Sunday 6 December 2009

Revenge of the potato eater: Speak English or don't work here

During my full-time national service, someone once asked me in English: “You eat potato?”

I thought to myself: What a strange question. Neither of us was even eating anything at the time.

As I pause to ponder if this was a serious or trick question, my tuber-fixated interrogator repeated the query, insisting on an answer: “You eat potato?”

Hasn’t everyone eaten a potato at least once in his or her life?

So I said: “Yah, I eat potato.”

“You eat potato?” he repeated with bemusement, as if I confessed to masturbation.

“I eat potato.”

“You eat potato.”

“I eat potato.”

This went on for a while until the person was satisfied that I had indeed confirmed my potato-eating and left to tell everyone very loudly that I said I ate potatoes like it was the funniest thing in the world.

It wasn’t until later when I found out that is to say a Chinese Singaporean “eats potatoes” is to mock him for being so Westernised that he speaks English rather than Chinese.

The assumption here is that the potato is a Western food, like the fries in a McDonald’s meal.

But when I was asked the potato question, the first thing that came to mind was the spuds in my mother's chicken curry – not a Western dish, I believe.

So it never occurred to me that "eating potatoes" had anything to do with my language preference.

That was when I realised that being a English-speaking Chinese Singaporean, I was in the minority.

But we are a big enough minority – or big enough spenders – that last week, the Government announced a new rule that will hopefully reverse the trend of a growing number of service workers recruited from abroad who can’t speak English to customers like me.

From the third quarter of next year, new foreign workers have to pass an English test before they can get a work permit as a skilled worker.

We felt vindicated after MM Lee Kuan Yew’s admission that Chinese has been wrongly taught in our schools for 30 years, turning Chinese Singaporeans like me off our mother tongue.

Many potato-eating Singaporeans has treated MM Lee’s mea culpa as licence to openly condemn the Government’s oppressive bilingual education policy for screwing up our lives and the lives of our children.

Some complain about how they were forced to emigrate because of the policy. Hey, at least they had the option to emigrate. No other country would have me.

So it’s almost fitting that foreigners now have to learn English to work in our country. Why should we be the only ones to suffer?

I don’t even mind being called a “potato eater”. Take that, you Chinese helicopter.

Suddenly, I feel like curry.

- Published in The New Paper. 6 December 2009