AUGUST 3 — I spent 20 minutes trying to read one paragraph of a news report in a Chinese daily, as my Chinese teacher patiently taught me what the characters meant.
I am taking Chinese classes, focusing on writing and not just speaking, because I thought that it was time I learned my own mother tongue.
My late father decided against sending me to a Chinese school when I was a child because he did not want me to grow up with a “restricted” kind of mindset. So I attended government school instead at both primary and secondary levels.
We conversed mostly in English at home, though my parents sometimes spoke to each other in Hokkien, especially when they wanted to discuss things they didn’t want their children to know about.
I understood a little of the dialect, but I was never exposed to Mandarin, which led to my decision to take Chinese classes.
Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn because there are over 50,000 characters, though a modern dictionary usually lists below 20,000 in use. Reading a newspaper reportedly requires knowledge of 2,000 to 3,000 characters, though an educated Chinese person supposedly knows about 8,000 characters. Most words in Chinese comprise a combination of characters. The Roman alphabet, in contrast, only comprises 26 letters.
The strokes of Chinese characters also have to be written in a certain order (generally top to bottom, left to right, horizontal before vertical), which I suppose lends some rigidity to learning the language.
I would sometimes get frustrated trying to identify a Chinese character and stare in puzzlement at my teacher who kept hinting that the word was a combination of “woman” and “to give birth” — 姓 (xìng), which meant “surname”, as the children borne by a woman would share the same surname. It was a way to memorise words and characters.
The characters also revealed Chinese culture, like the word 家 (jiā) for “home” or “family” that comprises a rooftop and the character for “pig”. One raises a family by feeding them pork.
Sexism, unfortunately, appears to be a part of Chinese culture as many words with a negative connotation, like 奸 (jiān), which means “traitor”, include the character for “woman”.
Learning the Chinese language has deepened my understanding of my own culture. There are times when I sometimes don’t feel like a Chinese person, partly because of my little comprehension of the Chinese language, but also because of my mindset and behaviour that apparently don’t match norms in the community.
Writing and publishing a book, for example, is usually done by getting a Chinese tycoon to buy the entire print run so that you can give away copies for free. The subject matter is usually a benign one on Chinese culture.
The important thing is not the book per se, but about getting connected, my companion told me as he shook his head at my initial idea of bringing a few copies of Unapologetic to a Chinese wedding dinner we were attending.
I imagined charming a few people at our table into buying them. Not very Chinese of me, though I thought the Chinese valued hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit.
At other times, though, people would call out my so-called Chinese-ness, like when a friend told a few of us about a wedding that had to be called off at the last minute. “What a pity,” I had remarked. “The couple lost their deposit for the wedding dinner.”
The fluidity of my Chinese identity is compounded by the ambiguity surrounding my Malaysian one, as I find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly it means to be a citizen of this country. What are our values? What do we strive for? What ideals do we hold dear as a nation?
Regardless of whatever socio-political ideology or religious beliefs we hold, there must be a value system that Malaysia ascribes to as a whole, even if we have different ways of expressing those values or different ideas about achieving the national ideal, whatever it is.
Communicating with each other and having a conversation about what Malaysian values are, or should be, might be difficult if we don’t speak the same language.
Just like how I sometimes feel “less” Chinese because of my inability to read beyond 100 characters, my lack of fluency in conversational Malay means that I’m cut off from most of my countrymen. I can write in Bahasa Malaysia, but I often speak very formally in the national language, like I’m reading from a “karangan” (essay).
How then can we start talking about shared values and what it means to be Malaysian?
A senior politician from a Chinese party was willing to take a young woman, who went to Chinese independent high school and graduated from Taiwan, as a volunteer for the party, even though we could hardly converse as she could not speak Bahasa Malaysia or English, while I could not say much beyond greeting her in Mandarin.
The front desk receptionist at the headquarters of another Chinese party could not speak the national language.
As for me, my spoken Malay is still rather stilted even though I went to government school for 11 years and scored A1 in Bahasa Malaysia in SPM. The few Malay friends I have speak to me in English.
The only reason why I can speak passable Malay is because my job in journalism requires frequent contact with civil servants and politicians. Even then, most of them tend to speak English with me though I always initiate conversation in the national language.
But I just have to make it a point to speak in the national language with all my friends if I want to be more fluent in it.
The more I learn the Chinese language, the more I know about Chinese values and the roots of my culture. I may not necessarily agree with all of them, but it is comforting to know what they are, nonetheless. You know your place in society and decide accordingly when to follow customs, or when to break them.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about my place as a Malaysian citizen. I don’t know what being a good citizen means because we have yet to fully flesh out our national identity, values, and ideals.
This task is complicated by the fact that not all of us can speak the same language, our national language.
Perhaps when we start talking to each other more, all of us and not just the 727 federal and state lawmakers deciding the lives of 32 million Malaysians, then we can more clearly define the nation’s character.
When we know who we are, we’ll know what to do.