Rojak Romance: The Future of Their Pasts

As the Future of Our Pasts Festival comes to a close, it seems fitting for the festival to screen a film focusing on past norms challenging future ideals.

Enter Rojak Romance, a documentary short centred on the cross-cultural relationship between Tinesh Indrarajah and Jane Christine Zhang (both of whom share Producing credits for this film). With their film premiering at The Projector, I took the opportunity to sit down with the duo to understand their process, their takeaways, and what they hope for viewers to take away.

The film examines the challenges faced in an interracial romance as well as how a mixed-race couple can exist in a multiracial, yet CMIO-centric Singapore. The contrasting yet paralleled family backgrounds Indrarajah and Zhang have make the premise an immediate draw. Indrarajah’s family lineage is a particular highlight.

To describe Indrarajah’s family lineage as ‘unique’ would be an understatement. He ethnically identifies as a quarter Chinese, a quarter Indian, and finally, half Ceylonese Tamil–an ethnic group originating from Northern Sri Lanka. This lineage serves as a prerequisite for tracing his family’s roots and heritage from Sri Lanka to Taiping, Malaysia, where they currently reside. As Zhang summarises, 

Zhang: “Tinesh was interested in finding out more about his heritage, so he did his senior year thesis about it. [By] turning this into a [film] through the Future of Our Pasts [Festival], I think we were looking at what different lenses we [could use] to look at [this issue] through.”

Zhang is no stranger to her heritage either. Her background mirrors much of Indrarajah’s. Zhang’s parents, who originated from Sichuan, China migrated to Wisconsin, USA, where she was born and raised before coming to Singapore in 2014 to study at Yale-NUS. It was there that she would meet Indrarajah.

Photo Credit: Christine Barot

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Rojak Romance details their... well, their rojak romance. Regarding the film’s poetic title, Indrarajah adds,

Indrarajah: “Where I’m from (Malaysia), when you say Rojak, you talk about it in terms of languages people speak – the mix of English, Malay, Mandarin or Tamil or how people articulate certain things. I think Rojak in this context shows how relationships are mixed. My parents’ relationship is also mixed, my mum who’s Chindian (ethnically part Indian, part Chinese) is also mixed.”

I follow up by asking them how his background motivated their decision to explore heritage and lineage in the film. Zhang is quick to respond,

Zhang: “One of the lenses we’re looking at his heritage through is ‘what does heritage or cultural heritage mean when you are in a relationship with someone with a very different background and what does that look like carrying it forward?’.” 

“One thing we talked about in our film is how [accepting cultural differences] is not like colour blindness. [It’s not like] it doesn’t matter what another person’s background is. [The film] is about using that difference to enhance each other and enhance our own knowledge of our own backgrounds.”

I was particularly drawn to Zhang’s likening of the film’s narrative perspective to that of a lens, which led me to ask about what made this lens they were employing unique,

Zhang: “I didn’t want to act like we are unique, because interracial and intercultural relationships have been happening forever. In Singapore it’s quite common. The reason we decided to employ this lens of looking at a specific cultural background is because it comes up in our own lives a lot, and I think it is something a lot of other people will be able to relate to.” 

"The point of this film isn’t to be like 'interracial, interethnic or intercultural relationships are the goal or are the right thing to do”, but to make a point that it can be normal. It doesn’t have to result in some kind of loss, or some kind of sacrifice.” 

The purpose of looking at this lens, is showing that like, this can be you, or that the thought of marrying or being in a relationship with someone outside of your culture doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game.”

What struck me was Zhang’s brutal honesty in acknowledging that the film’s singularity didn’t lie in its theme of interracial relationships. The film doesn’t try to say something that’s already been said, but instead uses the theme as a backdrop to address other issues that pervade small cultural communities. The filmmakers’ acknowledgement of this is something I greatly admire. Instead, what makes Rojak Romance singular is the specific cultural background it chooses to investigate, in this case being Indrarajah’s colourful family lineage. Indrarajah adds,

Indrarajah: “My Dad’s Hindu, my Mum’s Catholic. I’ve always [gone to] temples and churches…
…that has really helped in terms of how I navigate life–not putting people into boxes.” 

“Applying that Rojak lens on how we’ve grown up, [I’ve appreciated] people and diversity much more instead of thinking of diversity and inclusivity as my loss. [The film] is looking at this more as what you gain from mixed relationships.”

