A Chi­nese in China who can’t re­ally read Chi­nese

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ALYWIN CHEW

It is in­cred­i­bly ironic that I’m now work­ing in China, be­cause Chi­nese ac­tu­ally used to be the bane of my ex­is­tence.

Yes, I may be a Chi­nese but I hated learn­ing Chi­nese. It was just too tough hav­ing to re­mem­ber all the dif­fer­ent strokes for each char­ac­ter. To make mat­ters worse, there can be sev­eral per­mu­ta­tions for a par­tic­u­lar term.

For ex­am­ple, I used to al­ways get con­fused with the word , which can be pro­nounced xing or hang. The for­mer refers to “walk” or “travel” while the lat­ter can mean “line” or “pro­fes­sion”. When com­bined with the word

, the re­sult­ing ( means “bank”. This was all too mind-bog­gling for me.

Till to­day, I still get night­mares about Chi­nese words. In th­ese dreams, I am seated in an exam hall with a Chi­nese es­say exam pa­per in front of me. The only ) words that I know how to write are “

…” (One pleas­ant morn­ing, Xiao Ming…) be­cause this was the way many peo­ple started their es­says dur­ing my time.

I am not jok­ing, just ask any Sin­ga­porean and he or she will ver­ify this.

To en­sure that I did not flunk my ex­ams, my par­ents sent me for tu­ition classes with my pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents. Grandma used to be a Chi­nese teacher. Grandpa used to be the prin­ci­pal of the Chi­nese school. It was ob­vi­ous that they were go­ing to be ex­cel­lent tu­tors.

It was also ob­vi­ous that their pro­fi­ciency of the Chi­nese lan­guage did not get handed down the gen­er­a­tions.

Back dur­ing those times, rote learn­ing was how we picked up Chi­nese. I would be in­structed to write every char­ac­ter 10 times on pieces of pa­per that were filled with lit­tle green boxes. We would then take a short break be­fore grandma con­ducted a test which re­quired me to write what­ever she re­cited. Every mis­take I made was met with a hard knock on my knuckles by wooden rods.

As it turned out, cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment did yield re­sults. After all, I man­aged to get a B3 grade for my Chi­nese O Level ex­ams. I ac­tu­ally scored worse for English. Un­for­tu­nately, I have now for­got­ten how to write most Chi­nese words ex­cept for my name.

Th­ese days, as a copy­ed­i­tor at China Daily, I have learned to ap­pre­ci­ate the dy­namism of the Chi­nese lan­guage be­cause of the na­ture of my job. I oc­ca­sion­ally come across an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble para­graph in English, only to dis­cover that it was a lit­eral trans­la­tion of a very po­etic seven-char­ac­ter Chi­nese say­ing that was men­tioned by the in­ter­vie­wee.

I have also come to re­al­ize that trans­la­tion web­sites do a very poor job at trans­lat­ing huge chunks of text, be­cause tech­nol­ogy is yet to be able to de­ter­mine the nu­ances of a lan­guage. Be­sides, some words sim­ply can­not be trans­lated into a dif­fer­ent lan­guage with­out sound­ing odd or crass.

For in­stance, a re­porter once thought I was jok­ing when I told her that the English trans­la­tion of

( ) was “godmother”, and ques­tioned why “god” was even in the pic­ture.

I had no ex­pla­na­tion as to why the word is struc­tured as such, though I could pose the same ques­tion to her by ask­ing why the lit­eral trans­la­tion of is made up of the words “dry” and “mother” in Chi­nese. Come think of it, the char­ac­ter can also be pro­nounced in the fourth tone to re­fer to that fourlet­ter cuss word that begins with F.

The pop­u­la­tion of my home coun­try of Sin­ga­pore may be pre­dom­i­nantly Chi­nese, but not all Chi­nese fam­i­lies speak Man­darin. In fact, the only peo­ple I spoke Man­darin to were my grand­par­ents, ex­cept for my ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther whom couldn’t speak a word of Man­darin, a short­com­ing that ac­tu­ally man­aged to save his life dur­ing the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion from 1942 to 1945.

Ac­cord­ing to my mother, my grand­fa­ther — a Per­anakan Chi­nese who spoke Malay in­stead of Man­darin — was once de­tained by Ja­panese sol­diers at a check­point in Sin­ga­pore, but be­cause he could not speak or un­der­stand a word of Man­darin, the sol­diers were left puz­zled as to who he re­ally was. Was he Malay? Was he a Chi­nese spy pre­tend­ing to not un­der­stand Chi­nese?

In the midst of all the con­fu­sion, my grand­fa­ther qui­etly snuck past the bar­rier of con­certina wires, climbed a fence and bolted into the for­est. The rest of those who were de­tained were ap­par­ently ex­e­cuted. At least that’s what my grand­fa­ther claimed.

I’m con­fi­dent that I would not be as lucky as my grand­fa­ther should I be a Chi­nese il­lit­er­ate in China, be­cause that would mean I won’t be able to en­joy the con­ve­nience af­forded by all the won­der­ful apps avail­able here.

Then again, it might ac­tu­ally been bet­ter if I could not read a sin­gle Chi­nese word, be­cause this won­der­ful app called Taobao is bleed­ing my wal­let dry.

Con­tact the writer at alywin@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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