By Juliette Yu-Ming Lizeray | 26 Aug 2021
My father grew up outside Paris and, while this may date him, he recalls falling asleep as a child in a basement to the sound of Allied bombs during the liberation from Nazi rule. My mother (and all my aunts and uncles!) regaled us with kampung tales from Taiping, growing up. My sister and I went to the Lycée Français de Singapour, and on weekends we’d amble around Lucky Plaza with Ah Ma and Ah Kong who loved being in the heart of the action (“Lau juak!” my grandfather would say). Was I French? Was I Hokkien? Both? Neither?
Pause for narrative effect.
I was me.
Growing up in the multi-racial/cultural/lingual contexts of Singapore and my family seeded in me an early love of exploration. My default has been geared towards observing, absorbing and wanting to understand different cultures in an effort to connect and find common ground.
I discovered Cultural Anthropology in undergrad, a field of study focused on understanding different cultures from their own value systems and perspectives. I went on to get a Master’s in Anthropology and Development at LSE. This combined my love of embracing the unfamiliar (anthropology) with my desire to make a difference (development studies). I have been lucky enough to live and work in a dozen countries and everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve carried these two values.
I taught English in the small village of Puliangudi in Tamil Nadu, India, then again at a boarding school on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. I did anthropological research about the Chinese-Cuban community in Havana’s Barrio Chino and studied Afro-Cuban religions at the Universidad de La Habana. After the Indian Ocean tsunami — the deadliest in recorded history — I spent 8 months in Aceh, the region most devastated by the disaster, volunteering with Forum Bangun Aceh, an NGO founded by survivors. In Brazil (where I lived for 6 years), I taught filmmaking to various communities, including Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous people at the border of Brazil and Paraguay who want to tell their own stories in their own voices and document their fight for land and survival.
None of this would have been possible without the curiosity and desire to understand different cultures sparked by my experiences of diversity growing up in Singapore.
Today, I live between Singapore and NYC, specifically Queens, the most linguistically diverse place on the planet (with as many as 800 languages spoken in the borough!). When in New York, I try to raise awareness about Singapore and Southeast Asia, whose cultures are not always as well-represented or visible as one would expect in a global metropolis.
Pre-pandemic, I penned articles on the best Singaporean, Malaysian, and Indonesian restaurants in NYC to celebrate these countries’ amazing culinary traditions and the achievements of immigrants who left their homelands and struggled against adversity to open small businesses and share their food with the world. (I won’t lie—I also wrote these articles because I was homesick and it was a way for me to chow-down on yummy Southeast Asian cuisine in New York!). These foodspots are pillars in the community and the people behind them are unsung heroes of New York City’s cultural and social landscape. Sadly, some of these pillars have not withstood the pandemic, and will be very dearly missed.
This year, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City invited me to curate an exhibition called Dialogues with the Unseen, featuring films by artists from Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
I was interested in the idea of relationality and interconnectedness between the living and non-living, human and non-human, and how those ideas are represented and woven into the cultures of Southeast Asia. The exhibition was born out of a desire to re-envision how we relate to the world at large. I hope it brings new perspectives and an openness to other ways of being.
I’ve been researching questions of identity in the arts since 2016. A number of artists in Singapore and the region embody fluid and open-ended identities both personally and in their practice. This resonates deeply with me because I relate to the potential – and challenges! – of being “in between” and bridging between differences.
My own path hasn’t been from point A to point B, but I’ve been lucky enough to find ways to connect all the things I’m passionate about while working to celebrate the people and places I have been blessed to know. On that front, if you’re ever in NYC, I’d love to give you nasi lemak, laksa, or any other recommendations, so don’t hesitate to connect!
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About Juliette Yu-Ming Lizeray
Born and raised in Singapore, Juliette has worked in the humanitarian and development fields before turning to filmmaking and the arts. She enjoys telling stories of ordinary people who are passionate about unusual things and has published features about Singapore for Coconuts and WONDERLUST. Connect with Juliette on LinkedIn or Instagram.