Image by Stratman2

How a CSS property made me think about my identity

I was born in Malaysia, a Southeast-Asian country made up of the southern portion of the Malay Peninsula and part of the island of Borneo. Ethnically, I am Chinese, and if I’m not mistaken, my ancestors migrated from the Fujian Province in China three generations ago and settled in Penang. My family then moved south to Johor when I was 3, and my childhood was split between Singapore and Malaysia. I lived in Johor and commuted to Singapore for school every day. I now live and work in Singapore.

If you were keeping track, that paragraph mentioned four different geographical locations. When someone asks me, where are you from? The answer varies depending on who is asking and my mood at the time. Sometimes I’m from Penang, sometimes I’m from Johor, sometimes I’m from Singapore. Singapore and Malaysia are not very big countries, and I’ve encountered quite a lot of people outside of Southeast Asia who don’t know where we are.

I happen to be a front-end developer who loves experimenting with CSS. The way CSS works just makes sense to me, even if some people beg to differ. Late last year, I started experimenting with a particular property called writing-mode which allowed text to be laid out vertically. There aren’t that many vertical scripts in the world, but I happen to know one of them.

Chinese, I’m talking about Chinese.

At the time I was just trying to find out why Chinese was written vertically but ended up learning a lot more about the Chinese language and Chinese culture in general than I ever learned in school. I’ve always found language intriguing.

In my mind, language is how something ethereal and intangible like an idea becomes real. It solidifies thought into something physical. And what I realised is that a language is intrinsically tied in with the culture that uses it.

There was one line from Moonlight that stuck with me. It was when Kevin asked Chiron, “Who is you?” It made me ask myself that question, and made me think about all the ways we categorise ourselves and others.

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari proposes the idea that Homo sapiens rule the world because of our unique ability to believe in things that only exist in our imaginations. It is an idea that resonated with me.

All societies are based on imagined hierarchies, but not necessarily on the same hierarchies. […] In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it.
 — Yuval Noah Harari

Human beings seem to have an inherent need to be part of a group. It probably stems from the fact that we aren’t built to survive on our own. Newborn human babies are among the most useless creatures in terms of ability to stay alive. Our relatively large brain size requires the infant to be born before it can no longer fit through the birth canal. And requires extra care from adult humans to nurture their offspring to a state where they can care for themselves.

Between this phenomena and our penchant for believing in shared myths, we managed to build societies and cultures. The tricky part about these shared myths is that they are dependent on a collective belief in what Harari refers to as an imagined order, an inter-subjective order.

This means it exists in the imaginations of so many people that any one individual cannot hope to alter it on their own. Even if he or she stops believing, it will make little difference in the grand scheme of things. Only a cataclysmic event can change an existing imagined order, and even then, it will only result in the belief of an alternative imagined order.

Who is you?

Our world functions in a certain way, but why did it turn out like this? I have a simplistic theory about the behaviour of humans. If we can broadly categorise people into leaders and followers, in order to have large, organised societies, it is simply not feasible to have a majority of leaders. A possible scenario could be that leader-type individuals just fought each other to death, leaving much fewer but “strongest” leaders.

They could be physically strong, particularly charismatic, exceptionally wise or all these things. On the flip-side, follower-types would make a decision on who was the “best” leader to follow, shaping up a society that had a large ratio of followers to leaders.

When I was a kid, I used to think history was fact. That whatever we learned in school was the way things played out. I mean, you can’t change events that happened, right? But you can change the way the story is told.

I realised much later that history is written by people, and people have opinions and biases and different perspectives depending on which side they were on. What we learn in school is, to a certain extent, coloured by political purpose. Turns out there are many different versions of history depending on where you are in the world.

Even though most historical events can be corroborated by different parties, there are some events where either side paint very different pictures of what actually happened. I came to the conclusion that war is the result of a small number of influential people, leaders, if you may, somehow managing to compel huge numbers of followers to take action. Often brutal actions, for the sake of an idea. The idea of glory, the idea of economic gain, the idea of righteousness, the idea of us versus them.

Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and member of the Indian National Congress, pointed out how little the new generation of British youth knew about colonial atrocities in an interview on Channel 4 News. He makes it clear that even though events of the past should not affect today’s relations between India and Britain, it is necessary to be aware of history.

