Confessions of a monolingual Singaporean Baba

As a chubby yellow-skinned man of hobbit-like height with an eggish head of straight black hair and a pair of beady eyes squinting through black horn-rimmed spectacles that perch on a greasy flat nose, I look quintessentially Chinese and in this country, C.E. 2015, can be mistaken for a Chinaman.

But.

I am a fourth-generation Singaporean with Straits-born ancestors on my paternal grandmother’s side. It is a difference to which the simplistic ‘Chinese’ label on my birth certificate and identification card cannot allude.

It makes it incredible, considering my racial privilege in this country, when I speak of my fair share of discrimination.

From the time I could speak, it was English that left my dummy-sucking lips. It was the sole language spoken in the home and the medium through which we listened to the radio, watched television and read the daily broadsheet.

My parents spoke to us in English. Papa recited to us the Authorised Version of the English Bible, also known as the King James Bible. Mama read aloud with me on her lap my favourite board book of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

Papa could speak only English and Bahasa Melayu Baba, a Malay-language creole that consists of traditional Malay and Chinese Hokkien elements. It was therefore a matter of course that Mama communicated with Papa in only English, her knowledge of Mandarin notwithstanding, with bits of Malay thrown in for everyday terms like ‘makan’ (eat), ‘kenching’ (pee), ‘berak’ (defecate), ‘duit’ (money), ‘sayur’ (vegetables) and ‘jalan-jalan’ (go for a walk) among several others.

My paternal grandfather spoke to Papa and his siblings in only English. Grandmother, Baba Malay. It wasn’t surprising because both Grandpa and Grandma were adopted by British colonials when they were children; Grandma took the name of Archer and Grandpa sent to Raffles school for his secondary education.

No, they were not rich: not every Peranakan family is rich like the Lees. If it were not for their adopted parents, Grandpa and Grandma would not have gone to school. They were poor. It did not help at all that Grandpa chose to be a watercolour artist (and only much later a part-time lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts).

My ‘mother tongue’ when defined as the language one has spoken since birth is not Mandarin but English and when defined as  the language relating to one’s ethnicity is also not Mandarin but Bahasa Melayu Baba, Cantonese and Hokkien.

However, it became Mandarin due to the lumping of the Baba-Nyonya with the pure Chinese to facilitate the administration of Lee Kuan Yew’s bilingual education policy.

School life in the 1980s was different from my children’s. Although English was the language of instruction, many of us spoke our ‘mother tongues’ among ourselves. My Chinese classmates communicated in Mandarin among themselves and the Malays Bahasa Melayu. I think it was only my Tamil classmates who spoke English, along with Tamil, among themselves.

I felt left out. I struggled to communicate and to connect and build friendships with my Chinese classmates. There were a few, of course, but only a few. I felt at ease with my non-Chinese friends as we had no other option but to use the common English tongue to speak to one another. Many presumed I was a Caucasian wannabe, as though all Caucasians, *roll eyes*, spoke English. I had begun to question my identity. Who or what was I? My Mother Tongue teachers were equally befuddled. How could a boy who look Chinese be somehow less Chinese than the rest of them? Why did my parents speak only English at home? Didn’t they know Mandarin? These questions appear strange to the millennial generation today because it is now common for young educated Chinese parents to speak more English than Mandarin in the home. Not in those days. I wanted to belong but because I could not I wanted to hide away. I wished I was Eurasian. I thus lived in my own world of make-believe, a fantasy land where I was of a mixed Anglo-Chinese ancestry.

Innocent puzzlement became insinuations and vitriol in secondary school. The sino-chauvinistic few, there seemed to be always some in every school and office, called me a disgrace to the Chinese race and a traitor. How is it possible for a Chinese not to know Mandarin? Or for that matter, knowledgeable of Chinese culture? Was I one of those elitist ‘Engrish’-educated brats?

Even though I picked up basic conversational Mandarin eventually, not from my army stint but after I got married and had to communicate with my parents-in-law who spoke only Hokkien and Mandarin; I am still hopeless when it comes to reading and writing.

If I could turn back the clock, I would insist on learning Bahasa Melayu as my mother tongue. It is the national language of our country and the region for probably centuries before the British came.

Life goes on

The eatery at the Bus Terminal overflows with swarms of office workers and students snaking past food stalls and taking away dinners; the privileged few gorging theirs at crammed seats, some eyeing blankly the smallish flat-screened television up front. This is working-class Singapore in the heartlands, at dinner time.

Our family of five, are among the privileged few. We squash ourselves beside two young Chinese blokes minding their own meals at the corner and a Malay-Muslim ‘auntie’ slurping her soup. Darling settles the children as I waddle along the rows of people to find the ‘Korean’ stall. The children loves the ‘Saba’ fish.

It takes fifteen minutes to settle the children’s meals. Then it is my turn. The usual rice with ‘Yong Tau Foo’ soup. Darling opts for the same without the rice. The animated Malay-Muslim lady smiles at the children. We talk. It is not often Singaporeans have the chance to chat with strangers in this overcrowded wasteland of zombies and smartphone worshippers. People mind their own business a lot, here in Singapore. I miss the human warmth of rural life, despite never having lived in the countryside of rolling hills and dung-scented pastures. I can only imagine.

Her children are all grown, three of them, twenty-three to thirty, and single. The eldest still waiting for a flat before ever deciding to flash the ring. Our kids must have ‘boasted’ to her about their yet-to-be-born sibling for she nods towards Darling about drinking lots of soup. It surprises her for a Chinese family in 21st-century Singapore to not stop at two. There are many who even cringe at the idea of bringing up children. Darling hails from a family of robust Hokkien peasant stock, all nine of them, despite the ruling party’s social darwinian policies in the 1970s. I on the other hand have only two siblings. Sedentary city-dwellers, we have never lived in the ‘kampungs’ of pre-HDB Singapore.

I told Darling when we got married that my ideal would be five, although one or two fewer will do just fine. I told the auntie, unabashedly, and touching her shoulder, that children are blessings from God.

She smiles.

In a sense I fancy the Malay-Muslim community, at least in Singapore. Most Chinese, I tell her, are individualistic and self-centred. We see things in terms of dollars and cents, from the wedding dinner to the marital bed, and from having children to their university education. We think we are gods and we plan ahead. The Malays, according to the Muslimah, see life differently. There is no such thing as a ‘singular’ Malay person. There is always ‘family’ and ‘community’.

As I struggle with the beads of rice that litter the green bowl, sip my peppered soup and crunch vegetables and pieces of egg, the Muslimah asks to take her leave. She has finished her meal and drink and time for her runs late. Darling and I bid her goodbye. The three children nod their heads and grin their goodbyes amid facialised debris of food.

The lenses of the black framed spectacles blur as my smallish eyes beneath register the slow-mo demise of the diminutive figure of the kindly Muslimah as she clutches her bag and twists her way past the hordes of everyday zombies into the stickly hot night.

I stretch a smile to Darling, and at the squabbling kids I muster a sickly frown before returning to the unfinished bowl under my sweat-beaded chin.

Life goes on.