“I Want to Go Home”
I recently finished reading “The Heartsick Diaspora,” a great collection of short stories by Singaporean author Elaine Chiew. The common thread in the stories is the experience of Chinese Singaporeans and Malaysians living away from their homelands.
I refuse to call it a double diaspora, or whatever else one might feel tempted to say. We are Singaporeans and Malaysians in every way that matters, and when we move to foreign climes, we are heartsick for our actual birthplaces. Our cultural origins (India, China etc) have always been complex, alternately uplifting and stifling, and that’s a whole other scope of work.
Of course, as a racial minority Singaporean, now living in America, I have never had the sense of being the default anywhere, as Chinese Singaporeans do. So I tend to approach such writings with some wariness; if Chinese Singaporeans suddenly don’t feel valued, or they have to acknowledge that unexamined privilege helped them back home, and does not in their adopted land, oh well, welcome to how other Singaporeans have always lived. As an identity politics beast, this stuff is like gold to me. It’s where we find the most carefully concealed parts of ourselves.
But it is true that suddenly, we have to join groups that previously excluded us, or from which we kept our own distance. South Indian Singaporeans find ourselves called out for not knowing Hindi, by Indian-origin desis. Chinese Singaporeans find that their colloquial Mandarin does not pass muster with the China crowd in London or New York or wherever. People ask us where we are from, and then say No, but where are you REALLY from? And these are people many of our parents wanted us to identify with, so we try, and, to our shame, we have to work really hard at it. We never feel more Singaporean than at such moments.
What does any of this have to do with autism, you may ask? Getting there! Give a Singaporean a break, can or not?
There was one story which particularly stayed with me. It was called “Face.” In it, an elderly woman named Yun has left rural Malaysia to live with her son and his family in London, not willingly, but because she has developed a bladder issue, and they want her with them, so they can look after her. Unable to relate to their lives, and having had a frightening racist encounter on the tube, she shrinks into herself, fearful of leaving the house because of her incontinence anxiety. Her Chinese American daughter-in-law concocts a plan; she asks Yun to pick the granddaughter up from school.
But Yun can’t do it. She has a panic attack at the last moment, and ends up falling asleep on the couch, and the school has to have the child’s mother come instead.
Unable to answer her son’s baffled questions in any way that makes sense to him, finding that even speaking in Mandarin seems to annoy him, Yun appears to have a breakdown at the end. She spouts English phrases from ads on tv, and it forms a depressing sort of logic—she’s expected to act more English, so okay! The nuanced Mandarin phrases don’t seem to matter; neither do her simple pleas to be allowed to return home. So why not try it their way. It is a story that continues to tug at me.
If ‘madness,’ and acting outside one’s real self, are the only paths to acceptance, then the message is clear: survival rests on disconnecting from who we truly are. Just as Singaporeans rarely have a sense of community in foreign countries, unless we develop and hone other identities, so too do autistic people have to act ‘normal’ so that they can have access to the promised independence which is held up as such a prize.
As parents, we are often unwitting enablers of this appalling strategy, pushed as we are by the desperate awareness of time not being on our side. We can sleep peacefully after we are dead. Till then, we must encourage acceptance by Neurotypicalandia. Speech apps, quiet hands, leisure skills, desensitization. As the world is now, there are few other options. Self advocacy is less of a possibility for the severely autistic, though I would love for my son to prove me wrong, as some have done. And ‘passing’ is difficult for, and takes a toll on, even the more mildly autistic.
Just like elder care, autism care should be a community effort. Only then will it develop the nuance and multifaceted approaches that are needed. When the responsibility is solely on families, society as a collective is guilty of pressuring us to guide our kids towards inconsistent and unrealistic goals.
Yun keeps saying to her son, 我 想 回 家。I want to go home. And they don’t say yes, because they are obligated to look out for her wellbeing, and, well, being in London means she has to adapt. People shouldn’t feel trapped this way, but they are.
Chiew, Elaine. The Heartsick Diaspora and other stories. Singapore: Penguin Random House SEA, 2019.