Sep 19, 2010
If only I had taken Chinese seriously...
Thousands performing exercises at the Forbidden City in Beijing last month. A visitor will have problems appreciating the Forbidden City's grandeur if he cannot fully comprehend the on-site Chinese signboards explaining its history. -- PHOTO: AP
Beijing: Recently I decided that I really wanted a time machine, or some time-travel superpowers.
Then I could journey back a few years to knock my younger self on the head and tell her to be serious in her study of Chinese.
The D7 grade I received for my O-level Higher Chinese used to be something I was resignedly proud of. It was a warped badge of honour, proof that I really was as pathetic at the subject as I said.
In kindergarten, I thought ming bai, a phrase the teacher frequently used to ask if we kids understood her instructions, was the colour of a crayon.
I remember doing my valiant best to write a Chinese essay in Secondary 3. I had no idea what 'all-rounded' was in Chinese, and turned to ask my classmate seated next to me. Quan yuan was her joking reply - it literally means 'entirely circular' and is the wrong term - but not knowing better, I dutifully wrote it down. That definitely got everyone laughing at me.
So when I found out I was going to be working in The Straits Times' China bureau in Beijing for six weeks this summer, I was excited, yet horrified.
It was a great opportunity because I had never been to China before, but it also meant I would have to rely solely on my horrendous mother tongue to get by.
English is the language of my thoughts and my tongue, and what my family speaks at home. I grew up on a diet of English storybooks and television programmes, and later fed myself with a whole banquet of English songs. Chinese never really had a chance with me.
In my first week in China, I would choose meals off menus based on whether I could read the Chinese characters, and skip the ones I could not.
Only one person asked me if I was from Singapore. Everyone else wanted to know if I was from Britain or an American-born Chinese, because why else would my spoken Mandarin be so stilted and stuttering? Because I am an ethnic Chinese, I was invisible and could blend into crowds here - right until I opened my mouth. The minute I started talking, everyone knew I was an impostor.
Reporting in an environment where I was severely hampered by my language inadequacies was a great challenge. Half the time, I felt like I could not understand what was going on and had to frantically consult a dictionary. Google's translation tool became my best friend until I banned myself from using it. Nor could I properly express myself, which was incredibly frustrating.
It was also sad. For a story about environmentally friendly burials, I had speak to an elderly Chinese woman whose husband of decades had just died. As the interview ended, I found I had no words that could convey my heartfelt sympathy for her loss.
I had to settle for an apologetic but perfunctory 'I'm sorry to have disturbed you, thank you', and came away from the conversation upset and kicking myself.
Being limited by language was a ghastly feeling. There was so much I wanted to say, but so little were the ways in which I knew how. It felt like my thoughts were trapped within my own mind with no way of being expressed. There was so much I wanted to know, like the histories behind phrases and the nuances of words, and I knew I was missing out on seas of meaning.
A self-defence instructor I interviewed used an idiom to explain to me the significance behind the traditional Chinese martial arts greeting where one's open left palm covers one's fisted right hand. Sadly, it was obvious that I didn't really understand him because I knew very little about the heritage of the language.
The grandeur of the Forbidden City also felt wasted on me because I couldn't fully comprehend the on-site signboards explaining its history.
One Friday night in Houhai, Beijing's Clarke Quay, I sat captivated for hours listening to a musician sing Chinese classics from his soul. I felt helpless because the more beautiful the songs were, the more I wanted to know the stories behind them. But although I heard what he was singing, I didn't know most of what he meant.
Really, I have never wanted to 'speak good Mandarin' as much as I do now. Not because it's cool - although I admit it really is - but because it's a rich, beautiful language, and it is incredibly useful.
All the same, I know that without this short stay in China, I would not have been this interested in learning its language.
Prior to this, I was much more interested in learning Japanese so I could watch my favourite anime episodes without subtitles. It was only when I realised I really liked Chinese song lyrics that I started regretting not being proficient in the language, and it took being thrown into the deep end in China for that regret to blossom into full-fledged remorse.
The irony is that when Chinese lessons were compulsory and easily accessible, I had no interest in them. But now that they are tricky to schedule into my time, I have a genuine desire for them.
I don't know if it's too late, but my time in China has made me really want to try.
The writer is a Singapore Press Holdings scholarship holder who is studying international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She completed a six-week internship with The Straits Times' China Bureau last month.
Being limited by language was a ghastly feeling...
It felt like my thoughts were trapped within my own mind with no way of being expressed.