I am a minority in most parts of the world, a minority within a minority (i.e. Chinese and Christian) in Indonesia and a majority in Singapore (or any other Chinese-speaking/dominated country). I have attended private schools all my life, been sheltered in well-decorated places, travelled the world (except for Africa, Antarctica and South America) and I can afford to get proper healthcare, plus insurance. I have the luxury to treat myself to Sephora or a nice vintage designer apparel I happily discover on consignment sites or bazaar sales. Ditto with being able to survive on unpaid internships. While the perks I have were things that I used to take for granted, what I didn’t realize until today is the fact that my privilege has been a ticket that got me to do well in life since I was born. With the current crisis that is unfolding across the States as well as the centuries-long systemic racism, it’s made me wonder if I have done my part to be a better human.
Growing up in Singapore, I was chauffeured to school, slept over at friends’ homes during birthday parties, traveled Business Class, ate at restaurants, never worried about being stopped on the street because of my race, etc. Given that I was an expat child, I’ve had the privilege to attend Singapore American School, a top international private school, where the majority of students were American. With an early exposure to American culture, values and people growing up, I was accustomed to it. Apart from the Americans, a handful of classmates were from other parts of the globe from Korea to India, including Singapore. Diversity was normal and seeing classmates befriending people of other races (myself included as I grew up with a biracial best friend) was also normal, too. Since my Chinese background made me a majority in Singapore, I never saw myself as a minority until I moved out to the States for college.
Given my freedom to choose, I chose Los Angeles because it was where I spent summers traveling there as a kid. Though it’s extremely superficial now, blissfully ignorant teenage me hoped to embody the tabloid lifestyle of shopping, eating and partying like the celebrities in tabloids. Clueless, Mean Girls and countless other teen movies were things I grew up to. I thought that America was like Disneyland due to the racism-free friendly relations of the characters in movies (although I didn’t understand that having a token POC character was actually problematic until I was in my early 20s). However, what I didn’t realize was that underneath the utopia, there was a greater divide that was subtle, but clear.
During my first semester at LMU, I was asked to pick an American social studies class. Though I only selected it for the sake of completing credits (which was pure ignorance on my part), I never anticipated that it was going to change my life. The course I took was Race & Representation, which was taught by Professor Anton Smith, an African-American. Though he expected a lot on students like me, I never forgot being assigned to read chapters of a book called The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Though it was written by a white male African American studies scholar, what it aimed to examine was the disturbing subtle, but systemic racism done through urban planning (e.g. waste sites built around Latinx neighborhoods), housing and infrastructure construction. While reading the book was shocking, opening my eyes to the issues in person was another story.
While I was living in the City of Angels, one of my favorite pastimes was to explore by seeing new museums, shop at vintage stores, find under-the-radar small businesses, get my groceries at farmer’s markets, hunt for the best açaí bowl and hanging out with my friends at different parts of town. Usually, I would stick to Beverly Hills, WeHo, Los Feliz, Culver City, Koreatown, Venice, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Malibu, Westwood, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Century City and DTLA. Though most of the areas were in the Westwide, I’d occasionally pop into East Hollywood to go to church with my friends or head over to LACMA in the heart of Miracle Mile. Though I didn’t mind going over there, I mainly stuck to one building inside these neighborhoods due to the stigma that any area that’s less than bougie or upper middle class wasn’t “safe”*.
One day, I was with two girls from LMU (that were friends of another classmate) and we were hanging out at LACMA. One the way home from our LACMA trip, one of the girls, who was Ethiopian, wanted to stop by at Selam Market, a grocery store where her relative worked. We pulled up to stop by and say “Hi” to her relative, who was tending the cashier. Though it was out of my routine to stop by a cozy family-owned store in the middle of Little Ethiopia, I saw a bag of dates that were juicy, fresh and more affordable than a bag of dates from supermarkets around my neighborhood. Inside, my body had some reservations about shopping inside a store at an unfamiliar area, but it went away when I made eye contact with the cashier. I never forgot the warm smile and twinkle in the cashier’s eyes. Greeted by a friendly “Hi”, I reciprocated my greeting with enthusiasm. The warmth and friendliness from one simple gesture indicated to me that I felt welcomed. The biggest takeaway I got was that the store was a food haven for families living around Little Ethiopia so that they could keep the connection to their heritage alive via food. I learned that it was no different than me stopping by an Asian supermarket to feel connected to home. The warmth and hospitality of being able to shop for a bag of fresh dates at an affordable price inside a family-owned store in Little Ethiopia made me feel safer than being ripped off, getting faulty produce (i.e. mold growing quickly in fruits after two days of purchasing) and being treated indifferently at grocery stores in more affluent areas.
