I donch know if it’s because of all the hoo-ha whipped up by our dear Straits Times and its affiliates as well as Internet hysteria — against China nationals working in Singapore who are unable to speak even Singlish, let alone your Shakespeare best (not that many, if any, true blue Singaporeans do — but that’s another story).
This is a preamble to a weird exchange earlier this week i had at the Starhub payment booth at the basement of Plaza Singapura where I went to pay my bill.
One of the two cashiers muttered something when I handed over my bill and I replied “shénme?” as i couldn’t make out what she said.
I could have said “Excuse me”, “Beg your pardon?” or “Wot?” (with el-typico Singaporean abruptness) but I automatically chose “shénme?” — probably because I was mentally in a putonghua mode as i happened to be on my way to meet a friend, ST, who is spending big bucks — and investing enormous amounts of time — at a cram school in Park Mall to learn Chinese!
The cashier muttered something in reply and I again said “shénme?” and we began to exchange the sort of glances that total strangers exchange which conveyed flying daggers!
To my 2nd “shénme?” cashier lady raised her voice a little, spoke a little clearer and I got it this time.
“$42.80? OK!” I handed over my credit card as well as the resignation that she had caught me out — I speak English, like the best or the worst of Singaporeans. The rest of the transaction went without hitch; the payment was processed; I was handed the ncessary slips of paper to acknowledge and then my Starhub invoice, payment confirmation and credit card were returned.
Then as I was putting the papers and the card into my handbag, I heard much to my chagrin that the cashier who insisted on muttering — in English — was bantering with her colleague in effortless Mandarin!
I was left to draw several conclusions:
1) They are China nationals and on pain of punishment or worse had been instructed to speak only English to all customers, regardless of whatever language they used.
2) They are Chinese Singaporeans who loathe China nationals and assume anyone who opens his/her mouth and out comes Chinese must be a said China national and so should be forced to speak English — which too many Singaporeans appear to insist is our lingua franca.
3) My putunghua was so bad that it pained the two young ladies’ Chinese speaking sensibilities so much that they were determined to force this heartland auntie wannabe to go back to speaking her primary language, which, alas, is English.
One of the possibilities may be correct or all may be off the mark.
But that incident reminds me again of the strident insistence from too many sides that China nationals working in Singapore should be able to speak English.
I’m surprised, no aghast, that so few of us appreciate this growing pool of native Chinese speakers everywhere we turn in Singapore from whom we can learn to speak Mandarin — for free!
How many of those who gripe ad nauseam abt being served by non-English speaking China nationals realise that there are people like ST mentioned earlier and another friend Ismail Kassim (whose story can be found here) who are paying good money to learn Mandarin?
With China rising, it’s an advantage to be able to speak Mandarin and understand a little of the culture in that large country, never mind if we are Singaporeans and don’t care to acknowledge our roots (for those Chinese by race) or don’t have roots to acknowledge (those who are not Chinese by race).
We should just look on the positive aspect of a fait accompli (ie a large inflow of China Chinese) and leverage with all our might; rather than gripe with all our might!
Many from the West would be happy to change places with us, to be immersed in Chinese language and culture without the hardship of having to spend money to acquire both.