Language, Culture and Chinese Peoples: On Dialects and Identity

Who are you?

I’ve never felt more proud to be a ‘Chinese’ person than last week.

Last week, I went on a solo trip to explore the island of Bintan. And for the first time in my life, I felt so intensely the sense of not only imagined community, but a sense of community. I felt like I was surrounded my own people.

Bintan? Own people? Really?

Let me explain. Both my grandparents spoke either Hokkien or Teochew fluently. Both my grandfathers were Hokkien men who married Teochew women (“marry a Teochew woman next time okay, they are the most demure and beautiful ladies!” admonishes my grandmother). Growing up, Hokkien/Teochew has always been the dialect of intimacy and familiarity. My parents only ever seemed to speak it at home. I never had much of an opportunity to speak it outside the confines of Ah Kong’s shop/house/home either. The pattern hasn’t changed so much now that I’m older, however. Every time I speak Teochew or Hokkien it always seems to be with an elderly person too old to bother about social mores and etiquette. The dialect(s) of Teochew and Hokkien have thus remained in the undulating landscapes of my mind: as tongues not just of intimacy and familiarity, but also of sincerity and openness. I have more mixed feelings about the dialect of Mandarin.

Case Study Bintan

At Bintan, I landed smack into Chinese communities speaking the dialect I speak back home with my grandparents. In fact, asking for directions from Chinese-looking people in Tanjung Pinang often elicited replies in chirpy Hokkien first – before you realise they aren’t speaking Mandarin…like proper Chinese people in Singapore do…

Everywhere down the streets of Tanjung Pinang you hear snatches of Hokkien/Teochew. Everyday conversations, as people get out of their cars, or sit in their coffeeshops, or bargain at the market. If it isn’t pasar melayu they are haggling in, then it’s the tongue of my grandparents. I felt at home in a way I had never felt before. It was a disconcerting feeling, at once completely unfamiliar and familiar. Like the soulmate you’ve been waiting for all your life. Or the grandparent you barely know, but who will welcome you unconditionally simply by dint of being the same blood.

At a temple dedicated to Ma Zhou/Tien Hou, Goddess of the Southern Seas, an elderly caretaker happily yelled to enquire where I was from, after establishing that I hadn’t come with the frightened gaggle of Korean(?) tourists he had been harassing. A painter touching up some dragons walked over and asked me by way of greeting what I was doing here. It was a directness that can take some getting used to, but it also reminded me of the easy conversations that erupted almost spontaneously everywhere I had been in Southeast Asia – whether on a southbound train from Hanoi to Hue, or a cramped little warung in Central Java. It’s a relaxed and endearing directness that’s very hard to witness in Singapore, but one which I’ve always longed for, if only I could speak the language.

Well that day, I did – if rather simply and atrociously. I’ve never felt more proud to be a ‘Chinese’ person. My wobbly Teochew is almost as pathetic as my command of Mandarin. But I felt so snug speaking it. It felt right. Like the smell of your old chou-chou after all these years. I felt as if I made a connection to every person I spoke Hokkien to. Is this what it feels like? To speak to kinsmen, whom you feel an unexplainable connection to, simply because you speak the same language?

It surprised me, because I had never felt this way when I spoke Mandarin – or what’s commonly called ‘Chinese’ in Singapore. All I had ever felt was a crippling inadequacy, along with all my other classmates in SJI. We tried to laugh it off, as our ‘Chinese language’ teachers tried in exasperation to make us read newspapers in schools.

The Power of Words, Frames and Labels

How insidious that labelling, when you think about it. How we unconsciously accept and imbibe these ideas, so that in a dramatically short space of a few decades we go from a rich, diverse, technicolour rainforest of Chinese identities to a largely uniform ‘Chinese’ one. ‘Chinese’ becomes equated with the northern dialect of the Mandarin, normalised and naturalised, so that entire generations grow up thinking there is something wrong: with themselves because they don’t want to speak Mandarin; and with their grandparents, because Ahkong and Ahma cannot.  We wonder if our “Chinese-ness’ is counterfeit, dilute, parvenu, when we compare ourselves with mainland Chinese migrants and feel so different and distant from them. We look at friends from the PRC, who hail from Harbin or Shanghai, and cannot help but ask: is that what Chinese-ness is supposed to look like? Is that how ‘proper’ Chinese people are supposed to sound?

Of course not. There never was and never is and never will be a coherent Chinese culture, with a checklist. Mandarin is as much a dialect as Teochew and Hokkien are. It’s just that it was the one that got adopted by the powerful, by the hegemons; the ones with the power to naturalise, normalise and standardise. There are only rough, fuzzy characteristics of any ethnicity that break down when you scrutinise them a little closer. Yeah sure, you could say there were clear definitions of what constituted Malay-ness. The British drew up one list of criteria when they governed (parts of) Malaya. If you were in doubt, you were supposed to ask a white man whether you were brown enough. Cultures are largely, overwhelmingly constructs, and I get suspicious everyone tells me there are innate, “natural”, inherent tendencies to particular ‘races’.

