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The changing faces of Singapore: Mixed race families

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 This little red dot may be tiny, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in diversity. As a society traditionally made up of people of different cultures and backgrounds, coexistence and intermixing is a common theme in our daily experience – be it in the food we eat, or even how we speak.

And according to the numbers, this is also a growing trend in our marriages and families. Around 21 per cent of marriages in Singapore in 2015 were inter-ethnic, in other words, between individuals of different races. This is up from 15 per cent a decade ago.

Experts say this trend is unsurprising, given Singapore’s increasingly well-travelled population and changing social norms.

“The world is a smaller place. And what would have been totally unusual two generations ago is far more acceptable in this day and age,” Anita Fam, a Families for Life council member, told TODAY.

Meet three mixed race Singaporean families, and hear their stories of when different cultures and traditions meet, and how they celebrate their diverse backgrounds.

An international romance

They say that love knows no boundaries, and in the case of Adrian and Kiruthika Curic, that is certainly true. Singaporean senior manager Kiruthika met her Romanian husband, Adrian, when she was a student in France. Their romance blossomed and he moved to Singapore a decade ago to marry her. Their families celebrated with an Indian wedding in Singapore and a church wedding in Romania.

Adrian, a software engineer, is currently a Permanent Resident of Singapore, and the couple has two daughters, Anjali, 9, and Sophia, 7.

The Curics visit Romania at least once every other year, where they participate in typical Romanian activities such as harvesting vegetables, hiking in the countryside and spending time with Adrian’s parents and extended family. Kiruthika has also learnt to speak Romanian to communicate with her in-laws and extended family.

True to Singapore's multicultural melting pot ethos, the family participates enthusiastically in both Romanian and Singaporean festivals.

At home, the two main festivals the family celebrates are Christmas and Deepavali. Christmas is celebrated with a traditional Romanian feast including dishes such as potato salad, cornmeal and walnut cake prepared by Adrian. “Adrian even Skypes with his mum on Christmas morning to make sure he remembers the recipes correctly,” says Kiruthika.

Adrian’s parents have also celebrated Deepavali in Singapore; this involved a visit to the temple and a home-cooked Indian meal whipped up by Kiruthika’s parents. His mother even found something interesting to take home with her to Romania. “My mother-in-law found it interesting that Indians use stainless steel vessels to cook, as they use ceramic vessels in Romania. She bought a whole bunch of them to take back as they are much easier to use,” says Kiruthika.

The Curics’ two daughters study English and Tamil in school, and the Curics also converse with them in Romanian to “keep the language alive”.

“They have adapted well in school,” says Kiruthika, “Their multi-ethnicity helps them adapt, and they have more tolerance and openness to other races. They don’t see different cultures as something distinctive or defining, but as a part of someone’s life.”

The girls have worn Chinese, Indian and Romanian costumes (a white cotton skirt and blouse with embroidery around the neckline) to school celebrations.

And just like the adults, the girls have realised that food is a great way to introduce the Romanian half of their culture to their peers. Kiruthika says: “I pack food for them to take to school, and sometimes it is Romanian food like cornmeal or traditional home-baked bread. Their friends enjoy trying the food, so I pack extra for them to share.”

Blended cultures, new traditions

The Pattiselannos are as multiracial as it gets. Homemaker Leanne is Peranakan while Lenard, a public officer, has a Portuguese and Indo-Chinese heritage.

When they got married, the Singaporean couple, who met when they were students in the United States, had a wedding ceremony that reflected their multicultural background. In a nod to her mother-in-law who is Indian-Chinese, Leanne requested for Indian jewellery as part of her dowry when the older Pattiselanno insisted on following this Chinese tradition. She also wore both a cheongsam and a sari during their wedding celebrations.

"Our family is quite blended, so we come up with our own traditions and practices that may not necessarily be celebrated by other people."

The Pattiselannos have two sons, Zachary, 9, and Eli, 6. To expose their sons to their diverse heritage, the family incorporates various practices and traditions from either side of the family for festivals such as Chinese New Year and Christmas.

