The mother tongue was already a serious problem back in my day.
My father thought that since all I did was sit around at home watching Sesame Street in English and Ultraman in Malay (yes, Ultraman was dubbed in Malay), he’d send me and my brother to the best school in the land that taught in Chinese.
That the school also happened to have taught our country’s prime minister and his brother was also a consideration, and it was hoped that both of us would be imbued with the same Confucianist approach to study.
But it wasn’t to be. If I remember correctly, the school, wary of having it’s first student (me) ever to fail the PSLE CL1 (Chinese as a First Language) exam, changed its rules and created a special class of students (me) with special circumstances (nobody at home spoke Mandarin) and allowed me to take Chinese as a 2nd Language instead.
For the five years I was in that school, I was as deeply embarrassed as a seven to twelve year old could be about not being able to converse in his “mother tongue”, as I was often told.
I was left out of recess-time ping pong tournaments and after-school trips to Popular Bookstore and scored spectacularly badly in every CL1 assessment the Mandarin speaking teachers could throw at us.
It didn’t matter if I was extremely conversant in Hokkien (the language my mother and my nanny spoke), Hainanese (the language my father spoke), and Cantonese (the language my brother’s nanny, and therefore my brother, spoke). I was always going to fail.
So it was with great relief that I got into ACS for my secondary school years, and I promptly dropped Mandarin like a hot potato because it was deemed uncool to be good at it (the boy who scored A1 at ‘O’ Levels Prelim was stripped naked and had his undies flown up the flagpole).
There, I met life-long friends of a similar ilk, including my best friend, whom teachers (who are still alive) remember as the boy who, out of nervousness, spoke Cantonese during the CL2 oral exam and could not switch to Mandarin no matter how he tried.
It was only when I got to uni in Australia that I picked up a lot more Mandarin. At the legal centre where I worked, I was assigned a caseload of six clients from Mainland China because I was the only ethnic Chinese on board. It was daunting at first, and I was only able to pull off the work with the help of an interpreter.
It was also at this workplace that I discovered the biggest asset I have – the ability to understand enough Mandarin, and the ability to pretend that I don’t understand any Mandarin at all, in order to avoid further communication.
It’s worked wonders on trips to China and when Mandarin speaking taxi drivers start talking politics.
It’s even been a charm at home, and I’ve shirked many a filial duty, although I think Naomi’s mum, who’s Taiwanese, is starting to suspect something.