mandarin zest

recently it has struck me how inadequate I am in Chinese/Mandarin – and importantly, how much it affects me. this revelation unfurled piecemeal, after the umpteenth time of representing that I was a ‘native speaker of Mandarin Chinese’ on job application forms (neither fairly nor unfairly, I feel), and maybe after singing maudlin taiwanese songs in pek’s karaoke cavern.

I don’t wish to overstate the case, of course; I’m honestly too comfortable with English to be particularly bothered or crippled. but that it bothers, or should bother, me at all isn’t as self-evident as it may seem to an outsider. weakness in Mandarin is generally lauded – not merely tolerated – amongst Singaporeans in my generation, exceptional for an inadequacy of any sort, especially in this peculiarly acquisitive day and age (or more starkly, amongst my peculiarly acquisitive social circle). a not uncommon phatic line of conversation features mutual commiseration over poor Chinese language skills, certified by a B/C/D grade at ‘O’ level and reaffirmed by amusing recollections of awkward encounters with Chinese teachers, elderly folk or tourists.

viewed as a mere instantiation of a broader petulance with school and homework this whole thing with Chinese seems unremarkable. I remember being a rather moany secondary school kid for whom learning about organic chem and igneous rocks was (almost) as unpalatable as Chinese cloze passages. but I find it difficult to shake off the suspicion that my aversion to Chinese is uniquely hypocritical. I have always felt myself to be an acquisitive learner of languages, with English and then with Japanese – whose distinct blend of the pictorial and alphabetic renders it pedagogically (as well as etymologically) similar to English and Chinese. I like getting stuck into nice words or turns of phrase, and – more idiosyncratically – like learning about grammar; I like few things more than snapping words and particles together to form a ‘proper’ sentence in a foreign language, probably the less modern version of writing an elegant, pithy, piece of code. it thus strikes me as distinctly odd why I have little but faint bemusement and antipathy for Chinese. (it can’t just be the fact that I am Chinese and thus find learning ‘my’ language unromantic; my inordinate interest in the Singapore general election, when juxtaposed against a general distaste for politics, tells me that I am fully able and willing to lean into the banal and the familiar)

odd, not inexplicable, of course – the non-volitional, non-familial nature of my experience with the Chinese language makes my inadequacy therein not wholly surprising. but for me, and surely for anyone with a similarly ‘ecumenical’ outlook toward learning new things, this it inimitably falls through the cracks between the natural and the novel – it’s not familiar enough for its pursuit to be self-evident; not strange enough for the returns to be hurtling and exponential.

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