But just like how the MOE employed ‘native’ (read: white) speakers of English because they seemed to have more credibility we in our insecurity thought it was necessary to bring in mainland Chinese-ness to augment a ‘diluted’ Chinese culture. Well, one reason why it’s become so diluted is because we have wiped the dialects away so cleanly and so efficiently. We whitewash even further our rich heritages with hegemonic terms like ‘Chinese class’, and then lament that Kids These Days Cannot Appreciate Their Own Cultures.

But excuse me, what is my Culture? Excuse me, but ‘Chinese’ is not exclusively ‘Mandarin’.

Mother Tongues

And I see this now with a dawning realisation: that you cannot learn a language unless you have some form of emotional connection to it.  For me, English had always been the medium of communication at home, at least as far as my parents were concerned. On weekends they dumped me in the library, and left me to my own devices as I read English books. We spoke in English – but spiced with a smattering of Hokkien. Occasionally my parents would segue and switch smoothly between the two, answering a question I posed in English back in Teochew, or nagging me to wake up every morning in Hokkien.

(“Zhi…ki lai liao! Ki laaaaaiiiii” [“Zhi…wake up already! Wake upppppp”] This is the sound of bleary mornings: in the predawn darkness, when everything is still dead with sleep, my worried father nagging at me in frustration to wake up, because he had to go to work.)

I’ve always been sheepish about my alleged bilingualism, but I realise now that I am quite bilingual, if not trilingual – just not really in the dialect my government expected me to be in. That’s the problem when you grow up with grandparents who can only speak to you in Teochew.

Even before you can remember that you remember, your tongue has already begun to curl along the old, craggy nooks of roots reaching back across the centuries; across geographies cultural and physical. Not the tongue of only your mother, but your mother’s mother; and her mother before that. So that “Ahkong” is not just a meaningless word-sound like “auntie”, it’s also a term of rank and address to be used on a specific person, connected in its usage with other ‘kongs’ in the extended family. So that your parents become increasingly concerned at your exclusive use of Teochew in kindergarten, and wonder if you will ever be as competent in English. I am not just “T’ng nang” (Tang person), I am also “Hokkien nang” (Hokkien person), because that’s what my grandfather was, and that’s how the Hokkien reckon their descent, as I was taught by my grand/parents.

For perhaps only the second time in my life, I realised that language can actually connect me emotionally and intimately to people I had never known, until we spoke the same language. I’d experienced it before whilst on exchange – the mental relief of finally being able to think quickly and speak just as nimbly in Singlish amongst fellow Singaporeans – rather than slowly and roundedly for dem angmohs, who think we only eat flied lice cos of our Asian lisps. Like, RRRRRRRRRRRR.

I never thought I’d experience this again, with a ‘Chinese’ heritage and culture I’ve always been sheepish about. Banana. Jiak kantang. Chinese ethnicity but English speaker, unable to speak your ‘mother’ tongue. I’ve always been mildly ashamed about this, even though my mother never studied Mandarin in school (she studied Bahasa), but grew up watching Teochew operas and quoting Teochew proverbs at me.

And yet, I am not making an excuse for my atrocious Mandarin. I am not saying that x dialect is better than y dialect. The sheer beauty, complexity and depth of Chinese culture and literature does not escape me. It is a sea; an ocean I often wish I could swim in, as effortlessly as I am dog-paddling in English. Let me qualify and clarify: my Teochew and my Hokkien are just as awful, if not worse. What I am trying to elucidate here is why I still feel connected despite my pathetic grasp of the latter.

 

Memories of the Mandarin

And here’s the thing with Mandarin: I don’t. I simply don’t feel connected. Not in the same way I do with Teochew and Hokkien. I watched my dad and mum puzzle over my Chinese homework, sitting with me late into some evenings trying to figure out what the ‘Chinese’ comprehension passage was saying. ‘Chinese Tuition’ on Saturday afternoons have always filled me with a vague sense of revulsion and terror. I sat in ‘Chinese’ remedial classes with the air of a convict or a recovering alcoholic, trying to convince my jailor that things were getting better, things were getting better, I’m on my Road to Recovery, look at all the Chinese newspapers you forced me to buy.

What did nearly twenty years of formal education in Chinese leave with me? I peer into the little box in my mind’s eye, my brain-sea for an answer. Save the everyday terms that I can muster up in a sheepish conversation, the overwhelming sense is one of dread. Ting Xie: literally ‘hear-write’ – Chinese spelling. And before that, Xi Zi (“learn-word”?) – rote writing and writing. Actual negotiations with the Chinese teacher on how much we needed to write. “Chinese” lessons conjure up memories of tedium and hot afternoon triple-periods you cannot escape, but can only endure.

