Over the years, I've come to realise that the people of Singapore are a lot more complex than I initially understood. Our migration patterns and ethnic identities as a nation are so so so much more than four neat categories. Yet I seem to perceive a steady separation of history with identity and of knowledge with introspection. For this and other reasons elaborated below, I am working on a project about appreciating family while they are still alive, reconnecting with our roots and anchoring them deeper into the ground.
The idea of the project is for Singaporeans to document and collect family stories that their elders tell of the past – from great grandmother's childhood, to grandpa's first job, to your parents' kampong days. This project is less about tracing the family tree (although that is important too) and more about pooling together the stories that reveal who our ancestors were as people - their struggles, circumstances and culture - that in some ways, tell us who we are and why we are.
Why this is important (to me)?
1. We need meaningful and intentional intergenerational conversations
As gadgets, apps and the internet take up more of our time, the room for storytelling in the home shrinks. We lose out on really getting to know our elders because Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify, and Candy Crush seem so much more 'interesting'. This project is a way to reignite intergenerational conversations before its too late. This way we intentionally set time aside to understand, preserve, empathise, and connect with our past and those who came before.
2. To better understand who we are, we need to know who they were
Growing up, I didn't understand the migration my grandparents made to Singapore. I didn't even know which parts of China they were from or why they left. I didn't know, I wasn't told and I didn't think to ask. As I got older, I realised that their experiences influenced how I was raised and therefore, to learn about their lives informs who I am. To know the experiences of my ancestors and have a deeper sense of identity is therefore to know myself and simultaneously develop greater cultural awareness.
3. Making sense of national history through lived experiences
Through our education system, we learnt about Singapore’s growth and development through the lens of infrastructure, evolving social policies and economic evolution. Important as they may be, I never really understood how all of these changes affected the realities of those who lived through it.
My response to all of this is through stories. This project aims to reach as many ethnic groups and religions as possible, across migration patterns, childhoods in different parts of Singapore, etc. Uncovering lived experiences and collecting stories in different languages from different perspectives are so important in the recreation of the Singapore story while building deeper roots on our respective cultures and histories.
What exactly is this 'project' about?
I am developing a toolkit to facilitate and guide individuals interested in putting together stories from their family history. This toolkit address common issues that arise from a project of this scale: lack of time, lack of clarity, lack of structure and support. In it, I break down the steps for coordinating, consolidating and delegating the collection of family history stories based on the experience I have collecting my own. I hope this toolkit will underpin what will become a national programme and later a global movement for people to take control of the information they consume and protect their family histories from being lost or misrepresented.
What about language?
I was on a work trip to Mozambique in 2014 and saw travel magazines in my hotel lobby advertising Brazil, Portugal and Macau as holiday destinations (former Portuguese colonies = Portuguese speakers). It hit me how our worlds are so bound by language and history. This started triggering thoughts of my own understanding of history.
I speak English better than my own mother tongue - I am conversational in Mandarin at a grade school level and have no understanding of Chinese dialects. English was the language I was educated in, which means that my perspective of history comes from English sources. I didn't really think anything about it until I read Jung Chang's 'Empress Dowager Cixi' and learnt that language is the gateway to understanding different interpretations and perspectives of history informed by culture, religion, politics, etc.
This is a big reason why I think collecting stories from our own families are so important. Regardless of whatever language we speak, the understanding and reverence we have for our families/elders as well as our experience with them will come out regardless of what language we use.
Interested to be a part of it?
Download the toolkit, begin your journey and write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your stories, have a discussion, or suggest improvements to the toolkit. I would love to hear from you!