Posted by: yannaungoak | October 7, 2009

Time to start picking up Chinese again, maybe?

I love walking around at night in this town.

So, about a half hour ago, I was on my way to fuel my addiction to pork at the 24 hour food court down the street, navigating past the table with the old white guy courting a young SPG, and another with a chatty group of sleazy looking dolled-up transvestites with conspicuously broad shoulders, and around the stall selling ice-kachang, there it was: the pork stall, with all its glorious aromas.

Bak kut teh, ribs, liver, and my favorite… braised pig’s feet.

So I ask the lady at the stall for some pig’s feet, and she replies in Mandarin. Thinking it’s just that it’s late and she couldn’t tell (or didn’t bother to check) that I wasn’t Chinese, I replied in English, thinking she’d get the hang of it and start switching to English. She just goes on in Mandarin. Oops, PRC person…

There’s actually quite a lot people from mainland China here, but they blend in with the ethnically Chinese majority until you start talking to them and notice they don’t know any English (Singaporeans at least know rudimentary English, since it’s the language of instruction in public schools from day 1) or they have a noticeably PRC accent. So I was in one of those situations that happen often enough that you vividly remember the last time it happened but not so often that you would actually call it a “familiar situation”. I didn’t know whether I should pretend like I don’t know any Chinese and just point and nod, or actually start practicing the little Chinese I learned for a year in college. I flip a coin in my head, and start trying out my rusty Mandarin.

Immediately she asks me if I know Fujian Hua. I was like “Huh?”. I don’t even know what that was. Isn’t it odd enough that a brown guy speaks a few words of Mandarin? I didn’t know at the time that she was referring to Hokkien (I just Wikipedia-ed it). Obviously unable to convey my sense of confusion in my rudimentary Mandarin, I just reply with a simple “no”. And then she says, “well, I’ve seen a lot of people like you who can speak Fujian Hua, so I thought I’d ask”. People like me? So, I’m part of some category of people in this lady’s mind now? Which could it possibly be? She doesn’t know I’m Burmese. I’m not dark skinned enough to be South Asian (especially because most of the South Asians in Singapore are Tamils, who have darker skin tones), and definitely not fair skinned enough, and too hairy to be any variant of Southern or Northern Chinese. Maybe she thinks I’m Malay, but I don’t think Malays are particularly adept in Hokkien, nor do they eat pork (being Muslims). Plus, she seems to know I’m a foreigner, because she was asking later how long I’ve been in Singapore. So, yeah, puzzled and confused, I change the topic to small talk and wait for her to finish preparing the pork, after which I get to enjoy my meal and continue pondering about the nice Chinese lady’s possible schemes of racial profiling.

But more importantly, I started thinking that it would be a good idea to learn Chinese again. I gave it up after a year in college because the Chinese program at Middlebury was awfully intense and I had to take other awful classes for my double major requirements. And I think more than the workload, it’s the lack of incentives to learn it. If you studied really hard, you get to ace the spelling quiz the next morning, and that was pretty much the only reward. Oh, and you got to go to China for Junior year. Big deal.

Middkids learn Chinese, or whatever other language, because they want to be worldly and sophisticated, or they’re interested in comparative linguistics. I don’t care about any of that stuff. I like doing things only when they become an everyday reality in my life. And now it seems like a good time for me to learn Chinese, considering I’m in a town where several million folks speak it.

It’ll be exciting. I’m definitely stoked.

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