If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how will you appreciate where you’re going?
 — Shashi Tharoor

In a world that plays by Western rules, is it any surprise that there is only one non-Western country that is classified as a developed nation? Capitalism is a Western economic system that has become the de facto global standard. This is the most epic shared myth in human history. The world today is driven by economic growth as the ultimate goal of every nation state.

We all perceive the world and our place in it differently. And these are my views of the world and my place in it, formed as a result of my personal experiences. You will have your own views and opinions, which may or may not disagree with mine.

Who is you?

I am Malaysian.

Tobias Stone proposed that most peoples’ perspective is limited to the experience communicated by their parents and grandparents, around 50–100 years. So let’s talk about 50–100 years ago from my perspective. My grandmother lived through World War II in Penang.

Even though it was called World War II, I came to understand that the war was very different depending on which region you came from. Malaysia and Singapore were ravaged by the war, under Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945, especially in Penang and Singapore.

The Japanese were particularly brutal toward the Chinese. Penang and Singapore had the largest Chinese populations in Malaya, and still are predominantly Chinese today. My grandmother told me many stories about her experiences during the war.

About her brother who got caught by Japanese soldiers and subjected to water cure torture, but managed to make it back, barely alive. About another brother who took cover in a large drain when the Japanese planes started raining bullets and came home covered in the blood of those who were felled on top of him.

About how she and her sisters narrowly escaped, purely by luck, capture by Japanese soldiers looking for comfort women. Because they decided to move to another location, leaving only two men at home that night.

About when the bombs started falling, and people gathered in a sheltered market with thick, heavy doors for cover. But the bomb blast threw open the doors anyway, and everyone scrambled to shut the doors again.

About how they thought the fighter planes flying overhead were British reinforcements but realised something was very wrong when bombs started falling. The British had long abandoned Penang when they realised they couldn’t win, leaving the local population to fend for ourselves.

Who is you?

I am Asian.

Over human history, empires have risen and fallen. As the human population grew, so did the size of each subsequent empire. As human technology advanced, it became possible to have control over larger and larger territories. The Histomap is a visual representation of the relative power of contemporary states, nations and empires over 4000 years.

The world is currently organised into nation states. But even so, global interconnectedness seems to have reached a point where we are now living in a global empire of sorts. A few centuries of European colonialism has led us to a point where in 2017, the world is dominated by Western culture. There are many factors that collectively led to this outcome, but this is the world we live in now.

Western civilisation has had significant impact on Eastern ideology and way of life. Tara Chand, describes the contrast between both cultures on how they view nature, science and philosophy, in his article published in the International Social Science Bulletin.

Science is of course the lifebreath of the civilization of the West, and is the chief determinant of Western man’s values and destiny. The triumphant march of science in the West is, to an increasing degree, extorting Asia’s admiration and homage.
 — Tara Chand

One of the most significant impacts of westernisation on the world is that we now measure progress and achievement with a western yardstick. The Scientific Revolution was the period around 1550–1700 when Europe experienced significant change in terms of thought and belief, as well as social and institutional organisation. And the period ensuing was known as the Age of Enlightenment.

Nathan Savin questions the assumptions behind the question Why the Scientific Revolution did not take place in China? He points out that there are certain Western assumptions with regards to the Scientific Revolution that people are not comfortable with challenging.

These assumptions are usually linked to a faith that European civilization — above all in its current American form — was somehow in touch with reality in a way no other civilization could be, and that its great share of the world’s wealth and power comes from some intrinsic fitness to inherit the earth that was there all along.
 — Nathan Savin

Tara Chand describes Gandhi as a person who accepted spiritual values from the East, as well as the Western concepts of freedom, equality and nationalism purged of its exclusiveness and chauvinism. A man who accepted science within limits yet did not worship it, who “was rational and critical up to a point, beyond which he accepted only the guidance of his inner voice.” Is it too idealistic to hope for a global culture that marries the best of both worlds?

Who is you?

I am Chinese.

In my eyes, the world we live in right now, is a white man’s world. It’s not so much about ethnicity, but rather, race. Race itself is a classification system invented by European anthropologists like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach to identify the groups of people that looked different from themselves, based on physical characteristics.

