The day we will all be colourless!

23 02 2014

DSC_2437We were at a neighbourhood community celebration of Chinese New Year last month surrounded by Singaporean Chinese, Malay, Indians and a bunch of expatriates from all over the world who can now call Singapore their home.   The decor was simple: a red tent, plastic chairs and tables placed on the street, disposable dishes and banners loosely tied or standing on racks around the street fest ground.  A great contrast with the large opulent houses and supercars parked in most of the driveways.

‘Celebrating Cultural Differences’ the slogan said on the banners and it surely felt that way. In shorts, flip-flops and weekend clothes, the diverse members of the community were together mixing all the ingredients to symbolically prove the successful integration of this lovely neighbourhood.  Some wore their beautiful Indian blouses with jeans and sneakers, others, from a Malay background, proudly wore their colourful summer dresses with a hijab or a simple polo and jeans.  It made it all the more sincere that this Chinese New Year Lo Hei dish we were about to mix was going to truly represent the cultural melting pot of Singapore.

Our good friends Rani and Don were the newest addition to this community and everyone made their way around the crowd to greet them with a warm welcome.  Invited by Don and Rani, we were happily tagging along and blending in with traditions. After seven years, the multiple celebrations of all the religions in Singapore bear no secrets to veteran Expats like us.

Don is an Irish pilot, born and raised catholic, while Rani is a lively Pakistani Muslim woman who conquered Don’s heart about 7 years ago.  When he popped the question to Rani five years back, he had no hesitation to add; and I will convert to Islam for you Rani, no problem.

-Rani, where you born in Pakistan or Singapore? I asked.

– I was born in Singapore Helene. 

  • how many generations in Singapore?

-…. Heummmm that’s a long story. 

-Go ahead Rani I have all night.

Well, you see Helene, my grandfather was an Indian Brahmin from northern India (Brahmin is the highest caste in India) and my grandmother was a Chinese Taoist.  They met in Hong Kong, fell in love and wanted to spend their lives together.  In order to make equal concessions, they both abandoned their religion and chose to become Muslim.  They moved to Singapore and started their new life while embracing their new mutual religion.  When my mother was born, she was raised as a Muslim and later in life, she married a Pakistani man. They had my two brothers and me!  

Tell me, Rani, you don’t wear a hijab but your sister-in-laws both do. Are your brothers more strict than your own father?

No, they wear it and I don’t, no big deal or deeper meaning for us.  Singapore respects differences.  

Cultural differences bring colours and diversity that well define what globalisation is all about.  It is not one culture overtaking the way others should lead their lives, but a celebration of differences.  At Christmas, Singapore spends millions to dress the city with the most elaborate ornaments, Kuala Lumpur, with a majority of Muslims, welcome travellers with Christmas Carols at the airport, and all the shopping centers glitter with elegant decor.  In a month’s time, the city’s decor is changed for Chinese New Year with horses hanging from every lamp-post. Then comes Deepa Vali, then Easter, then Hari Raya, etc.  In Singapore, we always look forward to the next cultural celebration.

DSC_2369In December, we had the privilege of being invited to a wedding in India and although the two love birds formed a modern young couple working in Silicon Valley, the Indian wedding celebrated traditions and ancient values.  A month later, in Thailand, my Canadian friend Bob married his Thai sweetheart Pam with the most beautiful display of traditions including 12 monks, an elephant, dancers, a Chinese tea ceremony and a procession of offerings to lavish the mother with gifts and seduce the gatekeepers of the bride.  Both these events were beautiful experiences forever engraved in my memory. My souvenirs are so full of colours.DSC_4308 DSC_4368

I read online the Canadian newspaper la Presse most morning and follow the debate dividing one more time my homeland and my people.  Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone forcing women to be veiled against their will, and neither do most people in the world for that matter.  I do not condone to be forced to do anything against your will, whether it is from the radical Lev Tahor community or any other extremist communities displaying controlling and abusive behaviours.

However, when I see people acting and voicing racism, and when I see Quebec becoming colourless with its so-called secular charter, and when I see the tension and intolerance rising among the Quebec society, I cannot stop feeling saddened.  I have read too many comments online advocating intolerance to stay neutral. The current government distorts reality by using this proposed charter to an extreme, blending secularism with prescribing how people should dress. One cannot promote freedom of expression and oppress individual choices at the same time. 

To separate politics from religion is a must in a society, but to stipulate what people should wear or not, as proposed in the chart, can even be interpreted as a mimic of dictatorship.

