Hair Roots, Language Routes
By Chew Yi Wei
My grandmother and my aunt are engaged in a conversation in Hokkien. I think my grandmother is telling my aunt that she wants to dye her hair. To my unaccustomed ears, it sounds like this: "Wa ma jik ai kee ni tau moh." I check with my aunt to see if, for once, I'm right. And yes, I am. My grandmother wants to dye her hair tomorrow. She is 89 years of age and she wants to dip her hoary head in the colour of youth. Thirty-one years of youth, in my case, and I'm beginning to fall in love with an old language, a language that I have only listened to and spoken in fragments – a language that I have known for so long yet am still so unfamiliar with. They then lapse into other tongues, which I try to decipher – a bit of Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew in the space of a few sentences, strung mellifluously, seamlessly together, like a song.
I first encountered the Chinese language as a toddler. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents spoke to me in Hokkien despite themselves coming from vastly complicated linguistic genealogies. It is difficult to remember exactly how I learnt the language. One could almost say that it grew into me naturally. There wasn't any official lesson or textbook that set out to teach me how to speak Hokkien. Rather, it was the mundane gossip between my grandmother and her neighbour, the conversations that took place between my grandmothers and their children, the ordering of food at markets and hawker centres that made up my classroom. How I got to speak and understand this lively dialect was nothing short of organic, a linguistic acquisition that came with hearing, association and mimicry. I must confess that I am not too proficient in the language still, because soon after these very impressionable years, I was immersed in a whole new learning environment – a structured, planned and institutionalised one, which was a far cry from that visceral, loud soundscape encompassing my grandmothers' households.
After I moved out of my grandmother's house, Hokkien slowly and gradually became a weekend language, one spoken only to my grandmothers and their contemporaries. They were uneducated, I was told. Thus English was nowhere in their vocabulary. They could only speak multiple Chinese dialects, not English like I can, I thought. To my young and immature mind, Hokkien became a pejorative, a sort of ghetto, second-class language spoken only by those who never went to school. The English I spoke in school and with my parents became my primary language, fuelled by my diet of American cartoons and Sesame Street; it was the language that colonised my dreams, and the only language I wanted to understand.
If English was not enough to reign as the dialect-killer, Mandarin came along to exacerbate the already lamentable state of dialect use in Singapore. Apart from English, we were taught a different Chinese in school. Mandarin, or Putonghua, became the designated second language for students who were racially Chinese. If one were Chinese in Singapore, he or she ought to learn to speak Mandarin, not the other Chinese dialects. The dialects that I used to hear at my grandmothers' homes were never heard in school. Our Chinese teachers spoke to us only in Mandarin, and we were told that, as Chinese people, we ought to know how to speak the language of our forefathers – that being Mandarin. Back then, it didn't quite occur to me to question such an assertion, which is an assault almost to the immense diversity of the Chinese language.
In China alone, there exist about 1,500 dialects, Mandarin being just one of many. In fact, only 53 percent of Chinese people are able to speak Mandarin. Though Mandarin is, by and large, considered the official language of China, a common language as it were to unify – in governmental parlance – the divisiveness of its linguistic terrain, and though it is used as China's language of capitalism and the language that most non-Chinese seem to associate with China, it cannot in any way lay claim to or homogenise the pervasive and persistent use of Chinese dialects in China itself and elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora. Mandarin, as such, is part of an imagined China – a product of managed cultural perception, as well as historical and political manoeuvring.
Nevertheless, despite the growing global presence and representative significance, Mandarin is not the language of my forefathers. I come from a colourful linguistic lineage. My paternal grandfather came from Fujian Province. He spoke mainly Hokkien and, I'm sure, a host of other dialects spoken in his province alone. His wife, my grandmother born in Singapore, spoke a mixture of Teochew, Hakka and Peranakan. My maternal grandfather, with his tongue-rolled Shanghainese and the Wu dialect, came from Wuxi. My maternal grandmother, born in Malacca, was pure Peranakan, but she spoke mainly Hokkien with an admixture of Teochew. If anything at all, I am in no remote way "Mandarin".
Singapore was also never, racially speaking, a Chinese nation. Even after the Chinese immigrants came and settled, Singapore was still, stubbornly, not a Chinese nation, much less a Mandarin-speaking one. Our linguistic landscape was a panoply of Chinese dialects, mainly Southern ones – Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka, Hokkien, Hock Chew, Teochew – with the less frequently heard Shanghainese, a dialect from Shanghai on the east coast of China. At that time, dialects were spoken at home. Rarely would one hear Mandarin, or English for that matter, dominating any household. Unfortunately, this voluble eclecticism of Chinese tongues would by order of policy be allowed to die a quiet death.