Boys in BMT have Field Camp as their Common Experience of Adversity. Infantry Officer Cadets have the JCC. And Chinese schoolchildren in Singapore have Chinese Language Classes. To be a Chinese-B teacher in CJC is probably to be the modern Sisyphus. Except that the vultures/eagles pecking at your liver/rock are nonchalant, petulant, disinterested teenagers.

You shake your head, disappointed at the children. Ingrates who don’t know their language, and so do not know their culture. Why don’t you care for your culture. You and I have heard variations of these from our Chinese teachers, as well as probably some elders mortified at how yellow our skin is and how white our tongues are.

 

Know Thy Culture…What Culture?

Let’s take this perspective apart. Well, to begin with, what “culture” are you speaking of, when two parents in a nuclear family speak English almost exclusively at home, and nobody else speaks Chinese at home? What “culture” are you speaking of, if you feed everyone on a steady diet of American dramas and values, to the exclusion of almost everything else?

Simi Chinese culture, when your childhood is American Idol, Britney Spears’ taste of poison paradise, and Marvel Avengers? What festivals? What values? What principles? Through Racial Harmony Days and Chinese New Year concerts where you get free mandarin (haha) oranges and red packets with cheap, dubious-tasting China chocolate?

What “culture” am I as a Singaporean Chinese supposed to have imbibed, been automatically gifted with, am expected to “know” when I’ve grown up in a completely different habitus and milieu from the junzi of a bygone China? I grew up reading Wu Song, and Tales of the Water Margin in English, alongside Asterix and folktales from around the world. My “culture” is eclectically Singaporean. It is mongrel. It does not even pretend to be pure (although lately of course we have our xenophobes: grandchildren of migrants, telling migrants to go home).

I am Chinese – but not in the same way Confucius, Ci Xi, nor Mao Zedong were. Heck, all three of them were probably far more different than they were even similar anyway, if not for the fact that they were born within the spatial boundaries of the polity known today as ‘China’.

I am Chinese perhaps because my grandparents came from China. Because I grew up speaking a particular dialect they speak or spoke. And yet it’s so difficult to assign an essential ‘Chinese’-ness to anything besides what my pink IC or my red (Singaporean, I hasten to add) passport claims me to be.

What are cultures, but processes and rivers continually in flux, borrowing and stealing from more attractive quirks, manifestations and constructs of the human mind. Sometimes, in certain contexts, I think ‘appropriation’ is just ‘borrowing’ with a bad rep. Words and frames have so much power. Oh sure, I’m cultural all right. It’s just that a large part of my “culture” leverages on deliberate social and national artifices crafted in the past 51 years, which in turn borrow from ideas even older.

 

The Anthem of the Alleged Pragmatist: Economics

And then there’s that other Karaoke Anthem: You Should Learn Mandarin for Economic Reasons. The cultural argument has been take apart. That kind of makes this argument for learning Mandarin rather moot, in my opinion. Money? You could learn any language to make money. It’s what the Arabic traders did. It’s what the British administrators did.

But how can you reduce learning the “language” of my “culture”, my roots, to a call for pragmatism? That strikes me as disturbingly transactional. Unless you’re saying that it’s a Chinese thing, to make money at all costs, in which case I hope you’re joking…

It makes sense. Of course it makes sense. But then again one practically does everything for money these days, as if it were the be-all and end-all of our existences. I could learn Spanish or Tamil or Swedish if I needed to start a business there. Why should I learn Mandarin specifically?

 

Conclusion: Leaves of the Same Tree

I learnt Mandarin in school because there was no other choice, and rebellion as a child is always costly. I will probably make efforts in the future to improve my Mandarin, because that’s how one converses in Singapore. I will probably need it for job reasons as I go along. I don’t discount the learning of Mandarin. But this northern dialect, the language of the northern imperial court is only (part of) “my” Chinese-ness because of a Singaporean state decision to standardise its teaching in schools here, in response to global and historical impulses.

But there is also an aspect of my ‘Chinese’ identity more familiar and intimate, one that doesn’t have the slick, polished fingerprints of the state on it. It is the tongue of my grandparents. It is the dialect that is fading now, but still hanging on, tough as the pioneers who spoke/speak it when they first came to these shores in search of better lives.

Who are we, and how do we define our identities?

There are as many answers to that as there are the thoughts in our heads. Billions, if not infinite. But my Chinese-ness is also tied to the lush stories and dialects spoken to me by my parents, and their parents before them. We are linked by the tongues taught to us. We are the leaves of the same tree, whose roots reach far and deep: across islands and nations, across time and history; across long pasts and imagined communities.

 

 

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