A survey published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology revealed a clear consensus among modern anthropologists that races are arbitrary, but racial privilege affects anthropologists’ views on race. I can’t be too surprised by this, given that power has generally been in the hands of white men.

Global interconnectedness has brought western culture to all corners of the planet. Even though many non-western countries have held onto their own culture, we cannot deny the fact that western ideals have permeated our societies. Just look at these Euro-themed towns in Shanghai.

There is even a Chinese phrase, 崇洋媚外, that translates into having a servile attitude towards all things Western. Even though this is probably not the prevailing attitude of most Chinese (that I know of), the fact that we have this specialised phrase says something.

Personally, I had been exposed to both Western and Eastern culture in equal parts growing up. As mentioned previously, both Singapore and Malaysia are relatively small countries with limited influence on a global stage. We know who the big countries are, but sometimes people in those countries don’t necessarily know who we are.

I have met people who cannot seem to comprehend that I can be Chinese and yet not from China. And that when I say I am Malaysian, they think it means I am Malay. That’s not how it works. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence. I suppose the concept of immigration is foreign to some people.

Who is you?

I am female.

A research paper investigating gender roles and agricultural history proposed that societies with a long agricultural history develop less equality in gender roles due to a prevalence of patriarchal values and beliefs.

As neolithic societies transitioned from Hunter-Gatherer to agricultural, a premium was placed on the physical strength of men working in the fields. This shifted the division of labour, reducing the “economic viability” of women in society. This historical circumstance has been perpetuated over thousands of years.

Look at the Forbes’ 2016 list of most powerful people. Out of the 74, only 6 are women. Fewer women run big companies than men named John or David. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women. Child marriage, which essentially robs girls of their freedoms and restricts their rights to health, education and opportunity, is still a global issue. 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

I am not surprised when my friends tell me about how they get “mansplained” to by male colleagues. I am not surprised when I hear stories of how female developers who have been writing and speaking about certain technologies or technical concepts for years fail to get recognised.

And yet, when a white, male engineer discovers said topic and speaks or writes about it for the first time, he immediately becomes lauded and viewed as a subject matter expert. Reports of the sexism faced by female engineers like AJ Vandermeyden, Susan J. Fowler and Julie Ann Horvath still occur on a daily basis.

We have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we will. We have borrowed it from our children and we must be careful to use it in their interests as well as our own.
 — Moses Henry “Moss” Cass

Just because something has “always been this way” doesn’t mean it’s always right. Yes, there is wisdom that we can learn from ancestors past, but I think it is crucial to constantly revisit the rationale behind our societal norms.

Our actions today will determine the state of the world tomorrow, regardless of how small they might be. Like calling out instances of sexism you encounter, sometimes the person themselves might not be aware of what they’re doing. Recognising and supporting the achievements of women, even if it’s just a shout-out on Twitter, counts. Because visibility and representation matters more than you think.

Who is you?

What you believe in determines who you are. Beliefs will ultimately shape our behaviour, and our impact on the people and world around us. But I also think that our beliefs can change as we accumulate life experiences. I have a couple of beliefs governing how I lead my life at the moment.

I believe that hard work does not guarantee success, it merely increases the probability of success. Does that imply we should not work hard? Of course not! Does that mean we should work harder and harder? We-ll, you could but I probably wouldn’t.

My take on this belief is that it’s better to learn to appreciate the process than to fixate on the results. Because the working hard part is something I can control, but the success part is not.

I also believe in karma. What can I say, I’m Asian. Don’t be a horrible person, don’t intentionally harm anybody, and be nice to people, even if sometimes, people are not very nice to you. Look, the world is not fair. We don’t all start off on equal footing. Nobody asked to be born in war-torn Syria.

Those of us who were born closer to the finish line cannot just finish the race and be proud of ourselves when others had to start off from much further behind us. It is incumbent upon us to lend a helping hand where we can, it’s a human duty. So just do it.

Take this as a naval-gazing post if you must, but sometimes words just have to be written. If you got this far, I applaud and appreciate your attention span. I will leave with this quote from one of my favourite talks by Mike Monteiro. Stay safe, all.

The world is generally changed by people who just want to live out their ordinary lives by people who are just trying to get home.
 — Mike Monteiro

Originally published at on March 6, 2017.