I was at a table surrounded by a lot of my Mother’s friends. She seems to make a lot of friends and they can congregate even when we’re overseas. These friends come from various backgrounds due to her field of work, and many were multilingual and knew a bit of English even if it wasn’t their first language. So I went about as the awkward tag along son and tried talking a bit in slow, carefully pronounced sentences and articulating myself as concisely as possible.
One of her friends asked if I spoke any second language and I replied that I did speak a bit of Chinese, or Mandarin, should you want to get technical. She asked me what I meant by ‘a bit’, and I told her that it simply meant I could speak low level conversational Chinese, but did not possess the ability to write or read Chinese fluently.
The said friend was taken aback, and with a furrowed brow, remarked that it was strange, for shouldn’t I, who descended from a Chinese lineage, be able to navigate the language as if walking through my own home? And yet I couldn’t even form a proper sentence without sounding like I had just shoved my mouth full of potatoes? (Of course, she expressed herself differently but the point brought across was the same).
Here’s the truth, when it comes to navigating this “mother tongue”, I often feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway. I’m on this sad raft in the middle of the vast ocean and my only companion, the lone volleyball has already left me and I’m really really lonely. Everytime I’m forced to speak conversational chinese I’m blatantly awkward and misuse a lot of the words that fall out of my mouth. I feel like a rusty car whose gears are about to pop out and give way under some sort of lingual inferiority. I failed most of my mother tongue exams and the only reason why I didn’t drop to CL(B) was because my parents insisted that I carried on with it under the above argument.
I accept that I’m a horrible user of the language, and if someone came up to me and provocatively intoned that I was lousy, virtually ununderstandable, that my pronunciation was really off, more off than William Hung’s American Idol audition and proceeded to communicate through hand signals, I wouldn’t take too much offence. Truth is truth, I’m just not good at this mother tongue business.
What I do have a problem with, is when the idea that “Chinese should speak fluent Chinese” starts to rear it’s ugly head. One of my close friends had prompted me with the exact statement a few weeks back, and it made me realise how rife this mindset is. When you can’t speak your mother tongue to a desirable standard there will always be this sort of judgement passed, and in the unfortunate event that you try, people silently snicker at you in sheer ridicule. Gosh, I’m left thinking, What have I done? Why did I even try?
I urge people to get it out of their heads that poor mother tongue comes from a conscious rejection of our ancestry, which by and large is magnified into a rejection of our very selves. When people tell us that “you’re a Chinese, so why can’t you speak proper sentences,” they say so with the assumption that we have wistfully rejected the opportunity to speak great Chinese and immerse in our own heritage. It is as if we had a conscious choice, when in fact no such choice was ever presented to us.
What do I mean by that? Like a retired boxer down with Parkinson’s, I remember how I was second in class for Chinese back in Primary one. You would not imagine this to be a possibility today given my weakened state, my Chinese prowess groaning and twitching violently, dreaming of the knockout blows of the past. But somewhere out there, certain influences played out in my life. Less and less Chinese was spoken everyday due to the friends I chose, the shows I watched and subsequently the failures I faced. To consistently do badly for Chinese as a subject took a particular toll, because the scolding culture which started from my teachers gradually spread to my parents. Day by day, I started to malign the subject and hence the language, like how an army sergeant singles out a sloppy recruit. It was this subtle degredation that led to a vicious cycle. The more you suck at something, the more you blame it for pulling you down, the less interest you have in it, and the more you’ll suck at it. This played out daily, unbeknownst to a younger me, and wore me down like waves pounding against a rock. There was no one day when a genie came out of a bottle and asked me if I wanted to be serious about the language. There was never a single choice, only a series of seemingly unrelated events that led me here.
At this juncture I need to draw attention to how environment rather than conscious choice dictates much of our linguistic abilities. This isn’t just true for Chinese, but for every other language that takes years to master. It is also wise to take note of the term vicious cycle in your rendering of this issue, where less begets less and one is unknowingly tumbled into an abyss of mother-tongue illiteracy. Likewise, if you had the right environment, unwittingly made the right friends, watched the right shows, read the right books, you may constantly excel at Chinese, gain the confidence to speak and write more Chinese and hence become proficient and be the “ideal type of Chinese” the world wants so badly for you to be.
So as a sound reply to the notion that “Chinese should speak fluent Chinese”, I’d want to disband that theory. All the above phrase gives us is a new, nascent identity; that of a castaway, an abberation from the norm. Through silent laughter and subtle ridicule, it makes it that much harder to even try and by oversimplifying the learning process through such generalities, it disrespects our efforts, or assumes that we put in none. But look, all is fair if we can deal with it, and though it may seem sad that we may have lost part of our “heritage”, it is not for anyone to point fingers as to whose fault it is, and certainly not up to anyone to dictate how sad we should feel about it, or assume that we are sad at all. You have to understand, that the fault lines run way deeper than meets the eye and see this problem as a collective whole, and not one of the mere individual.
The label that those that speak poor Chinese are “less Chinese” than their fluent counterparts is hence a flawed ideal. I believe that all of us are on the same journey of learning and discovery. We have to recognise that not everyone had the same opportunities, and people should not be judged for that. We may be on different levels of aptitude but in little ways, all of us are trying to be a better version of our previous selves.
Doing a lot of travelling recently has pushed me out of my comfort zone and I’ve been speaking a lot more conversational Chinese. Blogging about my travels, I had to add Chinese Pinyin (simplified) into my keypad and slowly but surely, I’m learning how to integrate this language, bit by bit, into my life.
So what did I reply my mother’s friend? I simply told her that my environment has brought me to this point, but at this juncture, I will still try to learn, listen to Chinese Songs, reply more in Chinese and try not to look so much at english subtitles. It’s these little influences, rather than the notion of a “Chinese speaking Chinese” that will define what language comes out of my mouth 🙂