Weeks 58 - 62: Burkinis and Love
(02/01/07)

Now that we have started our second expatriate year, and things are no longer new or different or shocking, I feel like I have a much better understanding of our Asian home, black spitting cobras and all. And, despite our various trials and tribulations, I have learned to appreciate and deeply value the very different attributes that Singapore has to offer, and none more so than this place's amazing population diversity.

When we relocated from Texan suburbia, we left behind a city and a state that are dominated by white, Christian, conservative, English-speaking Americans. And although the boys' Montessori school was well integrated with children of different races and nationalities, they lived their lives, for the most part, among people who look and talk just like they do. Now we live on the other side of the world, in a tiny, densely populated republic in Southeast Asia where English may be the official language, but it certainly isn't the dominant one; where the population of Americans is so small that it doesn't even warrant its own census category (we are covered under "Other"); where our pale skin stands out like a fluorescent Budweiser light in a dimly lit tavern; and where the friendly inhabitants of our little street alone represent a full theological and dermatological spectrum. And, although our children attend an American school, they play and learn with students from all over the world. The kids in Cameron's class alone live in homes where a total of eight different languages are spoken; and for several of them, English is not their first language.

Interestingly, the boys don’t seem to have noticed these changes in their environment. Or perhaps they notice, but they don’t view them as unusual. They recognize that many of their friends are different from them, and from each other; and they talk about those differences frequently, but in a way that celebrates each person’s special traits. “That’s Bob,” Alec told me one day as I was picking them up from school, “he shaved his head bald and he’s Chinese.” Another day, Cameron pointed out a girl from his class: “that’s Grace, she’s Korean.”

Truth be told, we hear a lot about Grace. A lot, a lot, a lot. Because Grace is Cameron's first love, and Lord, that boy is smitten. He calls her his girlfriend and, thankfully, she agrees (I’d hate for him to have his first unrequited love at the tender age of six). According to his teachers, the whole class knows about and accepts their romantic status. What is so wonderful about this little relationship, beyond the innocence inherent in kindergarten love, is that he probably never would have met anyone like Grace back in Texas. They never would have attended the same school, much less shared a classroom. Because at the beginning of the year, his beautiful friend didn’t speak a word of English. She is taking an ESL class (English as a Second Language) at SAS, as are Bob and several other friends; but for the majority of the first semester, they held hands and sat next to each other during story time, but they never talked. I guess Virgil was right: love really does conquer all things. :) 

And Singapore’s refreshing diversity extends well beyond language and venomous snake varieties – there is also a wide range of religions practiced by the inhabitants of our Asian home. According to the 2000 census, the 4.4 million people in Singapore fall into eight different categories of faith: 42.5% are Buddhist; 14.9% are Muslim; 9.8% are Protestant; 8.5% are Taoist; 4.8% are Catholic; 4% are Hindu; 0.7% are classified as “other”; and 14.8% do not claim a specific religion

I know that the U.S. is not a Christian-only country, and that large quantities of Americans adhere to a multitude of non-Christian beliefs; we just haven’t been exposed to many of these people. Consequently, our knowledge of the tenets of other faiths is embarrassingly scant. The boys’ former nanny is Muslim, and still I left the conservative boundaries of Texas knowing almost nothing about her religion. I would venture a cynical guess that most of my compatriots know no more about Islam than what they see on TV; and what I myself have seen on TV is nothing like what I have seen in person. I’ll refrain from launching into a negative diatribe here – about manipulating facts for political gain – but really, isn’t this sort of dogmatic attitude rather pitiful? And irresponsible to boot?

Since moving to Singapore, I’m ashamed to admit that my Islamic knowledge base has not expanded as much as I would like, or as much as it should have; but I definitely know more now than I did before. A small bit of this recent education: I have learned through my food court adventures that the Arabic term “halal” is similar to the Jewish word “kosher” (though not identical by any means), and refers to anything permissible under the laws of Islam. In a restaurant, it indicates that all food on the premises has been prepared and is served in accordance with Islamic dietary standards. For example, Muslims are not allowed to consume pork (or anything prepared with or touched by pork products), because pigs are considered unclean. Dogs are similarly considered unclean, and followers of Islam are not allowed to touch or be touched by these creatures, even if they are pets. I had no idea.

And what about the burquas that I see so frequently here in Asia? I recognized these enveloping dresses as traditional Muslim attire, but I never knew why they are worn: to cover a woman's hair and body (leaving only the face, hands, and feet exposed), in accordance with the Islamic precept that women dress and behave modestly in public. And what never occurred to me - and, honestly, it probably never would have occurred to me had we not left the shores of our insular little world - is how this clothing requirement might affect one's participation in leisure activities. Like swimming. Every summer of my childhood involved a serious swimming component, whether at the local pool or at organized swim meets; and the same will be true of my children. Their every weekend, for the most part, involves a multi-hour swim at the American club. I cannot imagine a life without water-based sports and fun. But how can a faithful Muslim woman possibly go swimming and still maintain the appropriate level of modesty? It is impossible. Or, rather, it's impossible to do without running a serious risk of drowning.

Recently, though, I heard a news story (from Star News Asia’s Deborah Kan – our favorite local news personality) about a Muslim woman who has designed and produced a new piece of apparel that allows the wearer to swim, or even just stroll on the beach, without the full-length dresses and robes, while still maintaining her modesty. This revolutionary garment, creatively called a “burkini,” is a two piece swimsuit made out of lycra that covers not only the body, but also the head and hair, ensuring appropriate full corporal coverage. Is this amazing to anyone else?

There are a lot of things I have learned here in Singapore that, frankly, I could have done without. The unique and powerful aroma associated with durian fruit for one. But the knowledge I have gained, and hopefully will continue to gain, about the fascinating and wonderful differences that can exist between people - well, that is just invaluable. I don’t have to subscribe to a religion to try to learn more about it, and I don’t have to agree with other people’s views and perspectives just because I try to understand them. But I believe, and I hope I am teaching my children to believe, that the world would be a terribly boring place if we all looked alike and spoke alike and thought alike. Plus, if they understand the reasons behind the differences they see between themselves and others, they won’t fear those differences, or those people; and hopefully, they will help to make this crazy world a better place. On that note, I will now descend from the soapbox on which I am so prone to perch... :)

Take care,
Shannon et al.

No pictures this time.