As in a mirror, dimly

(crossposted from Facebook/added links/might expand on my thoughts later)

Someone on a Malaysian expats group shared that they were trying to learn Chinese so other people started sharing their experiences, I wrote a very cheong hei comment so I thought I’d repost it to my own timeline if anybody cares.I grew up in an anglophone family because mum Hokkien dad Cantonese. Unfortunately when growing up we didn’t get exposed to a lot of Chinese TV or other pop culture because my dad is a pastor so we weren’t allowed to watch stuff with supernatural elements (rules out all the kungfu and hantu stuff). I’ve tried to learn Chinese a few times in my life, the outcomes so far…

1. My mum tried to teach me with some old-fashioned primers… I cried crocodile tears until she released me. I could read very fast in English at an early age and didn’t see the point of struggling to reading boring “kindergarten baby” books in a more complicated script.

2. Sent to POL* class in Standard 3, total disaster. The laoshi focussed on teaching the other kids who could already speak a bit of Chinese, so I with zero was left behind. The next year my parents didn’t force me to continue. * (“pupil’s own language”, Mandarin and Tamil classes held for Chinese and Indian students respectively in Malaysian national schools, usually outside school hours)

3. Took Chinese (Mandarin) for 1 year in college in the USA. I actually managed to make some progress with this and enjoyed a 2 week field trip to Beijing and Shanghai. But dropped off afterwards because I didn’t have any opportunity to use it.

4. What really burned me on trying to learn Chinese any more was the bitchy attitude of my colleagues in Singapore. I had some Singaporean and ex-Malaysian Chinese colleagues who were all-around horrible people and hostile to any outsiders including non-Chinese and bananas like me. After that I gave up trying to learn Mandarin for a long time.

5. During the pandemic I discovered Chinese BL novels** through a random comment on Facebook about The Untamed/Chen Qing Ling and ended up reading a bunch of English fan translations and watching a couple of the TV adaptations.

**Yes, I know BL novels are problematic, written and consumed mostly by heterosexual girls and women, fetishising gay men, promoting toxic relationships, etc. We’re in a pandemic, I’ve become considerably less judgemental of what other people do to blow off steam. I finally understand my friend who years ago said she needed “Twilight” to get her through Christmas at her in-laws.

That’s when I decided to give it another go because a) I don’t mind learning a language if there’s content that’s interesting enough for me to latch on to and b) no matter how good a translation is, you still miss a lot.

I also recently saw a blog post, I think it was by some Indian guy, who commented that Chinese culture is basically the only civilisation that has 2000+ years of continuous history (debatable, but…). There was also a tweet by some Chinese girl saying that in Chinese, it’s totally normal to quote something that someone said 2000 years ago and expect people to understand the reference***.

When you read novel translations there are sooooooooooooooo many footnotes explaining the historical/literary references. And I feel like I’m missing out on all that.

When we were small my dad taught us to recite a couple of the classic poems in Cantonese (the chong chin meng yit gwong one (Jing Ye Si by Li Bai), and the one about the beanstalks cooking the beans (The Seven-Step Verse)) but that’s really all the handle I have on 2000+ years of literature.

*** Of course people do this with Western literature and history too. But from the very cursory impression I’ve had of Chinese pop culture so far, the sheer density of how much people quote and make reference to ancient literature and history is way higher.

So I’m currently brushing up my Mandarin/written Chinese on Duolingo and learning Penang Hokkien on Memrise.

Sekian, terima kasih if you made it to the end of my long story.

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