A Chinese Education (May 20, 2003)
I was three years old, surrounded by relatives and friends of my parents. They were all babbling in this strange language I could not decipher. And then one of them approached me and babbled a few words. I merely shook my head and said in English I didn’t understand what they were saying.
“Doesn’t he know Chinese? Well, he should.”
My parents would then look disappointed and approach me, asking me to talk in Chinese, a language they never bothered to teach but expected me to speak just the same. I just merely looked at them with wondering eyes.
A year later, I was sent to Xavier, a “prestigious” all-boys private school that had Chinese as part of its curriculum. Of course never mind the fact that they were teaching Chinese Mandarin but my relatives expected me to speak Chinese Fookien, two different dialects.
The first thing that was taught to me was my name. Yang Te Tsa. All Chinese names comprise three characters, each having only one symbol. It was difficult to memorize at first since my name had complex and numerous strokes. My mother used to joke that one of her friends wanted to be named Ee Er San, which is translated as one two three, because each character had the same number of strokes as the number it represented. That was in nursery.
Our formal foray into the Chinese language began in grade one, where we started memorizing Chinese characters aside from our names. Learning to write “a” went side by side with learning how to write “mu”, the character for tree.
Over the years, we would tackle more complex characters as our knowledge of the language began to grow. But in actuality, it didn’t. Most sessions involved mindless memorization of words and their meaning which will soon be forgotten by the end of the quarter. We didn’t even know our seatmate’s Chinese name so that whenever the teacher would call someone, only that person would know that he was being called. Our Chinese names were as unknown as the money hidden in our piggy bank. To top it off, even our ineptitude was laughed at. During exams, the teacher would write on the blackboard the entries that needed to be filled out, such as the year and section. Under the name, he would put “ta pen niyow” or big cow as an example. Some students would write “ta pen niyow” on their test papers.
As for me, my parents and relatives still expected me to speak Fookien, even though no one was teaching it to me. They reasoned that I was being taught Chinese in school. But my rebuttal of being taught Mandarin and not Fookien fell on deaf ears.
I don’t know when it happened but sometime during grade school I realized an anomaly in my name. My last name was Tan but the first character of my Chinese name (which usually serves as the clan name) didn’t correspond with the other Tan’s in my class. And I did ask around so that I knew that last names correspond to a particular Chinese character. So why was mine different?
Apparently, it’s because Tan isn’t my real family name but Yu. Me and my siblings were using my mother’s last name instead of my father’s, at least legally. When I confronted them with this, they merely shrug and blamed it on paperwork.
By the time I was in grade five, Chinese became the subject everyone dreaded. No one understood it except one or two students in class, which is mainly attributed not to studiousness but more to the fact that they came from a Taiwanese family thus the language they were using at home was Mandarin and not the typical Fookien. At this point, cheating became rampant. Whether it was copying from your seatmate, scribbling notes on your hand or handkerchief, or taking a look at the book when the teacher wasn’t looking, we call became familiar with it. It even reached the point that students who don’t normally cheat in other subjects cheat in Chinese. And of course, the excuse was this. “It’s only Chinese. There’s no point in learning it. We won’t use it anyway.”
I only took my Chinese seriously (meaning an effort to actually retain what I had learned) in grade six because anime dubbed in Chinese was showing on cable. I’d stay awake until 10 pm just to watch these shows. It surprised me that I was able to apply, even if it was just a little, my knowledge of Chinese Mandarin.
And then in high school, I found out we had it easy. In Xavier, you only had one Chinese class per day. In other Chinese schools, you also had Math in Chinese, History in Chinese, even Science in Chinese. Compared to students of those schools, we might as well have been mute.
But our Chinese ineptitude stayed the same because the all-girls school right next to ours suffered the same fate as we. Xaverians and ICAns didn’t really speak Chinese even if it was part of their school curriculum. The best we could come up with is Chi-tag-lish, a combination of Chinese, Filipino, and English. Or if they do speak Chinese, it’s with the Fookien dialect rather than Mandarin.
So here I am, after suffering thirteen years of education in Xavier, still unable to engage in a conversation in Chinese. My parents and relatives are disappointed in me and still expect me to speak Fookien out of the blue.