Readers' Submissions

On Being Bi

  • Written by Felix
  • March 20th, 2007
  • 4 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

China Hotel Guide
• Gladden Hotel Shilong
• Chang An Hotel Dongguan
• Regal Palace Hotel
• Shan Hu Hotel Dongguan

As a child I grew up totally bilingual. My German family lived in an environment where it was forbidden to speak German in public. All my street friends and sundry spoke the local lingo. Being home or in the market, I switched between the two languages automatically without being aware of it. When we left that country, I spent my teen years in Switzerland and West Germany, immersed in German language culture. There I completely forgot my second first language. I do not even remember how to say "please" and "thank you" in it.

In school I took up English and French, at the University I studied Chinese. Today nearly all of my reading is in English as the Internet is a predominantly English medium and the "New York Times" my preferred newspaper, but when it comes to creative writing I have a feeling of security only when I use German.

In speaking Chinese I have the same problem as with Thai, I am not able to hear the different tones (like: rising, falling, high pitch). But the funny thing is that when I stay in China, my nightly dreams are produced in Chinese sounds and characters, and in my dreams the intonation of Chinese words is completely correct.

In a speech on Channel News Asia, the godfather or "minister mentor" of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, reflected on the problem of bilingualism, which is a big issue for a multicultural society which the city state is.

Immediately after the founding of Singapore, when it was kicked out of the Federation of Malaysia, Malay was declared the national language there. It still is one of the national languages, but more for decorum than practical use. English, the language of the once hated colonial power, became the lingua franca. How could that be, as the great majority of its residents is Chinese?

The Chinese, who live in Singapore, emigrated to South East Asia from different parts of China, bringing their local dialects and traditions with them. Mainland China introduced in the last century a unified language that was understood and spoken in the whole country, the so called Mandarin (In Chinese: Han yu" or Pu tong hua).

Great Britain as the administrator of Hong Kong and Singapore didn't want its colonial subjects to communicate easily with elements from the motherland in a common language. So they upheld Cantonese as the official language of Hong Kong and had no interest in letting Mandarin become a school curriculum for Singapore.

At the time, when Singapore gained independence, there existed a number of Chinese communities in the city which spoke different dialects not understood by other Chinese. In a popular radio quiz at that time, a word was pronounced in one Chinese dialect, and the listeners had to guess what it meant and how it was pronounced in another dialect. They often failed.

Lee explicated on TV that as a rising politician he underwent the trouble to learn a certain Chinese dialect from the roots, because he wanted to win elections in a constituency, where the people only could be addressed in their special dialect. He won those elections and more.

His government introduced Mandarin as the official Chinese language, but he himself and his citizens had to learn it as a foreign language. Many Singaporeans like to use a kind of pidgin English slang that is called "Singlish" and absolutely not encouraged by the government.

Lee himself asked his children to speak Mandarin with him at the dinner table. They all now can think and express themselves in Chinese and English. But English still seems the predominant language in the family, especially when they have to make political decisions.

English is not really an exact language. For example, if an American college boy has a friend, you cannot be sure to which gender the person belongs. In French you add an "e" to mark the difference. The English noun "man" has in Chinese and German two different meanings, "Jen" or "Mensch" and "Nan" or "Mann". (In Chinese writing the male variety of this term is characterised by a big head on strong shoulders, while the genderless has two legs for upright walking).

Can you expect, that when a Chinese clan like the Lee family grows into a foreign language as their main instrument of intellectual expression, that they also absorb the values, which have developed in the centuries of its usage in its country of origin?

This looks like being just partially the case. Concepts like press freedom or an independent judicial system get in Singapore other priorities than in Western governance. The son of Lee Kuan Yew, now prime minister, declared in his last election speech, that he couldn't govern comfortably, if he saw ten or more members of opposition parties in the parliament. Three would just be fine. And he got three.

It seems that inherited anakasms, like the obsessive idea of Confucianism, that people should trust a benevolent sovereign, not control him, do override all the civilisatory signals a new language brings. Buddhist Thailand in these days also flirts with the return to such a primordial ranking order.

Learning and teaching English as a foreign language has its limitations.

Stickman's thoughts:

For me, one of the most enjoyable things about spending many years in Thailand has been learning the local language to a high standard. It is something I am proud of, particularly given that people from my part of the world generally only speak English – and nothing else.