*Banana – a colloquial term to describe a Chinese who only appreciates Western customs thereby making him Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
“You don’t know Chinese? Why don’t you know Chinese? Aren’t you Chinese?”
Ever have one of those statements haunt you for a long time? Well, mine is the question above which was hurled at my friends and I more than two decades ago when I was an undergraduate in Australia. You see, we were walking along one of the many beautifully tree-lined cobbled paths of my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, when we were approached by a ‘surfer dude’ – a beef cake of an Australian: blonde, well-built and tanned. We didn’t think much of it until he spoke. He asked, in perfect Beijing-accented Mandarin, if we knew how to read certain Chinese characters from a book which he had shoved into our faces. My two Malaysian friends, who stood nearest to him bore the brunt of his ridicule as he persisted in getting us to read the Chinese words aloud and put the words into context. My two friends, who were from local government schools in Malaysia (where learning of the Chinese language was not offered) obviously couldn’t give him a satisfactory reply. I was sweating buckets amidst the cool Australian spring air, as I knew I would be his next target.
Thankfully he gave up on us soon after and questioned us in typical Aussie English, the very statement above that has stuck to my head since. But not before introducing himself as a scholar reading Chinese Literature in Beijing who is only back in Melbourne for research. Needless to say, the three of us stood there stumped, wide-eyed and completely red-faced.
What if he had asked me? Well, let’s just say that in between asking friend no. 1 and friend no.2, scenes of my own notoriety in my years of traumatizing my Chinese Language teacher back in school went into instant replay. Accompanied, this time, not by Rocky’s glorious theme but by a morose and melancholic tune performed by a lone Erhu.
You see, while I was schooled in a top Chinese school in Penang, I hated Chinese. If it had not been for the threat of public shaming issued by my Principal to those who dare fail Chinese at O-levels, I would have…yes, flunked my Chinese exams. But pass I did, by the hair on my chinny chin chin literally.
Was it because lessons were boring? No, in fact they were most interesting. There were poem recitations, calligraphy and exercises in interpreting classical Chinese lyrical poems but as far as I was concerned, there were also pranks, tricks and misdemeanors which I inflicted on all my unsuspecting Chinese teachers who entered my class. I relished my role as the fabled troll below the bridge bullying unassuming Billy goats who are to be my Chinese teachers.
No. It wasn’t boredom. It was more of relevance, or the lack of it – I was not able to see how learning Chinese would benefit me. On some occasions, I had questioned my teachers on the relevance of using Chinese only to be chastised and told to ‘sit down, shut up and finish my calligraphy’. Which I did, but not before using the ink to make random patterns on my classmates’ shirts (Pollock would have been proud of me! ) To make matters worse, BEING Chinese was, in fact, a bane back in Malaysia as it would automatically deemed me lesser rights and opportunities. There really was no advantage in knowing Chinese, being Chinese. Or so I thought, until…
I thought by going to Australia to study would galvanize my love for all things Western and once and for all, eradicate Chinese from my life for good! Hurrah! But alas, nothing could be further from the truth.
Strangely though, being in a foreign country has made me more conscious of my own cultural identity and mother tongue. It also ‘helped’ that on one too many occasions, I was at the receiving end of racism. As I saw people from different cultures going about their unique ways of life, I became intrigued to know mine. So, for the next 5 years of my life, I would use what little I know of Chinese to that advantage – to build greater kinship with my fellow Chinese friends, to know more about my heritage and the history of the overseas Chinese – heck, I even took a module in Chinese History as part of my A-level studies and studied it intently, in English nonetheless!
Today in my work capacity, I am expected to converse in fluent Mandarin daily to stakeholders and do presentations to international delegates in fluent Mandarin (talk about our past coming back to haunt us!). As a parent, I am determined that my children ‘not follow in Daddy’s footsteps’ in dismissing Chinese. It is my desire to see my kids embrace their Chinese culture and identity with pride. As educators, we are acutely aware of many Singaporean students’ struggles with the learning of the Chinese as a second language. We have found some of these simple strategies useful in making the language ‘come alive’ and become more ‘relevant’ for our young children.
1. Listening to good Chinese songs: Children naturally love music and love singing. Listening to good Chinese songs with proper enunciation aids in language assimilation. We do this in the car when we are driving around especially on weekends. Our favorites are Teresa Teng 邓丽君 and Liu Wen Zheng 刘文正…yes, ‘retro’ but there aren’t many other artistes whose pronunciation are as spot on with wholesome lyrics and pretty good orchestration to accompany their songs (this Banana Dad happens to be a musician so…)
2. Speaking Chinese at home: I was impressed when I observed parents like A Happy Mum and Gingerbread Mum who conscientiously incorporate Mandarin in their daily conversations with their children. Angie and I use English primarily at home but we are starting, on an ad-hoc basis, to devote 1 day a week to converse with Dana in Mandarin. My main reservation here is whether this ‘Banana’ is using the language correctly but I take heart that my personal Chinese tutor, whom I married, is always there to ensure accuracy.
