Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Mandarin? Sorry I’m a ‘xiang jiao ren’

Mandarin Class of 2003 Posted by Hello

Language has always been a thorny problem for me. Why is this so? For a fact, my main mode of communication is in English, I speak within my family in English, I converse with friends in English, I read English medium news and magazines, I watch English movies and I write in English. Yet everywhere I went ever since I can remember I’ve always been confronted by people with the question “You don’t know how to speak Mandarin?” “But you’re a Chinese!” Why would I necessary speak Mandarin even if I am Chinese? For starters, my family is English medium based though we converse at times in Cantonese (which I picked up from watching old Cantonese movies). I speak Malay because that’s what I was taught in school. I never really picked up Mandarin due to the fact that while in primary school, I was only one of 5 Chinese students in an all Malay Sekolah Kebangsaan (National School). It irritates me that the puritans and holier than thou spokesperson keeps on lambasting the fact that Chinese people should speak their mother tongue which they dictate is Mandarin as Mainland China adopted that as their national standard. I had a mind to say we are in Malaysia and I have a right to speak whatever I wish. My first words in Mandarin that was conversant were, “Wo bu hui jiang Huayi.”

Every time I enter a shop with a Chinese owner, the first assumption is that since I am Chinese, they can start conversing with me in Mandarin. After countless times of being in this similar situation, I have given up hope and just reply dryly “I do not speak Mandarin, can you repeat that in English”. Next would be the aghast face of the person talking to you, looking at you as if you’re some kind of abomination and you can clearly feel the stares as if stating “pity this person, imagine not being able to speak his mother tongue”. Another common incident is when coffee shops decide to hand you a menu wholly written in Chinese script. Eyeballing the list I would then proceed to ask what the house specialty is or ask what the item is. The waiter would than try to explain in his limited English vocabulary what the dish is but would fail extraordinarily and I would be forced to order the usual dishes such as ‘kon loh mee’ (noodles sautéed in dark soy sauce served with vegetables and meat), ‘char kuey tiao’ (fried flat noodles with prawns and bean sprouts) or ‘chao fan’ (fried rice). Say goodbye of ever tasting the more exotic dishes written in a foreign language (to me) or maybe I should emulate the ‘gwai lo’ (white man) and order by stating the number and pray it’s something palatable.

Getting stuck in a secondary school where the predominant race is Chinese as well as being students from former Chinese education school doesn’t help. One would believe I would be savvy enough to pick up the language if forced to interact with them daily but instead failed miserably. Rather than being accepted, I’m merely tolerated or at worse ostracized while the groups chat away in Mandarin, discuss work in Mandarin or even plan social activities in Mandarin. No wonder my best friends are mostly Indians or English exclusive speakers. We often term groups of people who are insistent in breaking out in Mandarin speech knowing full well there are people who cannot understand the conversation (be they Malay, Indians or fellow Chinese as well as other races) as “Mandarin Club Speakers” as they never consider our feelings or care that we are left out in the cold.

I do not see myself as being high nosed and aloft because I refuse to learn Mandarin (which most Chinese educated people attribute us as). It’s not like I never tried, POL (people’s own language) classes in school were pathetic and served more to better those already with a basic understanding of the language without addressing those without an ounce of experience. Taking tuition class was a waste because as soon as I left the class, there was no occasion to practice, no one to converse with in the language nor did I have an interest in Mandarin songs and movies. So the skill withered away as soon as it was learnt. Speaking and trying to learn the language while among friends who speak it met with derisions or laughter and soon one does feel discouraged. Being idealistic, UMS has a requirement for four semesters of language studies and while I at first contemplated the popular choice of Japanese, I instead had voices in my head playing over and over to ask me to sign up for Mandarin. The result was a harrowing four semesters in a class where people who already know the language competed with my zero competency (it would've been like me joining the English studies with my result of band 6 for MUET). Not only have I not actually picked up much, I dreaded it even more.

So what is to become of the dialect speakers? The Cantonese, the Hokkeiens, the Hakkas, the Teochews, the Foochows, the Hainanese, etc? Should we allow all other Chinese dialects to die off for non-conformity? Already there are dissenting voices when local television networks decided to allow Cantonese drama to be screened without dubbing (which I find so fake with bad voice over), stating that only Mandarin should be used. China has a rich history of languages and this is not only Mandarin. With a unified writing system codified under Shi Huang Di, all languages spoken in China is supposed to be compatible with strangers from far off provinces able to understand imperial edicts even without being able to understand each other. So I am proud to shout out to the world that I am a ‘xiang jiao ren’ or more appropriately known as banana men, a demeaning term used to describe those of Chinese origin who cannot speak their alleged mother tongue, yellow in the outside, white inside. But I do speak my mother tongue, just that it happens to be English.


pinolobu said...

this is one of the best, most honest articles i have ever come across from a chinese person from any media, ever. presuming you are a fellow sabahan, i emphatise. being a kadazandusun, i am not exactly in a same position, but it the fact that i'm "required" to know the tangara dialect due to the fact that i live in penampang area is not really comfortable.

Anonymous said...

Just stubled across this article. I want to agree with the previous comment - love your honesty, and I feel your irritation at the indignant attitude you've encountered. Perhaps instead of saying "sorry, I dont speak Mandarin" you could say "Sorry, Mandarin is not my mother tongue." That might put them more firmly back in their pompous box ;)