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Borrowed Tongues

March 17, 2017

I read Yiyun Li's words on giving up Chinese with interest. It fascinated me, the sureness that a language could be anyone's to renounce. To be able to give up, first you have to own. 

 

I am never going to give up any languages, because I own none. I speak three, but they are simply on loan to me. I understood this young, when I observed that the way I spoke English, Malay and Mandarin did not match up with what I heard on radio, or TV. Out on the streets, strangers accosted me and asked; was I from Japan? was I Malay? was I Chinese? In Kuala Lumpur, I got into a taxi, whose driver wanted to know if I was from Vietnam. I said no, but my mother is. I made up a whole tale about how my Vietnamese mother immigrated to Malaysia. The man's face was full of interest. He believed me completely. I understood from this how easy it would be for me to accidentally lose a language or an identity.

 

Speaking Malay, I was scolded by an elder for my lack of proficiency, because I used an intimate pronoun instead of its formal counterpart. Speaking Mandarin, I was asked by someone from China whether I was Vietnamese, because I didn't sound like a native speaker. Speaking English, I could not make myself understood by most people in America. My speech was often being held up to a standard of how it should be, and I was forever falling short. Frequently foreign, never native.

 

Now, well into adulthood, I see celebrations of the unique accents that marked me when I was growing up. There are YouTube videos of Americans speaking Singlish (close sister of Manglish), and they are unsurprisingly lauded for their talent at reverse mimicry. I can find videos comparing the Mandarin accents of mainland China, Taiwan and Malaysia, where all three accent owners confess to believing their ways of speech aren't "pure" or "correct." I watch these with some kind of greedy relief, but all the time my talons sink deeper into my borrowed tongues. I have a "quota" of how many books to read per language per year, for fear of English loosening my slippery grasp on Malay and Chinese.

 

(<-- Parts of this video are offensive.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To undo the belief that I don't belong will take eons. If someone were to tell me today that I am merely pendatang and should go back to "my country," of course I wouldn't run home and cry. Not anymore. I understand resistance now, and live in an age of YouTube, not the age of three censored government channels on TV. But the bitterness of being unwanted has metastasized long ago, and will not leave their cells, my cells.

 

Though without a native language, I understand the significance of giving one up. The traits and tics and things that score us deepest were imposed on us, without our will. How radical it can feel to break free of that, and to say -- I have chosen a new way to be me. Against fate.

 

Sometimes I check my spam folder. I look to see how people pretend to be what they are not. They always sound so confident, the denizens of my spam folder, playing roles they weren't born to live. "eBay" wants to partner with me. "Starbucks" wants to gift me coffee. I? I want to learn this one trick. The five rules. The ten ways to be a legitimate citizen, with a homeland that claims me without question.

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