With this ‘Rojak lens’ in mind, Indrarajah goes on to describe how each individual ingredient in Rojak might taste good or bad on its own, but when combined, they produce a new and unique flavour. As a metaphor for cross cultural relationships, it greatly compliments the film’s core idea of individual elements being lesser than the sum of its parts.

Photo Credit: Christine Barot

Zhang goes on to describe Indrarajah’s cousin, who is also featured in the film. The cousin serves as a counterweight to the pair’s rally for interracial relationships, providing an insightful alternate perspective on the issue. Grounded in the belief that their family’s Ceylonese Tamil lineage be conserved, she represents a voice amongst a minority rallying for the preservation of their culture. As Zhang describes,

Zhang: “I knew early on in our relationship that she (Indrarajah’s cousin) didn’t approve of our relationship. She would encourage Tinesh to find someone who’s Ceylonese Tamil even while we were dating.” 

“At the time I would brush it off, like, ‘okay it’s family, that’s how they are’.
But then she talked about how the Ceylonese Tamils have such a small community in Singapore. That’s why [marrying within the same culture can be] so important, because if everyone is marrying out then you’ll lose [your lineage] – the idea of a zero sum game right?” 

“It hit me because I’ve never had to think about that because I’m Chinese, and there’s so many Chinese people in the world. Even if I think about Chinese Americans, there’s a really big population compared to the Ceylonese Tamils. So I think that’s something I took away – these fears can hold different weights based on different contexts.”

The account from Indrarajah’s cousin is truly indicative of the growing communal expectations that pervade ethnic minorities that are growing ever smaller. It provides a much-needed viewpoint that has been lacking in the conversation of cross cultural marriages. Indrarajah acknowledges this as well,

Indrarajah: “I think relationships and marriages will affect a whole section of society, as well as younger folks in terms of who their partners are going to be, and parents as well. How [younger folks] want to pass on their culture, who [parents] want their children to marry, and how their family lineage can continue. I think that relationships and marriage is central to any community, especially if it’s a smaller community of more specific cultural values.” 

“There’s a tendency or an appreciation that [parents] usually have [for you] to marry someone [from] the same race or same background. So having a mixed race relationship brings up this conversation of ‘why should I do so?’, and if you marry someone who’s not from your same particular background, what is it that you have to lose, what can you pass on, and what can you gain.”

That said, the alternate perspective presented in the film did make me wonder if there were room for insights from other parties. Zhang’s family, for instance, was absent in this regard. Hearing their side of the story could have invited a conversation between Eastern and Western ideals and whether or not living in the US has changed their outlook on such matters.

Photo Credit: Christine Barot

Beyond that, there were numerous concepts and themes that didn’t make it into the final cut. Unfortunately, some of the most intriguing truths are what you don’t see onscreen. Initial ideas that didn’t make it in include Indrarajah and Zhang detailing their early years growing up as minorities in their respective communities. During the post-screening dialogue, the pair recalled how the different environments they grew up in impacted their outlook on the world, love interests and cultural interpretations. Namely, Indrarajah was one of the only Indian students (although it’s not fair to describe him as just Indian) in his cohort when studying at the Chinese dominant Hwa Chong Institution.

An underlying theme regarding the Ceylonese Tamil and Chinese diaspora also seems to have been lost in translation. It’s touched upon, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was a lot of potential to investigate it further. A longer runtime might have benefitted the film in this regard. During the post-screening dialogue, this was an opinion shared by a few audience members, as well as the film’s director and fellow SINdie writer Christine Seow. Then again, perhaps I’m being blinded by my wishful thinking, for the film otherwise benefits from a more concise narrative. After all, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Over the course of the last month, The Future of our Pasts Festival has seen works that examine the roots of cultures, heritage and knowledge so as to question and understand the future to come. I can confidently say that Rojak Romance fits into that mesh perfectly.

With this in mind and the interview coming to a close, I prompt Indrarajah and Zhang to describe where they see themselves in the next 10 years, carrying things forward,

Zhang: “I think that’s something we talked about a lot. In terms of having different backgrounds, [there’s] a very physical aspect of it in that we are from different places. Our families are based in two places that are around the world from each other.” 

“I think we’re very lucky and we’re very privileged to be educated, and to have the ability to work in different places in terms of the jobs we’re looking at – not feeling tied down to one country or another. I guess that’s why it’s up in the air for us. But yeah, I think we’ll see where it goes.”
Written by Charlie Chua
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