Learning Chinese together (with an Englishman)

On our first date, at a foot-massage parlor in Dali Ancient Town, Jon learned how to read and say his first Chinese character — pain — 痛 (tòng). That was the beginning of our romance, along with our Chinese-character-sharing adventure. Fifteen months later, we were on our way to get married…

As the plane descended in Las Vegas, I pointed to the setting sun and showed him the Chinese character for Marriage (婚). “To wed is like getting the Woman (女) at Dusk (昏)!”

After a slight pause, I added “However, the character for Dusk has another meaning — to faint. Perhaps in 20 years’ time, when you look at your Woman (女) again, you might Faint (昏)! Ha!”

When Jon met my family and friends in Singapore, he was surprised that Singaporean English is somewhat different from the English that I use when I speak to him.

Singapore is an interesting little island to grow up on. The grandparents of my generation were migrants from Malaysia, China, and India. While most did not go to school, everyone had the same need to communicate. New words emerged and evolved. Soon, “piak” (an onomatopoeia), came to mean the sound for “a slap”.

“He piak me!”

Singapore was built over time by many different hands. From Pulau Ujong, meaning Island at the End in Malay, to Singapura, Sanskrit for Lion City, to Singapore during the British rule. The various Chinese names complemented either with the most relevant meaning or the closest sounding characters.
In 1965, Singapore gained independence. English has been the country’s first language since the 1980s. Our other treasured languages — Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil — remain taught and embedded in our culture, but in our compulsory education, everything is taught in English.

Yet, seldom do full English sentences get spoken among locals. If we dislike a person, we would exclaim in an eclectic mix of languages:

Singaporeans affectionately call this Rojak (a local dish of mixed ingredients) or Singlish.

To me, Singlish sentence structures are heavily influenced by Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, which is rather similar to Mandarin. For a lot of Chinese families like mine, we speak very literal Mandarin-translated-English. We tend to say “already” and “or not?” all the time!

I used to be very conscious of this at work. Whenever I spoke to international clients, my brain was programmed to omit all possible Mandarin/Hokkien train of thoughts. English was my “work language” — very proper and sometimes cold.

At the end of 2011, I wanted to perfect one language. Between English and Chinese, I picked the latter. I moved to Shanghai. As I traveled westward, the landscape changed, the sun set later and the food got spicier. Mandarin was spoken in different accents but I felt a great sense of belonging.

In 2014, I enrolled myself in a language school in Yunnan to re-learn basic Chinese. At 8,000ft above sea-level and without high-rise buildings, the sky seemed so much bigger. The lakes and the mountains beckoned everyone to slow down… It was a fruitful year studying Chinese radicals and discovering new meaning in almost everything (I had thought) I knew.

That was before Love found me — in the form of an Englishman. After a whirlwind marriage and a year of visa application, we are finally living together in San Francisco.

As Jon starts to learn Chinese, I am suddenly thankful for my bilingual education. Despite not perfecting any of my languages, I could explain and break things down for easy understanding. Singlish — when used to explain Chinese — finally made sense! Jon grasped “already” and “or not?” in no time and could apply them in our daily conversations.

We moved on to learn Chinese characters and, I told him, “Medicine (药) is an Appointment (约) with Herbs (艹 Grass Radical)” but he cheekily replied, “No, it’s eating Grass (艹) with an Embroidered (纟Silk Radical) Spoon (勺)!” and we laughed!

That is the essence of what makes Chinese fascinating for us! Each and every component or character has its individual meaning, yet, they could become a compound or be strung together as an expressive phrase with new meanings. We are two independent persons from different cultural backgrounds and here we are, coming together as one.

Learning together changes everything. Despite the weather being chilly for much of the year, English does not seem as cold and distant as before — I discovered vocabularies that I seldom use and perhaps, never knew.

Walking down our neighborhood one day, we stumbled upon a local teashop and found Yunnan tea. I was fondly reminded of revisiting a language and the surprises that come along.

I began creating bilingual stories, hoping to make Chinese more accessible for Jon. The idea of reading in English and picking up Chinese characters along the way worked well and, as Jon started to edit my translations, I realized that he understood more Chinese than I could have imagined.

We shared this project with the people around us and one thing led to another. Before we knew it, we had raised the money we needed to get it printed and published.

At the end of the day, we are not linguists trying to teach English or Chinese. We are just a couple who love writing stories and compiling a dictionary of sorts — for the children we are not ready to have.

A Little Daily Dose: Discovering Chinese characters through short stories is available in San Francisco at Black Bird Bookstore and Green Apple Books (Inner Richmond).