Monday, 9 September 2013

Going Back To My Chinese Roots

What is that one little fact you could never have guessed about me? 

In my 2nd year at Primary school, I did very well in my Chinese examinations, with grades that got me ranked as the top student for Chinese.  I won a book prize for that feat. I bet you never knew huh!.

Mum and Dad were so happy that they got be my first furry friend, an uncharacteristically “gay and emo” poodle by the name of Blooie.  Blooie was gay and emotional simply because he did not like female dogs.  He humped only male dogs.  He was deeply sensitive and emotional, and would snuggle by me when I was sad, literally licked my wounded knee when I fell and threw a tantrum when I showed some affection to the neighbours’ dogs. 

I Love My English Teachers At School

My language skills were very much like that "emo" Blooie.   I favoured my English teachers and disliked the old and fuddy-duddy Chinese teachers, so I built a special bond with my English teachers who had over time deepened my love for the English language so much that it became the subject I majored in, when I was at the local University.   My English teachers left an indelible mark on me because with their true dedication to the craft of teaching, they guided me through my writing and speaking skills even outside of the classroom.  My kindergarten teacher was the first to leave that indelible mark on me when she gently nudged me onto the stage to do a graduation speech.  I was then 6 years old.   My English teacher Mrs Mary Tan, encouraged me to read and write beyond what the lessons taught.  Due to my love for English, I could write prose and poetry even during my free time and Mrs Tan would painstakingly edit them during her lunch hour.  

I Dislike My Chinese Teachers At School

My Chinese teachers lost their places in my heart.  I disliked learning the idioms, I disliked language rules, I disliked writing Chinese characters wrongly only to be tapped on my knuckles with the teachers’ pencils.  Most of all I disliked the weekly Chinese spelling tests which almost always made me ill.   I do not even remember the names of my Chinese teachers.  I only had faint memories of one Mrs Leong whom you had to hold an umbrella to when she scolded us because she often spluttered a spray of saliva in our faces in the midst of her scoldings.

Therefore,  in spite of walking around school half-dazed most of the time, I had not expected to be recognized for my speaking and writing skills in Chinese during my 2nd year at Primary school.  Today, I still haven’t the faintest idea how it happened because along the way home from then, right through adulthood, it was as if I had been struck by lightning which rendered me dumb and deaf when it came to anything related to the Chinese language.

Going Back To My Roots

My dislike for Chinese also had roots in the way I was brought up at home.  I came from a family of  Peranakans.  Peranakans were Straits-born Chinese ( ).   My ancestors came from a line of Chinese merchants who had settled in Malaya and married the local Malay women.  I told my husband a different story.  I told him that the Chinese Emperor sent his daughter to marry the local Malay Sultan and hence, the Peranakan race was born.  Up to this day, he believed I was royalty and rightfully treated me as one.

Peranakans formed a unique indigenous culture of their own, complete with their own unique fashion, language and foods.  Dad could not speak Mandarin.  He spoke a mixture of Malay and Hokkien which was traditionally unique to the Peranakan culture.  The family was matriarchal, placing a lot of importance on the “head” of the household, my great grandmother, when I was very young.  So I told David that I was Empress of our household, and he, merely the Empress’ consort.  Having been brought up in a Peranakan household meant that Mum and Dad would converse with me soley in English.  And as Dad was a lawyer, he had expected me to be one when I grew up, thus demanding that I excelled in the use of the language.

Over time, my skills in the various Chinese languages, be it Mandarin or the dialects like Hokkien and Teochew were reduced to a pitiful smattering of English-accented Chinese mix with hand signals.  My grades for my Chinese examination paper became a consistent C in my secondary school years and a dominant D during my junior college years.

The Importance Of Being…Chinese

As an adult, working in an Asian-based multi-national corporation , creating marketing brochureware and advertising creatives that are in both English and Chinese, meant that I needed to be effectively bilingual.  However, I started to feel that I was missing out on so much more by not having a good command of the Chinese language.   A good command of the Chinese language went  beyond effectiveness at work,  it went beyond the ability to fluently order a takeaway lunch from the staff at the Chinese food stall without getting the order wrong, and it definitely went beyond my sensitivities when a colleague, at a discussion table broke out into fluent Mandarin in an attempt to call me a “stupid cow” because I refused to accede to her unreasonable request.

No matter how one would justify the need to be effectively bilingual, the simple fact was that I needed to be because I am a Singaporean Chinese.  I lived in a cosmopolitan city spiced by an interesting melting pot of different races and worked at a multi-national corporation that dealt with different markets which meant that English was an important language needed to bridge geographical and racial barriers.  However as a Chinese, proud of my heritage borne from  my forefathers who once sailed those ships across the treacherous  South China Sea to come here as tradesmen and builders so that we could live the way we do today,  I made up my mind to go back to my Chinese roots, understand the culture better and speak the language better.  One day, my son, and his children could possibly thank me for it because their lives would be made much richer for doing so.

Embracing The Beauty Of The Language

Another thing that convinced me of the need to go back to my roots, was the beauty of the language.  One of my fellow Tarot reading friends bought a pre-owned book from Amazon last week.  When it arrived, there were some Chinese text written within the inside back cover of the book.  I tried very hard to decipher the script and got some help from one of my staff.  This was what it said, “Loving a book is like loving someone.  The deeper your love, the deeper it adds up to that surprising sweet ending.”  It was beautiful, and I would not have been able to feel this book lover’s passion if I had not taken an interest in the Chinese text.

So this is what I am doing to embrace the beauty of the Chinese language.   I have been speaking in Mandarin to my colleagues at work.  While I have a few colleagues designated to approve Chinese copy for the brochureware and advertising creatives that we develop, I had started to get more involved in it.  I started taking an interest in reading print advertising headlines in Chinese.  I have also been watching Chinese drama serials on TV so that I could brush up on enunciation.  The only thing I have not done is to learn to sing a song in Mandarin, which I suspect, might be the next thing one of my Karaoke-crazy colleagues might be pushing me to do.  Wish my neighbors luck when that happens.

About the writer:

The writer of this blog post is a 44 year old mother of one, who spreads her time between her day job as a marketeer at a financial institution, her hobby as a certified professional tarot reader and numerologist, and her family which includes a 19 year old son.  She's married to a Scot who has been affectionately called "The Crazy AngMo" and prays that he does not find out that the term when translated, has labeled him as a "Ginger Head".

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