When East Meets West

Growing up, I was keenly aware and curious of the myriad of tongues spoken around me. As a child living under the same roof as my grandparents, I frequently received instructions in a mix of Mandarin and dialect, the latter largely used to conceal (to no avail) any unsavoury swear words from young children. Around my Fillipino helper, I had to learn to adapt to her halting English muddled with strings of Tagalog. Around my primary school friends, I naturally slipped into Singlish (reckless usage of it is usually a good indicator of one’s transition from mere acquaintances to recess playmates). On my own, I loved filling up my head with Roald Dahl, Artemis Fowl, Sweet Valley High and the occasional poetry anthology.

And thus, on one hand, I had spent a childhood in the arms of fairytales, chivalric noble Lords, witty boy prodigies and American high school drama. On the other hand, it was also spent in the company of age-old Chinese superstitions and prophetic tales, all told in a chaotic mix of Singlish, Mandarin, Teochew, Hokkien and Hainanese, aimed at imbuing in children a healthy (perhaps overzealous) respect of authority and self-righteous discipline. Though everyday was an absolute linguistic nightmare, it had surrounded me (and many other multi-lingual Singaporeans too) as snuggly as a second skin and most people thought nothing of it.

In retrospect, I realise how much language alone had shaped and defined my identity, not merely in terms of the music and books I was exposed to, but also the cultural attitudes, stereotypes and social baggage that came with speaking a particular vernacular.

Initially, the co-existence of these influences began harmoniously, and though it was burdensome dealing with two languages that were just polar opposites, they amalgamated in a manner that supplemented, complemented and balanced each other. I loved the fact that I felt so at ease in either context, that I could convince the neighbourhood shopowner to add more pork in my rice simply by speaking dialect, and also be able to hold a spirited debate with my peers in English about, say, the pros and cons of bilingualism. But gradually, as I grew more discerning of the necessary cultural implications and associations that came with a certain language, the more they materialised as irreconcilable, inimical forces and schools of thought.

This disjunct was drawn out by a shift in environment when I left my humble heartland primary school for one of Singapore’s elite English girls school. I noted a great demographic shift in my peers. To my young 13-year-old self, suddenly the way I spoke, including the type of colloqualisms I used and the inflections in my speech, as well as the types of bags I carry, became distinctive, differentiating markers of someone other than the elite. For one, speaking mandarin or Singlish in its most authentic form felt as discordant as a foreign language. Even gestures of open affection such as hugging, or demonstrative exhortations of “Oh, I missed you!” unsettled me greatly as I had grown up around conservative parents who regarded such unreserved emotional displays as superficial and superfluous.

As a school that encouraged independent learning, female empowerment and ambition, we were constantly taught in class to be sceptical and questioning of established authority, and to be open to change and fresh perspectives. I also began developing an avid interest in western history and literature, and the romantic themes of freedom and independence against societal customs struck a deep chord within me. They were revolutionary to me not merely because I was an impressionable child, but also because I had grown up thinking otherwise.

Unconsciously, this began warping my sense of identity and self-worth, and it ignited a rebellion back home. I began conflicting with my parents on numerous issues – from the clothes I could wear, to negotiating my “rights” as a teenager, to what was morally right and wrong, I had unwittingly and inexorably diverged from the background that had taught me the meaning of discipline and hard work, and brought me to this school in the first place.

It took another change in environment and a year of studying abroad for me to realise its value again. In the swinging socialising culture of the average British university student, apart from sporadic invitations to tea, there were also plenty of alcohol, tobacco, shisha, partying, clubbing and occasionally, recreational drugs. Though it wasn’t really a big deal to many, I was instinctively uncomfortable with this list of “vices” because I felt like I needed a reason to justify my choices, and I feared my question would turn from why, to why not?

With the displacement of all artificial restrictions and a discovery of newfound independence and an abundance of temptations, freedom to do anything I wished turned out to be the ultimate test of my convictions and moral fibre.

Once, emerging from the depths of a sluggish lecture, a friend had extended me a friendly puff on his cigarette, and in that split second, the questions that have plagued me endleslly returned to haunt me. Compelled to give an answer, I came to a simple realisation: Whether it is rooted in the perception of myself as an abidingly studious student, or in my conservative upbringing, against constant questioning and self-doubt my fundamental discomfort still reigned supreme, and this itself was reason enough. Perhaps I may never be fully comfortable, but as I learnt to negotiate my boundaries everyday, I am thankful for that measure of self-restraint and discipline, itself a good reminder of who I am in these tumultuous, exciting time of youth.

An inevitable tension between East and West influences may always exist, but I think I have now let go of my distrust of the former, and learnt to appreciate the unique marriage of the two – while one embraces freedom, the other teaches me when to draw reasonable limits, and with that, glean true freedom.

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Allison Law is a second year law student from the University of Warwick hoping to carry her legal aspirations back home to Singapore. In real life, she is more comfortable responding to the name of Zhi Tian but until the day people can figure out its pronunciation, she is content with the nicknames of “Ally”, “Allison” or “Tian”. She appreciates thoughtfulness in writing, people, work, no matter what form it takes.