Thanks to the British legacy and the tininess of Singapore, my childhood was filled with sensations of curries, baked beans, durian and such; high-school was as much about memorizing Keats and the speeches of JF Kennedy as loitering under banyan trees and competing with friends in the verbal gymnastics of mixing Malay, English and two or three Chinese vernaculars in one sentence. I eventually studied linguistics & cultural anthropology in New Zealand and returned to serve as a junior college teacher with the Singapore Ministry of Education, charged with the delicate duty of balancing between Confucianism and a unique Singaporean Victorian tradition.
When it came time to escape to the United States (as a doctoral student in 1989), I was quite likely the classic Southeast Asian of my time: Food and grammar-obsessed, bureaucratically groomed and a bundle of multicultural nerves. Anxious to recharge my Chinese I soon hit upon Manhattan’s Chinatown. It was here that I discovered a lively Cantonese opera-cum-mahjong scene, and here did I begin to grapple with China in the form of an old New York community that actually spoke no English – yes – in the middle of America. Meanwhile, my midtown job was writing and teaching stereotyped “ethnic” materials used in TOEFL and ESL classes for rich Japanese and Russians who in those days feared Chinatown. In all, I found myself destined to negotiate between those who could not speak for themselves and those who spoke for other people they may or may not understand.
ACE Forum was first conceived in 1991 as ‘Wossing’, meaning ”harmonious stars”. The idea was to cater productively to the paradox of otherness: to provide access to those who were marginal and to tease those in the mainstream into reaching beyond. This has remained the undercurrent to all that is ACE today.
At ACE (which stands for “Asian Cultural Exchange”) people come always with a desire to venture into something unfamiliar: it may be brochures to be translated into Chinese, a Cantonese mother-in-law whom one is anxious to meet, an urge to play the pipa or the need to make one’s business understood in the explosive marketplace of Dalian or Ningbo. Our mission remains essentially the same: We seek to empower others and ourselves by creating new connections.
If I had but one sentence to describe my work, I would say it’s about learning how to learn. Right, effective learning, I believe, is not about acquisition. It’s a process that involves genuine offering and humble surrendering of the self to others – the teacher, the friend, the new market beyond. In time, boundaries become less important as learning reconciles the self and the other. In an increasing unruly and boundless world learning how to learn might be our only way to keep conflict in check and to fan creativity free of destruction.