Your Grandfather’s Mother Tongue Is it?

I had great fun at the last minute pop-up Talkingcock In Parliament 3 organised by Colin, Yen Yen and others on Saturday evening. There was a great variety of speakers anyhowly hum-tumming what Mother Tongue means to us because it’s been anyhowly hum-tummed into our lives.

This is what I said:

My Hokkien mother spoke no Mandarin, was educated in ACS in Malaya, and my father taught himself English, but spoke Hainanese mostly. Although most days you couldn’t tell which he was speaking. Older Hainanese men have accents as thick as the slab of butter in your kaya toasts.

But my father spoke just enough rubbish for people in Australia to lump him together with other East Asians and he scored a job as a translator with the Japanese Olympic team in the 1956 Melbourne Games.

That did not end well. He was fired before the closing ceremony because a Japanese boxer was taken to hospital for an emergency appendectomy he didn’t need to have. He had simply tried to tell my father that he needed to lose some weight to get down to the weight class he was supposed to compete in. That’s my father. Accidental pioneer of weight loss surgery.

My mother, a slightly better English speaker, joined my father in Australia and together they lived there between 1957 and 1965. That’s a lot of time for them to pick up enough Aussie slang to scold my siblings and I with.

So my early childhood years were marked by my parents’ Aussie nicknames for me, which were all prefixed by the word “bloody”. They called me bloody fool, bloody idiot, bloody nong, once in a while, bloody bastard, before they realised the implication of what they were calling me, and retracted it and instead called me a bloody chink.

I have a five year old son and sometimes when he whines or whinges about something, my wife would tell him, “Use your words, Kai”. And he would compose himself, and make his request known in a full sentence.

My mother was slightly different with me when I was a kid. If I whined or whinged, she said, “Bloody Chinese boy cannot speak english properly issit?”

I understand now that they were scarred by their experiences Down Under, and passed on that anxiety to their kids.

So that’s my heritage. Outcastes of empire, speaking in the tongues of the former convicts of our former colonial masters. It’s a rich heritage, full of stolen riches.

So you can imagine I wasn’t surprised when I discovered just last week, that our National Heritage Board is the governing body of the Speak Good English Movement. I’m actually working on this year’s Speak Good English launch. Director of Speak Good English? Is Eck Kheng here? Movement nochet launch this year, so this event not counted hor?

Let me say that I strongly support the speak good english movement. I have one every morning. Usually after breakfast. And my family doesn’t let me bring the newspapers in with me.

Eh… It could have been worse. I could’ve demonstrated what a Speak Good English Movement sounds like.

Last week, I read about our Air Force and how they outfoxed American counterparts in war games, although I don’t believe they used the word outfoxed.

We all know that our Armed Forces have had this advantage over the years. I mean, come on lah, which other military can boast having marching commands in Malay, instructions in English, and at one time really had a platoon that spoke only Hokkien?

And they say the US got drones, we also have! How many did you see in the Young PAP video? That video? It was supposed to be a secret weapon, to be used when our enemies are making their way to invade us. We will jam their networks and the video would be transmitted to all their smartphones and tablets, so when they watch it, they’ll U-turn and go back because, wah lao, really? This is the prize? Dowan lor.

There were three bids for this defence weapon. This was one of them. The other two were of course the STB ad and the Singtel nipple ad.

“Honey, look! You know the expensive seafood dinner we had last night? We really got screwed, I’m even pregnant!”

Ten years ago, I was in a reservist In camp training – see that’s another word that’s been ingrained. 20 years after changing the term to NSman, we’re still calling it reservist. You call up some business to look for someone, and they’ll say, “oh, got reservist, won’t be back until next week”.

I think we love the word reservist because we really don’t want to be on the front line. We’re reserved. Of course, my ten year cycle has long since been completed, so I’m an even more reserved reservist.

So anyway, this was in 2004 and we were still transitioning from the old conventional ways of warfare to a post 9-11 Al Qaeda-JI doctrine. We had training to tell us that it was no longer ok to clear a room with grenades and put our weapons to full auto to finish the job. We had to look out for civilians and enemy combatants.

So part of the training package consisted of being shot at from a simulated HDB block, and being shot at from a simulated market. The second round got worse. We got grenades thrown at us by a simulated pregnant woman played by one of our own reservists on Attend B excuse heavy lifting.

