I recall a very poignant scene in the movie “I Not Stupid” where the teacher scolds a student for her bad attitude toward mandarin. This student felt that the only language she needed to know was English, in which she was very fluent in.
This teacher told her that the Chinese language was part of her culture, that it was part of her being Chinese; if she forwent seeking to be more interested in mandarin, she would have been forgoing her roots.
The teacher also added that the Chinese language was rich in history, giving her even more reason to learn it.
The student looked peeved, but made no reply.
I did wish that this student had been more argumentative. I think that a debate on this would be a very interesting one. If I was this student, I would have gone straight for the teacher’s definition on what culture and “the Chinese language” is.
Speak Mandarin Campaign
Singapore’s “Speak Mandarin Campaign” started in 1979 as part of the government’s plan of getting the Chinese in Singapore united under a common language. For you to know how serious the government was about this, this campaign included the total ban of other Chinese dialects from the media: television shows in dialect were dubbed in Mandarin before being aired, and radio programmes in dialect were scrapped.
The Language of the Ethnic Groups
While the Malays had the Malay language, and the Indians had Tamil, the Chinese were divided among their dialects. The government, in its attempt to instill a sense of unity within each of the major ethnic groups through a shared language, decided on Mandarin for the Chinese. English was to be the language shared by all.
The teacher spoke in Mandarin in the movie. The term she uses is “hua yu” or, literally translated, “the language of the Chinese”. The way the teacher put it across made it seem as though mandarin was the language of the Chinese, though this is not the case: mandarin was simply picked from a handful of other Chinese dialects.
When the Speak Mandarin Campaign was first started, people complained that by ignoring our original dialects, the government was removing our cultural identity. This teacher though, mentioned nothing about dialects. She also seemed oblivious to the fact that English, like many other languages, is also steeped in history.
Questions on Culture
I have seen my birth certificate. Under “race”, it says “Chinese.” But what exactly is race? Is it based on the colour of our skin? The place we were born? The language we speak?
As scientists find out more about our genetic make-up, they have found that people of different races have surprisingly similar DNA; so similar, in fact, that it is impossible to tell a person’s race from blood samples alone.
When I say I want to discover my roots, will I find those roots in China? Is the Chinese culture my culture?
My grandfather was a peranakan-Chinese and wasn’t from China, so is my culture peranakan culture?
But maybe I should go further back in time a little bit. Grandparents are perhaps just the outer branches of the great tree of my culture, not even close to the trunk yet, let alone the roots. To get to my roots, I shall look to my ancestors from way back, perhaps some Chinese from China. So if my ancestors were from there, my “roots” belong in China, right?
But why stop at China?
Why not go back to when Earth was not of seven continents, but rather made up of one supercontinent? Are my roots perhaps burried within the hunter-gatherer tribes that existed back then?
Let’s go back even further now. But his time, I’ll let you take a pick as to where my roots really lie, depending on your beliefs:
- Ape (“me want banana”)
- Adam and Eve (“oh my, Eve, you look stunning in those fig leaves.”)
I am quite lost with this whole thing about culture and roots. Can we not just pick the cultures and roots we’re interested in?
Or how about let’s stop talking about our culture as something we have left behind. Let’s create our culture, right here, right now. Let’s make our children want to be like us, make them want to emulate our culture, and stop talking about bananas and figs because that’s all it really is.