After Singapore achieved independence in 1965, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew decided that English had to be the working language of the newly-born nation state. After World War II, English had begun to spread rapidly as the language of international diplomacy, commerce, economics, equal opportunity, science and technology, with the legacy of the British Empire and the rise of an American one. Under such auspices, the move to bilingualise Singapore began through changes in educational and media policies, and indirectly in racial policy. If one was Chinese by race, then he or she had to adopt Mandarin as spoken language. Students were made to study all their subjects in English save their mother tongue, and gradually television and radio programmes moved away from the use of dialects to English and Mandarin. (I should add too that this shift applied to all other racial groups. Dialects, whether those of Chinese, Malay or Indian, were swiftly and institutionally ignored.) A growing number of households were speaking English and/or Mandarin, evening out Singapore's once-heterogeneous linguistic geography.
Politics and Policy are close cousins of History; they map out and pave History's trajectory, and inevitably shape the destinies and identities of people. Lee's language policies, though implemented years before I was born, did not fail to fall squarely on my shoulders, shaping me through my most formative years. Twelve years of compulsory education saw me struggling with Chinese. Because I wanted to pass my exams, I forcibly tried to remember the characters, words and phrases, the way they looked, the way they sounded. I wrote Chinese as a second hand, after English, my chosen language of comfort. And as for my father's tongue, Hokkien, it continued to be spoken in fragments, unthinkingly. I became one of those in my generation who could not attune myself to either my dialect or prescribed second language. Lost in education, my generation was gradually incapacitated in our ability to communicate in the native tongues of our forefathers. And this shameful ineptness came to define me as a Singaporean and as a Chinese person. I am linguistically neither here nor there, uprooted, dislocated, post-colonised.
Living in Singapore – a city arguably in a perpetual state of post-coloniality, a city still trying to figure out its cultural, national and linguistic identities, a city striving to reconcile the neatness of policy with messiness of society – I have recently wondered what it means to be Chinese here. Much as I have grown to love Mandarin as a language, its subtlety, pithiness, precision, descriptiveness and four-toned tunefulness, I cannot affirm that I am Chinese because of Mandarin. Mandarin does not in any ostensible way embody the great civilisation that is China. It can possibly semaphore the contemporary international presence of China, but it certainly does not make me Chinese.
Mandarin is not a signifier of Chinese authenticity too. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a Chinese person Chinese – what with globalisation, migration, naturalisation and nation-building contributing to changing identity formations in any given society – but if we could mark out a spot in our linguistic histories and geographies, the language of our forefathers, their homes back in China, then we could well be at the start of our long journey back to our linguistic homes. Then perhaps we can begin to talk about what makes us Chinese.
We come from a kind of Babel, our Chinese-ness a scattering and amalgamation of different dialects. In Singapore where Chinese identity is defined as being synonymous with Confucianism and Mandarin, it is easy to bury the multiple tongues of our forefathers, forget about them, and start our Chinese identity formation from a historical ground zero. But to do that would be to erase the audible presence of our forefathers, their histories, their connections with their homes back in China.
Singapore is not, in any remote way, China; but we are inescapably "an outpost / a piece of China," writes the Singapore-born Australian poet, Boey Kim Cheng. Blood links and dialects form the connections between then and now, here and there, us and them. Our histories linked by genealogical geographies, the sprawl of regional Chinese tongues; our linguistic destinies and identities shaped by regional Chinese heterogeneity. In the midst of the complexities and instabilities of Chinese identity, we can perhaps find some sort of ballast in the languages of our forefathers, not to cast in stone our Chinese identity, but to start a search backwards and forward to what we, through our forefathers, sounded like, to where we used to be, to what we used to speak.
As I watch the black dye smooth over my grandmother's white hair, the reality of her age and the inevitability of her imminent passing hit me harder than ever before. There will come a day when her generation will be no more, when the many tongues they possess will, too, cease to permeate the soundscape of this city. Her hair is now dyed completely black concealing what truly lies beneath – the whiteness of her hair's roots. But the true colour of hair never fails to return. In a matter of a few weeks, she will request to have her hair coloured black again.
And at this point, I wonder to myself if our Chinese dialects will have the same tenacity to (re)emerge, to return, in spite of English and Mandarin – Singapore's immensely successful bilingualism – threatening to cover over and phase out our multilingual roots. Then I turn to her and say in a smattering of English, Mandarin and Hokkien that she looks good, even without dying her hair.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014