3. Visiting grandparents and relatives: Closely linked to point #2, most grandparents and elders in the family are able to speak either Chinese, dialects or mixture of both. We encourage interaction between our children and their elderly relatives. Apart from instilling family identity, it gives them the opportunities to discover their ‘roots’ and hear Chinese being used as an essential mode of communication. On that note, it’s really cool to hear Dana’s maternal Grandma hum along to Teresa Teng tunes and having Dana join in…what a ride!
4. Seeking out daily authentic opportunities: Whenever possible, we would bring Dana to the wet market, hawker stalls and Chinese restaurants and empower her to converse in Chinese to the stall owners, waiters and shop assistants. It could start from small requests such as asking for the menu, an extra spoon or a cup of water. We also make her thank the service providers in Mandarin as a way of life.
5. Reading Chinese Storybooks: All kids love parents to read-aloud to them. I have happily relegated all Chinese story-reading to the wife who is effectively bilingual. A good way is to pick thematic stories linked to the various Chinese festivals we celebrate (This online bookstore, Flip For Joy 乐翻天, run by an ex-MOE Chinese Teacher is a good start if you need some age-specific recommendations). Books increase children’s vocabulary and trigger their interest in the subject. On this note, to complement the reading, you can also expose them to Nickelodeon Jr’s ‘Ni Hao Kai Lan 你好, 凯兰’ where Dana picked up her earliest Chinese phrases!
6. Travelling: As a family, we love to travel. It broadens our horizons and we never fail to come back with priceless experiences and memories. One of our family’s unanimous favourite destinations is Taiwan where Chinese is used all around. I remember Dana was barely 4 years old then on our 1st Taiwan holiday and it proved to be such an inspiring and immersive experience for her. For myself, it was also a journey of rediscovery, of my own language and culture. We’ve been back twice in the last 2 years and hoping to return soon.
7. Celebrating Chinese festivals: One of the advantages of being in Singapore is that we celebrate every major cultural festivity. It’s great to see children and family members dress-up, cook-up and eat-up during these occasions. As we grow older, we relish every opportunity to affirm our Chinese heritage. Despite our busy lives, we try to commemorate in small ways which help kids make meaning of the festivals (i.e. carrying lanterns on Zhong Qiu Jie 中秋节; eating rice dumplings on Duan Wu Jie 端午节, eating Tang Yuan 汤圆 on winter solstice 冬至. We’ve also started a tradition years back where Dana has to bless her elders with auspicious Mandarin Festive Greetings before receiving CNY angbaos.
A trend we noticed among the races in Singapore is that the Chinese rarely dress-up in our own ethnic attire (for valid practical reasons I must add). Dana has worn Kebaya and Saree for her school’s racial harmony day celebrations but not a CheongSam. We are hoping to change that, starting from this year. The impetus also comes about because Mommy can now dress the kids in matchy-matchy attires from the homegrown children’s fashion label – ELLY. We love how Elly’s clothes are stylish without compromising practicality; festive without being ‘obiang’ (singlish for ’embarrassingly out of fashion’) and comfortable enough to suit children’s active lifestyles.
For CNY 2015, Angie has picked out these two sets of matchy-matchy sibling outfits for our children:
a. CheongSam in Home, Mandarin-collared shirt in Home – This set is extra special because the design is specially commissioned for Singapore SG50 celebrations, with motifs unique to this Little Red Dot which we call Home! Read about the design process here.
This journey in re-learning Chinese has been an eye-opening and life-changing one for me. I learnt that in order to appreciate the language, I have to apply it. Riding on the values of hindsight, one of my responsibilities as a parent is to teach my children to love and appreciate their own heritage. Unless they appreciate their own heritage, how can they learn to appreciate others? And if they don’t appreciate others, how can they embrace diversity in society?
With Dana now in formal schooling, we are praying hard her interest in Chinese will not be put off by the weekly Ting Xie 听写 (Chinese Spelling) and homework. Rather we hope the Chinese Teachers will ignite that spark with fun lessons and galvanize the efforts we are putting in at home to nurture a little bilingual learner.
The Elly Store
Address: 501, Bukit Timah Road, #02-29 Cluny Court, Sg 259760
Contact Number: 64668718
Opening hours: Mon to Sat: 10 am to 7 pm; Sun and PH: 10 am to 6 pm
Thanks to Elly’s generous sponsorship, we are giving away one Cheongsam in Home (Worth SGD65) to one loyal reader! To qualify, simply do the following by Friday, 06 February 2014, 2359H (Singapore time):
1. Like ‘Elly‘ Facebook page.
2. Like the ‘Life’sTinyMiracles’ Facebook page.
2. Like and comment on this Facebook post, share with me which of the above tips you found most useful in helping children love Chinese. Then tag 3 friends for bonus chances to win!
Terms & Conditions: This giveaway is open to Singapore residents only. Winners will have 24 hours to respond, failing which a new winner will be drawn. All incomplete entries will be disqualified. All entries will be verified before the winners are announced. To be fair to our sponsors, all fake Facebook accounts (e.g. accounts set up purely to take part in contests with no or very few real friends) will also be ineligible to win. All the best!