What does it mean to be of a Chinese race? I constantly ask myself that as I live in a world where we’re increasingly influenced by western values and languages. It is evident that the new generation of kids speak much less mandarin than their peers a decade ago. I sometimes see images of my younger self in them: The kid who hated Chinese lessons in school, and couldn’t be bothered with aiming high in my test scores. The only consolation being that I could order duck rice in Mandarin. But outside my desire to get lunch using Mandarin, does being Chinese necessarily mean that I must have a good command in Mandarin?
I come from a Chinese Indonesian family and spent the early part of my life growing up in Jakarta. My grandparents spoke to me in Mandarin and would sometimes force me to read articles from the Chinese newspaper. I remember topping my Chinese class in school and even got invited to do a Chinese show-and-tell about my new Spiderman toy back then. My late grandfather, who was very passionate about Mandarin, diligently prepared me for my exams as well. He taught me things related to its culture like Chinese Chess, or bought me books about Chinese philosophy. In school, I was the only one who used Mandarin outside classes, which perhaps contributed to my “success” in getting the best grades. I (later) realised that unlike Malaysia and Singapore, the Chinese in Indonesia rarely use Mandarin as a medium of communication when speaking to one another. The youth didn’t have any avenue to apply what they’ve learnt in the classroom with regards to the language. So of course, the childish me was brimming with pride about how good I was in Mandarin, where I felt that I was perfect at it. Until I moved back to Singapore in 2006.
Studying Mandarin in Singapore was a whole different ball game. Essays and comprehension questions were of a much higher difficulty. Coupled with the oral assessment where I had to describe what’s going on in a graphic and discuss some topics with whoever was assessing me. I will never forget my first Chinese class back in Singapore, where I was shocked by how well my classmates could articulate their points and answers to their teacher. It dawned on me that the standard of Mandarin here was of a much higher level than in Indonesia. My friends didn’t only speak Mandarin to their grandparents, but their whole family. I told myself that if I had to keep up with them, I had to humble myself and learn more.
As part of my integration back into Singapore, I started to become used to speaking to some elderly in Mandarin especially if they weren’t good at English. I was afraid of being labelled as the white-washed Asian boy who grew up overseas. Part of the process was being corrected whenever I said something wrong. I recall a hawker telling me that it’s 两块 insead of 二块. Needless to say, I knew that this would be a great environment for me to improve my Mandarin. Whenever my Indonesian relatives visit me, I get comments about how my Mandarin has improved as compared to when I was living there. Such confidence boosts are helpful in my interest in the language at least on a casual basis where I could have a small talk with someone in Mandarin. However, as the working language is English in Singapore, I didn't have the opportunity to explore that side of Mandarin here. Heck, I didn't even think about it.
I was fortunate to have a 3 month exchange program in Beijing in 2016 with 7 other friends. It was our first foray into using Mandarin at an extremely technical level. Despite many locals praising us for our Mandarin, deep down, we know that there's a lot to improve on. We had to learn many words which we have never seen before and correct ourselves on the 壁画 (Bì Huà) when writing our own names. We also had many encounters with African students who spoke Mandarin so comfortably not only when playing football or eating, but even when they had to use complicated terms when presenting their project findings. I have to admit that it was a pretty shameful experience seeing someone from a non-Chinese race having so much desire and drive to master the language, where it serves as a motivation for us to continue improving. It was an eye-opening experience to finally be able to use Mandarin on a daily basis, especially when you know you cannot use English as a back-up in case we can't express ourselves. Being out of our comfort zone taught us plenty.
As I grew older and more mature, I started to appreciate the use of Mandarin at a working level where I had to use Mandarin during business interviews. My various encounters from Jakarta to Beijing have allowed me to perceive the importance and impact of the language. But without a shadow of a doubt, wherever you go in the world, knowing an extra language will be a great asset to have. If I could, those are the words that I would tell my younger self to give the 10 year old me a clear objective of why I'm taking those "boring" and "draggy" classes. I hope that the younger generation, who are our future, will continue to pick up Mandarin and appreciate the importance of it and that there will be a constant effort from governments, corporates, and families to fulfil this. This forms part of the reason why I joined Bluente in the first place: To help in an initiative which I'm increasingly passionate about.
Nonetheless, I do not want to see it only from a utiliarian's point of view as Mandarin is more than a utility. The culture beneath the language is equally important. Ultimately, those are what forms the pride of being a Chinese right? I still have a lot of work to do in terms of mastering the language but regardless of whether I'm Chinese or not, I'm proud to be able to speak Mandarin.