Let me get that right; you can wear a scarf on your head if it is a trendy designer and fashionable or if you, unfortunately, had chemotherapy to hide the loss of hair, but it is not OK if it is part of your cultural religious background?  You can wear three or four chains on your neck, studs in your nose or tattoos on your arm, but God forbids you would accessorize your look with a cross, the star of David given by your mother or a Buddha that you feel is your good luck charm in life?  What about all of those who have turned money into a religion?  Should they empty their pockets before going to work?

DSC_4468So let’s be safe and all wear black and white clothing with no accessories to make sure that we comply and don’t upset the new proposed Quebec charter.  We will all look the same at work and prove the great value of our society.

As said earlier, separating politics and economics from Religion is a must in all societies, but what is devious about this charter is the way it conveniently boils down to decreeing how people should visually express their differences.  Being a secular society has nothing to do with the way we express our traditions, feel dignified in the way we dress, define our moods or express our cultural beliefs and diversity because quite frankly; that’s what getting dressed in the morning is all about.  Separating religion from politics is about not mixing and influencing government decisions due to manipulative thinking, and it seems that the current politicians are manipulating the meaning of secular society towards bigotry.

Two weeks ago, I invited my Quebecers friends who live in Singapore to a Smoked Meat party.  We had brought back a 5-kilo brisket from Montreal.  We were excited to celebrate this amazing tradition brought to Montreal by the Jewish community and we joyfully plastered the meat with mustard on rye bread, and needless to say devoured every part of it.

Our terrace gathered French, Vietnamese, Chinese, a Belgian Jew wearing a Buddha on his neck, Turkish married to a local Chinese and other Quebecers from a melting pot of descendants. They all had this lovely French Canadian accent, had a love for Montreal that is forever engraved in their soul, but also had a sad heart when thinking of what Quebec would become if this chart was implemented.

I could not stop but wonder: Can this great multicultural society lose its treasure and become colourless?  I pray whatever God you believe in that it does not. The world without diversity, a world without cultural differences, a world without colours is a very boring world.

Update: The Secular chart proposal did not pass the vote 🙂




6 responses

23 02 2014

Hélène, beautiful piece. Written by a woman with true international perspective and with an opened vision and spirit on the world. I have traveled the world and living in Quebec, I can tell you that the issue of cultural difference goes beyond the dress code, but it’s unfortunately what it boiled down to by small minded people. It’s the same with the language debate, which is debated by people who can hardly speak English and don’t even hold a passport. Embracing diversity is a must in a world that has gone so macro and where borders are brought down by technology only to be built back up by politics. Bianca

24 02 2014

Well said Bianca, your last comment on borders brought down by technology and built back by politics is the right way to express it. Thank you for this comment.

24 02 2014
Marjorie Valcin

Dear Helen, what a beautiful post and needless ro say that I agree with everything you said, as a world citizen.

As you know I chose decided a few months ago to come back to La belle province.

After the original excitement to move to a new city, I am now starting to see the various differences between Quebec and Ontario, and even my beloved Toronto and my new hometown Montreal. Often I am pleased, sometimes I am shocked…

… But rest assured that along with my family and friends, I will continue to spread the love of diversity and inclusivity that my Lac St-Jean mother and haïtian father set as an example by getting married together in this society 48 years ago.

So you can count on me to be a proud ambassador of cultural diversity, and to convert people one by one if I have to.

This charter project has been the center of so many discussions recently, and I would be ashamed to regret my decision to have moved back to be closer to family and friends… but it is scaring me a little that people can be so narrow-minded in 2013.

Thanks for being an equally good ambassador on the other side of the world, my big sister!!!


24 02 2014

Merci Marjo pour ce soutient, et oui continu d’être la grande ambassadrice que tu es. C’est en effet un triste tournant cette charte. Cheers my big sister.

24 02 2014
Clement aubin

Bonjour Hélène,
Je crois que tu es due pour un retour très bientôt au Québec pour te rappeller ce que la société canadienne française vie depuis plus de trois siècles. Nous essayons tant bien que mal de conserver notre langue et notre culture autour de 400 millions of english speaking person. J’ai fait ma part de voyages dans le monde et je penses que la société québécoise est une des plus tolérante au monde quoi que tu en dises.

24 02 2014

Merci Clément de ton opinion. En effet au moins la moitié est très tolérente mais il reste que c’est un débat qui est en train de faire changer la balance. Tel que je le disais, ce serait triste que cette société change à cause d’une charte.

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