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.
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.