We didn’t know how to react. We were tired, hungry and getting frustrated.

As we ran up one last HDB stairwell we encountered a simulated couple in close embrace, just as you would in real life, only this time it turned out to be a terrorist-hostage situation. Our training kicked in. We trained our weapons on the party and opened negotiations:

Our section commander shouted: “Terrorist har? What the fuck you want, you ninabeh cheebye motherfucker?”

The simulated terrorist replied, “er…. I want an airline ticket”

Because we are a considerate 3G army, our section commander asked him, “airline ticket? Cheebye what airline?”

The terrorist considered this quickly and shouted his preference, “Emirates!”

Something snapped in my section commander. He flicked the safety catch on his SAR-21 to full auto and opened fire, emptying his magazine of 30 rounds of blanks as he screamed. “Emirates hah? SQ not good enough for you is it? Nabeh! Limpehshootjiliaphorlisee!”

Milestones

Kai pooped in his potty. Not once, but twice and almost three times.

He missed his hattrick only because I was busy putting the dishes in the sink and he went in his diaper before I could sit him down.

Then there’s the reading. About a week ago, he started reading the letters on his alphabet biscuits completely unprompted. He doesn’t get every letter right, and insists on calling the letter “O” a “zero”. We’ll fix that later.

And, unlike his famously monolingual father, he’s learned to count in Mandarin and English. And unlike his famously sinophobic father, he counts better in Mandarin.

Then there’s his teaching Grandma how to play Angry Birds. She can’t get over how well this 22 month old boy manipulates the iPad.

And when it’s time for bed, he carries his two favourite soft-toy friends – a monkey (which he calls Tarting) and a dinosaur (Didotaur) – says goodnight, and then walks to his room and to his cot, waiting to be carried into it.

We are so proud. But we also did ask him one night before giving him Tarting and Didotaur, to stay a baby for a while more, and not grow up so quickly.

Banker!

We’ve been very lucky to have a baby boy who’s so easy to look after. He eats well, is able to play by himself, and sleeps mostly to a schedule, and when we’re eating out, he’s able to sit at the table for up to an hour – enough for us to finish our meal without fuss.

Because Naomi is the one that does the details, we have a log of Kai’s daily doings like waking and sleeping times, eating and excreting times – although I’m sure there are other parents like us, with computerised logs that offer an instant audit if so required.

We also have a live-feed list of Kai’s vocablurry, which currently includes such food related words as “eat”, “pasta”, “chicken”, “bread”, “apple” and “hot” and “cold”. That’s about the same as an SQ stewardess’ operating vocabulary at cruising altitude – because at take-offs and landings they have to learn to read other complicated things from a card.

A friend tells us to be very careful what we say in front of Kai from now on, as they’re at the “storage of information” stage. Her 18 month old daughter shocked her last month by parroting a rude word she heard her father say.

So we are now at the next stage of parenting where we have to start spelling things out. Or pretend we said something else.

“Banker! Papa said Banker!”

There’s that R-word again

No, the other R-word. I don’t really care about Pastor Rony Tan and his idiocy – he’s of the same cloth, as far as I’m concerned, as the evangelical pastor in the U.S. who once made his point against migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds by famously declaring that “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”

I’m referring to our nation’s obsession with race. I was rummaging through our personal documents last night because I was trying to get them organised for Kai’s first passport application.

On his birth certificate I saw something in Naomi’s details that made me chuckle and recall the little argument I had with the lady registering our details for Kai’s birth certificate.

On the column for Naomi’s “race” is printed “Japanese”. Which is alright I guess if you consider Japanese a “race”. The box next to that, “Dialect Group”, I had left blank when we filled out the form, and the lady clerk had pounced on the blank box with her pen and said, “you must fill in dialect group. What dialect group is your wife?”

She wouldn’t take “none” for an answer, and insisted that there had to be a dialect group for Naomi, whether she was Japanese or not. After around the 27th time I had said that I had no idea, the officious but helpful clerk looked at me like I was stupid and said, “ok, what language does she speak apart from Japanese? Japanese is her first language right? What else does she speak? Come on, I’m sure you know.”

And so, Kai’s birth certificate shows that his mother belongs to the “English Dialect Group” of the Japanese Race.