For example, during Chinese New Year, they have a Peranakan-inspired feast with dishes that they cook only during this time of the year, such as bakwan kepiting (pork and crab meatballs), hee peow (fish maw) soup and ayam buah keluak (a chicken stew dish). They also have the traditional family gathering at Leanne’s grandparents’ home.

The Pattiselannos also create their own celebrations for the boys. “For National Day, I’ve started baking my own National Day cake and we even sing a birthday song to Singapore,” says Leanne. “Our family is quite blended, so we come up with our own traditions and practices that may not necessarily be celebrated by other people.”

As the two boys look Chinese, they do not get many questions from their schoolmates about their ethnicity, says Leanne. However, she observes that some schoolmates’ parents are surprised to “see such a Chinese-looking child with such an exotic last name”. Recently, Zachary, her older son, asked if he is Singaporean, after a teacher asked him about his last name. “There was a bit of confusion, as we’ve been quite relaxed about explaining these things,” she says.

“As far as my children are concerned, our household is like everyone else’s. They don't see themselves as being ethnically different from anyone else they encounter,” she adds.

However, she acknowledges that they may become more aware of ethnic distinctions as they grow older. To engage them in this discourse, the couple plans to take them to the National Museum of Singapore and visiting exhibitions that focus on multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism.

Bringing together the best of both worlds

When creative director Farrokh Madon moved to Singapore from India, it was the country’s vibrant Chinese New Year celebrations with lion and dragon dances and unique dishes such as yu sheng that caught his eye. “The hong baos helped in supplementing my salary as a young writer,” he quips. Now a Singapore citizen and married to fellow creative director Valerie Cheng, he has adopted Chinese New Year as one of the festivals he celebrates annually with their children Mikail, 13, and Roxana, 4.

 

Chinese New Year is celebrated with Valerie’s family, where the children greet their extended family with mandarin oranges and receive hong baos. This year, the entire family was roped in to make pineapple tarts: Farrokh and the kids shaped the pastries and piled on the jam, while Valerie baked them.

The other key cultural festival they celebrate is the Parsi New Year, where they have dinner with a few other Parsi families in Singapore. 

The family has discovered cultural quirks, even in seemingly similar practices.

Valerie has also had the opportunity to appreciate the finer aspects of Farrokh’s culture. For a function in the run up to their wedding, she wore an Indian sari for the first time. “My aunt and close family friend bought a sari for Valerie for the occasion,” recalls Farrokh.

To expose the children to Indian culture, Farrokh’s parents make frequent visits to Singapore, and the family regularly travels to his hometown of Mumbai, where they spend time with his family and friends. “Parsi food is a blend of Persian and Indian culinary influences. It is rare to find Parsi food in restaurants even in India, so the only way to taste it is through relatives’ cooking,” says Farrokh.

Interestingly, the family has discovered cultural quirks, even in seemingly similar practices, such as when gifting money. “Chinese hong baos are always in red envelopes and amounts given are in even numbers while the Parsis traditionally use white envelopes and the amounts of money are given in odd numbers,” observes Farrkoh.
 
The family speaks mostly English at home, but Roxana, 4, is learning to speak Mandarin and Gujarati, the adopted native tongue of Parsis, while Mikail, 13, studies Malay in school. “Farrokh and I agreed that it would be more beneficial for our daughter to learn Mandarin as her mother tongue, given that we chose to reside in Singapore,” says Valerie.

In school, the children have the opportunity to celebrate and learn more about Singapore’s different cultures. “Our daughter has worn a cheongsam for Chinese New Year while our son has worn the traditional baju kurung for Hari Raya,” says Valerie. “We encourage our children to be racially blind, in that one should celebrate the best of all cultures and not have negative preconceived notions about any culture.”

These three mixed race families, part of the growing number in Singapore, show that with openness and a little creativity, cultural (and even geographical) boundaries can be traversed, to get the best out of all possible worlds.

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