intentionally exclude or discriminate. I am also lucky to have spent my formative years feeling like I belong, and only feeling the slight tremors of being different now.
I don’t want to over-explain this phenomena because I am only just beginning to experience it myself, and on a small scale, too. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that being left out doesn’t normally happen dramatically. It happens when you have to repeat yourself in class, or change your accent to sound more confident. When you have to explain on three separate occasions to the same person that it’s always summer in Singapore (amazing but true, the temperature lingers around 85–90 degrees Fahrenheit all year, it’s like Florida on steroids). Or when a waiter mishears my order and shakes his head in disgust when he has to return to the kitchen. The minute instances of feeling different hurt precisely because they’re all at once too insignificant to cry foul, but happen frequently enough to remind you at specific intervals that you’re still not quite the same as everyone else.
I find it laughable that I’m only appreciating this struggle now. And as much as I’d like to propose massive structural changes to the way we treat minorities around us, I am only here for the semester and besides, I think that Yale is as a great place as any to be different. For me, the solution is simply to adapt. But that is my story. I am unable to speak for those who may experience discrimination and discomfort throughout their lives, who may continue to question their identity in a hostile environment. But to have a glimpse into that world of unease is perhaps where empathy, though tiny as a seed, can begin to grow.
One month into my time here, I can now confidently tell the cashier at Durfees that I’d like to pay with a meal swipe. I even ask her how she’s doing, and tell her I’m doing good when she asks in return. But for the life of me, when she tells me I’m all set, I’m still not sure exactly what I’m set for.
Justin Ong | email@example.com