I think I have a love-hate relationship with the Singaporean education system’s approach to Mandarin Chinese. Throughout my primary and secondary school years, I struggled with the language in class, and probably because it was tested in exams I still associate my rudimentary Chinese standard with feelings of inadequacy today. Oddly, the sense of shame that I was not holding tightly enough to my heritage through my “mother tongue” sterilized my relationship with the language; English became the liberating means for me to babble, gabble, bubble over in self-expression. It was the language that mediated my adolescence and navigation of the world in its socio-politico-economic glory. Chinese was relegated to the burdensome anchor that prevented me from fully being able to slip un-self-consciously into a wholly English perspective. Derek writes of the same experience of an identity scattered between the two languages:
"I linger a second over “Languages” on my resume. “Mandarin Chinese (Conversational)”. I imagine a scenario where I would need to actually prove this. But I move on quickly, thinking, what kind of Singaporean would I be if I didn’t put Chinese on my resume?
I am an ACS boy, so I have more or less grown up being expected to have poor Chinese speaking skills. I laughed whenever my friends said that I jiak kan tang1 [to be very Westernised, literally to eat potato] (and this too, had to be explained to me the first time). After all, English is good, right?
But then I went to NS. I opened my eyes (and ears) a little more. I interned at the Speak Good English Movement. Soon it was clear to me that language demarcated social milieu. A linguistic amorphousness thus began to emerge. Sometimes I am proud that I can code switch so easily. Yet pride suggests that it is something I set out to achieve, whereas in reality it is not something I control. It is with some instinctive promiscuity (and privilege) that I speak (and thus am) all things to all men. And so as I present on Marx in school, order shao ji fan jia dan2, ask my mum eh sai jiak liao bo3?, tell my friend to “don’t liddat leh”, or comment on how rabak4 outfield is; I find myself asking, am I all those things, or am I none of them? "
Derek is a Singaporean who is trying his best to stay connected to his linguistic roots, and who regrets not learning his Chinese well.
As for me, I first started to re-think my impressions of Chinese when I travelled in Spain over the summer, and met tourists from China. I experienced then the delighted pang of being able to communicate to them in a language that was not English, the lingua franca of the world. Chinese was like a secret code which allowed me to form alliances and share inside jokes. It felt like a superpower that enabled me to hear more, know more.
The second reason is my grandparents. Throughout my childhood, they have been my caretakers, raising me while my parents were at work. Some of my earliest and most comforting memories are associated with them – the meals they cooked for me, sleepovers and presents and conversations. Although we communicated in Chinese, my conversational grasp on the language always felt to me more like an obstacle for connection rather than a facilitator. It was no match for my increasingly-sophisticated life experiences and thoughts, so I often switched to English instead to convey my most intellectual productions. Of course, my grandparents understood me enough to catch the gist of what I was trying to say. But years have passed, and they are growing old, and the platforms on which we meet in conversation have changed, too. As their memories deteriorate, English is becoming less comprehensible to them, and I am now the one to reach out through Chinese to them. And so, my conception of Chinese is shifting once again – becoming more than just a conduit for superficialities, easily substituted by English. It is starting to represent the layers of affection and care that lie between me and some of the people I love most.
Like Derek, I am hesitant to dismiss my relationship with Chinese as a like/dislike binary. It would be misrepresentative to say that the language just mediates my connections with people, because the role that it represents in my life is perpetually shifting. In Spain, I wore my Chinese ability proudly, like a badge into an exclusive club; with my grandparents, I cling tightly to every Chinese word I can remember so that I can enhance every conversation with them. Simultaneously, I wrestle with the unavoidable feeling that English is the only way that I can truly and fully express myself. How can I reconcile these notions? How can there be an I that does not account for my Chinese language (for better or for worse) and all the relationships that it encompasses and enables?
1 to be Westernised, lit. to eat potato. 2 roasted chicken rice with egg. 3 can we eat yet? 4 messy, unpolished.