You don’t speak Chinese?

I’m a Malaysian Chinese, not a Chinese from China.

Michelle Chen, Free Malaysia Today

While it would be nice to speak Chinese, one shouldn’t be expected to speak the language just because one is Chinese, or risk being labelled a fake just because one doesn’t.

I went to the post office yesterday morning to mail off some stuff. As I was sticking my stamps on the envelopes, an old Chinese couple came up beside me with their mail. I placed the wet sponge between us so that they could reach it too. They smiled at me, and I smiled back. Then the lady asked me a question about my stamps in Chinese, and I said: “I don’t speak Chinese.”

It was like I’d smacked her in the face with a softball bat. She and her husband stared at me. “But aren’t you from here?” she exclaimed – “here” meaning Malaysia. I said yes, I’m Malaysian. Her husband, trying to be helpful, said: “You’re from Sabah or Sarawak, issit?” I said no, I’m from PJ.

I watched as they tried to digest this. Then the lady turned to her husband and began berating him: “See lah, just like all your nieces, all also cannot speak Chinese, aiyo!” As she continued haranguing him, I turned back to my mail and tried to speed up the stamp-sticking process, but I wasn’t fast enough.

She finished lecturing him on the failings of his nieces, then turned her attention to me. “But then what languages do you speak?”

I thought I should refrain from pointing out that we were presently conversing in English and that she’d just finished delivering her pep talk to her husband very fluently in the same language. “I speak English and Malay,” I told her.

She gave me another good stare, then said: “Ohhh, you speak Malay at home, issit?” – meaning, I get it, you’re not a pure Chinese. I said, “No, I speak English at home and Malay at work and school.”

“What school did you go to?” she demanded. I told her my primary school was just up the road. “I see, I see,” she said, but I don’t think she did, really.

She and her husband stared at me for a few more seconds – I was beginning to feel like a zoo animal at this point – then left. I overheard their last words to each other about me as they walked back to their car: “Must be one of those modern families.”

I understand that many Chinese people think all Chinese should be able to speak at least one dialect. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been walking in a mall and a salesperson – usually from a bank – approaches me and begins rattling off his or her spiel in Chinese. Sure, maybe it’s a natural assumption, though I’d personally be a lot more impressed if they addressed me in English instead. But then, of course, that makes me elitist.

I think the Chinese use of the word “modern” to describe the banana community is too often a way to sugar-coat a very real criticism. When they say “modern”, they really mean that we’ve drifted away from our roots, that we’ve lost touch with our people, that we’re somehow deficient or lacking in terms of culture.

This is despite a number of them being able to speak languages other than Chinese themselves, as demonstrated in my run-in with the old Chinese couple yesterday morning. But it doesn’t matter whether you can speak a million languages. If you can’t speak Chinese, there’s something wrong with you. “You can’t even talk to your own people,” they say.

Well, pray tell, who are my people?

Ethnically, I’m Chinese, and I’m very proud of it. If I were given a choice at birth, I would still choose to be Chinese, though perhaps I’d ask for bigger eyes.

But I’m a Malaysian Chinese, not a Chinese from China. Many of “my people” are not Chinese at all. I do not excuse myself for not being able to communicate with Chinese people who speak only Chinese, but in many cases, I suspect such individuals believe that Chinese is all they need to get by in life. There’s no need to speak anything other than Chinese if you live surrounded by mostly Chinese people, conduct your business with mostly Chinese people, and hang out with mostly Chinese people.

But I think it would be a waste for any Malaysian to intentionally surround himself or herself with only people from his or her ethnic community.

I am very grateful for the many non-Chinese people in my life. China is a great nation, but I have always been thankful that I was born a Malaysian. And in order to really live as a Malaysian, I think there are more important things than knowing how to speak Chinese.

It would be nice if I could speak English, Malay and Chinese. If and when I have children, I want them to be trilingual. But I don’t want them to speak Chinese just because they are Chinese. I want them to speak Chinese so that they can talk with other Malaysians who also speak Chinese. And not all Chinese-speaking Malaysians are Chinese. It’s not a Chinese thing, it’s a Malaysian thing.

People like the lady I met at the post office seem to think that way. They say, you should be able to speak Chinese because you’re Malaysian. But they don’t appear to take into account the fact that not all Malaysians are Chinese. Sure, I’m Malaysian. So are you. Are you as worried about being able to talk to the Malays or Indians (or bananas)?

Again, it would be nice if I could speak Chinese. But I don’t for a second believe that I “should” speak Chinese “because” I’m a Chinese, as if it were a conditional thing and the minute I don’t speak Chinese, I’m a fake.

You use language to accomplish something, usually successful communication with other people. The more languages I can speak, the more people I can communicate with and the more people I can build relationships with. It’s as simple as that.

So please, don’t use my bilingual status to make judgement calls about my racial or national identity. Bananas are Malaysian Chinese too.

Michelle Chen is a sub-editor at FMT.