Friday, May 22, 2009

Language Disconnect

I can't speak Chinese, you know.

Which may or may not be a surprise to people who see me. After all, I look pretty fuckin' Chinese. Like, yellow skin, and almond eyes, and brown eyes and black hair and those odd features which couldn't be mistaken for anything other than Asian. And then I open my mouth and some people are surprised at my facility with the English language.

I'm still not entirely sure whose fault it is, but I'm sure I share in it. I've never been able to grasp the mechanics of Chinese grammar. That the Chinese characters have to be memorized, rather than their meanings guessed at based on their root words, has always been a source of frustration for me. That a word's meaning can be changed from one thing to something else completely different (ma - mother; ma - horse; me - WTF?) has been a source of bemusement. I fear to open my mouth in case I say something completely wrong and stupid and it doesn't help that the people I grew up around are very quick to share in the mocking. Given enough immersion within a Cantonese-speaking or Hokkien-speaking environment, I think I could reasonably pick up enough to understand what's going on.

But I've never been in one of those environments. There are family reunions which happen once a year. There's the night market. The hawker centers. None of which engage me critically. I even had a Cantonese-speaking nanny, for God's sake, from whom I learnt a little, but still, not enough to carry me through, and she left when I'd obviously grown old enough to not need her anymore.

I took a class in Mandarin once. I had fun learning how to write. I loved copying Chinese characters (the same way I copied Arabic script in tasawwur Islam classes, and the uztaza saw and she was so pleased) but can't read anything that's not my name. I had trouble memorizing the characters without the roamanized words to help me. And this was a beginner's class.

I thought it was just me being shitty with language, except that in my fifth year, I took Arabic (second choice for a language credit for my degree, first choice was Latin) and I did very well. Perhaps because Arabic was so close to Malay, the national language I grew up with (with rules I understood - this word is derived from here, which means that, and can be used to mean this and that). Perhaps too, because Arabic had an actual alphabet I could relate to, rather than seemingly random lines that make up a word.

The Malaysian education system is based on memorization of facts, shoveled into us without any real practical value. Some of our teachers understood the challenge and gave us the shortcut of understanding that A led to B, so on so forth. Most didn't and we were stuck mouthing facts and figures and numbers and other ridiculous things. Learning Chinese was that sort of fight - just mouthing stuff and remembering that this goes here and that goes there without understanding why. At least in English we learnt grammatical rules as a kind of math - which is kind of weird, really, if you consider that I really don't like math.

Tussling with the Chinese language was like forcing myself to fight a battle I knew I couldn't win because I didn't have the proper tools to. Not only was I not physically strong enough, I was possibly missing two sets of ballista, naphta, and an accompanying fortress of understanding.

So I quit fighting and stuck with learning how to express myself better in English, ranging through all the English literatures I could pull myself through in my degree. I figured I was simply too damn stupid to understand Chinese, and besides which, English was a much easier language to express one's self in. I took a Teaching ESL class under the misguided notion that I wanted to teach those poor unfortunate TESL students how to speak better English, except that in the end, there wasn't much I could do for them that they couldn't do for themselves and I felt a bit superfluous, especially since, if you think about it, there's not really a "correct" way of speaking English - it's just a matter of understanding what you're being told and being understood when you're speaking.

Because language is one of the invisible forces that shapes our understanding, so if an ESL speaker has trouble understanding English or expressing hirself in English, it may not be that they're having trouble with the rules of the language, but having trouble with the concepts of the language.

Recently, I've been reconsidering why I had trouble with Chinese. What was it that I had trouble with? I went on a movie binge and youtubed Kung Fu Hustle and King of Beggars. (Like always, the original Chinese felt superior... even though you can tell the actors all speak different dialects.) I felt a craving for the language, especially the Cantonese dialect. I found I understood more than I thought I did. I also found that I wasn't agreeing with what the subtitles said, but culturally, the subtitles did okay.

I could bloody get it. Well, some of it. So what was stopping my brain back then from really getting it?

Maybe it's the Mandarin. Chinese is neat in that there's one standard form of writing and several ways of speaking the same thing. I've never been able to figure out how to introduce myself with my Chinese name as a result of this. But I do know that while Mandarin sounds melodious, I don't quite relate to it very well. Maybe it's a class thing.

Maybe it was the memorizing involved. I hate rote memorization. I think that's the worst way to learn. It's not even learning.

Whatever other reasons there were, I do know that English was so firmly entrenched in my consciousness that whatever I was trying to learn, it was from the perspective of the English language: there had to be grammatical rules that made sense (and to be fair, my Mandarin teacher never taught me the grammatical rules), there had to be linguistic rules which enabled the understanding of the words I used (even if Arabic word meanings tend to be a bit circular than linear, it was still better than nothing) and I had to be able to understand the stories being told.

Growing up, there was English literature (small 'l' literature) all over my house. My dad, brother and I bonded over reading Asterix comics in English. Later, my dad would teach me the beauty of the iamb sounds by reading me Poe's Annabel Lee. We moved to Singapore where the educational medium is in English. I was doomed there. Moving back, Malay started to become a struggle, and continued so until my schooldays were over. The Englishness was pervasive, and I wasn't even English.

Looking at a wider picture within which my life is a microcosm, that's really just an after-effect of British colonialism. When the British left, they didn't leave entirely. They left behind their language, their systems of education, ways of thinking, power structures. They indoctrinated half a generation through their missionary schools to believe that English was more important to learn, and mother tongues can be picked up later (my parents' reasoning to not speak to me in Chinese whilst I was growing up). The result is that many middle-class children, like myself, feel the disconnect of not being able to speak a language that's supposed to be ours.

It's not anybody's fault in this day and age, and had I time and resources, I could possibly hunker down, find a really good teacher who'll teach me not just official Mandarin, but my favourite dialects. But I don't, and I'm stuck with this disconnection from my own culture which I should very much like to participate in completely, and can't because of this language barrier.

It kind of really fucking sucks. Nonetheless, it's a condition of life and a consequence of history which affects me, and others, personally.

We must make do with the words we do have at our command.

Someday, I'll speak Chinese. It's just not today.

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