Sunday 22 March 2009

How bad is my Mandarin? Ask the taxi driver

I dread taking taxis. And it’s not just because I’m afraid of being taken for a ride.

It’s also because I have a hard time deciding whether I should speak to the driver in English or Mandarin.

If I speak to the cabby in English, sometimes he may not be comfortable with the language – or worse, he thinks I’m trying to show off.

But if I speak to the cabby in Mandarin, it would immediately become apparent that my Mandarin sucks really bad.

And to add insult to ineptitude, sometimes the driver would reply to me in English just to spare me the agony of having to speak more Mandarin to him – as well as to spare him the agony of having to listen to me speak more Mandarin to him.

Either way, I lose.

But at least thanks to the Speak Mandarin Campaign, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, I don’t have the burden of a third option – that is, speaking to the driver in Hokkien, which I also suck at.

The irony is that I actually grew up in a Chinese-speaking household. Both my parents spoke only Mandarin and Hainanese to me, never English.

My late artist father even authored several books in Chinese, which I’m unable to read because my Chinese sucks so bad.

My younger sister is the only one in the family who is truly bilingual, being proficient in both English and Chinese. The Speak Mandarin Campaign started two years after she was born. Coincidence?

Actually, my sis is trilingual now, having completed a post-grad course in Korea to become a Korean language teacher.

However, I can proudly say that my Hainanese is better than her Hainanese. What sibling rivalry?

My two children, on the other hand, cannot speak or understand any dialect at all. Moreover, their command of Mandarin also sucks – although it sucks slightly less than mine.

This is why as much as I wish I could speak more Mandarin to my kids, both in primary school, I’m just concerned that it might bring their Mandarin down to my level, which is not even good enough for giving directions to the taxi driver.

So I let them watch Little Nyonya just to expose them to more Mandarin – only to also inadvertently expose them to an attempted rape scene or two.

The sad part is that my kids aren’t doing that well in their English language class either. I just can’t win.

My only hope for them is that when they grow up, they won't have the same problem taking taxis that I do.

Nowadays, whenever I need to take a cab, I just pray I get a non-Chinese driver.

- Published in The New Paper, 22 March 2009