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I’m taking an intercultural theater course, and, because of the subject, we end up talking a lot about culture. One of my classmates was talking about Racial Harmony Day, how when they were in middle/high school they would be encouraged to dress up in the traditional clothes of each other’s culture and play a variety of games.

We never did that in the US. At least, when we organized cultural festivals, we were encouraged to display the culture of our heritage. Dressing up in a culture that’s not considered “our own?” Now that would likely be called problemetic at best. Cultural appropriation, after all, is a pressing topic of discourse.

I said as much. We subsequently went into a discussion about how different cultures were encouraged to interact or to stay separate from each other. “Right, they have ethnic enclaves in America,” someone said. It’s different in Singapore. An Ethnic Integration policy was passed in 1989 on public housing, which set a limit of how much of a block or neighborhood could be occupied by one ethnicity. These limits are supposed to reflect the racial demographics of Singapore as a whole.

I’m rather certain that such a policy would be absolutely unthinkable in the USA, especially under the current administration. Then again, the idea that the US can claim to be supposedly “diverse” and multicultural, yet still live in communities characterized by a certain reluctance to interact with the culture of an “Other” (an “Other” compared to the hegemonic culture assumed to be the “American” culture) can be equally confusing to those outside the US.

Of course, these broad-stroke generalizations are just that, generalizations. I wouldn’t go so far to claim that peoples of different cultures in the US are kept absolutely separate from each other. And Singapore has a Chinatown of its own, and a Little India, and Kampong Glam. But there are differences in history and policy that invariably affect how we view culture, and how different ethnicities or culture do (or should) interact with each other.

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