In regards to food, regulating myself to only eating at hotspots in trendy, but affluent areas was my default. For a kid being used to luxury meals and aesthetically pleasing decor at top restaurants, the concept of eating at a hole in the wall in the middle of an “unhip” neighborhood was foreign to me. During my stay in LA, my Dad would occasionally visit. Since he constantly Googled for food choices, he’d go on Yelp to figure out which restaurant was the best. One day, he asked me to get some tacos. Although I loved to eat at Margarita’s in Singapore, the hunt for authentic Mexican food stirred my curiosity. Just 10 minutes away from my apartment in Marina Del Rey, Paco’s Tacos was in the heart of Culver City. Modest and dimly lit, but colorful, I always wondered how the restaurant could live up to my super atas (high) expectations as I used to eating around WeHo, Abbot Kinney and Beverly Hills. (Fun fact: Jerry McGuire was filmed at Paco’s Tacos!) Though we were the only Asian diners inside the restaurant (as we dropped in the late afternoon on a weekday), I was baffled by the quickness of the service, well-cooked tacos and the fact that we were given good seating. Our experiences were so positive that we continued supporting the restaurant by buying takeout and coming back there again for some tacos. Though my dad grew up without a silver spoon in a kampung (village), he wasn’t discriminatory around what the setting of the place should look like whenever he went around to eat (and he still does that now). He also didn’t care about what the surface of the neighborhood was either. The most shocking revelation was that while we had exceptional tacos, what surprised me was the fact that we were being treated with respect. Though it was nice to go to some bougie restaurants, I couldn’t forget being treated with bad service (e.g. having to pay for water when my family and I didn’t ask for bottled water, delayed food and/or rude hosts/waiters) and leaving the establishment feeling less than human. Most importantly, I walked out feeling like a human whenever places like Paco’s treated me as one.
Apart from food, shopping for vintage clothes was life or death whether I was in LA or NYC. However, where I fell short on my behavior was being hesitant to go to historically working class neighborhoods as a few vintage shops I wanted to go to were rooted there. Because I was so hesitant to even think about stepping into places like Bushwick, there was one person and one store that made me forget all that: Venus X and her boutique Planet X. I first met Venus when I was at NYFW, where her store was doing a pop-up inside the Meatpacking District. Though she’s known for hosting GHE20G0TH1K parties in NYC, what she did to me created a greater impact than I never anticipated.
When I was freelancing for Galore a few years ago, I was on the hunt to feature small businesses to support Small Business Saturday and her store was the first thing on my mind. Since it was a brick and mortar storefront, I assumed that it would be easier to do a write up on my laptop, absorbing information from Instagram. Instead, she texted me via DM to come into the store at Bushwick. Unsure and uncertain about the prospects of going to Bushwick due to its previously less than stellar reputation, I decided that it was time to push away my prejudices, just go to the store as she asked and book a Lyft.
Set inside a room the size of my bedroom, the boutique had bright yellow walls, a case full of Seville Michelle jewelry and rainbow hued oval Kurt Cobain-inspired sunglasses, and racks of clothes. Hood By Air hoodies, a few plaid skirts, some funky printed vintage Dolce & Gabbana, a few Betsey Johnson statement pieces and bunch of statement outerwear. As the one woman show inside her store, it felt like hanging out at her house, where Venus X explained to me about the designers and their origins. Out of everything I saw on the rack, there was one coat that stood out: a vintage ’00s denim Baby Phat knee-length flared coat with a faux fur leopard print trim. The fact that it was a well-made coat designed by Kimora Lee Simmons and perfectly fitting in all places made me forget that I, an Upper East Side resident, was visiting Bushwick. When she told me that she found it in London, I knew that I HAD to get it. Looking back, I never regretted making that trip to the Planet X Store. Not only am I a proud owner to have a piece of fashion history sitting in my closet today, I am thankful to have the privilege to use my financial means to support a small business run by a WOC that also supports fellow designers of color. The biggest lesson that I learned from all my experiences was that regardless of how things looked on the outside, I shouldn’t had judged a neighborhood by its cover.
Now that I’ve moved back to Singapore, some part of me wonders if I’ve truly learned enough from the lessons I picked up in America as it takes more than supporting Malay and Indian-owned textile shops in Arab St and exploring around new areas outside of Orchard or the CBD. While I am still learning to process my privilege and keep my own behavior accountable, I continue to motivate myself to practice what I preach, especially when it comes to knowing where my money goes to and how companies can treat people better regardless of race or gender. All it takes is an open mind and a search engine because everything I can learn is within my reach.
Photo by Hallie B. Geller