mental indigestion

In defence of Chinese teachers in Singapore November 29, 2009

Filed under: Life in general — mel @ 11:07 pm
Tags: ,

Chinese teachers are the best teachers.

I get rather irritated whenever I read about the ‘sorry state’ of Chinese language standards in Singapore. Mostly because the blame tends to go all on the Chinese teachers themselves and how “boring” and “hopeless” they make the subject out to be. To me, that is absolute bull because I know that most Chinese teachers have a genuine passion for their culture and language and hence, are some of the most dedicated, nurturing educators I’ve encountered.

In primary school, I was put in this short-lived SPECHLL (no idea what that stands for, but yes, acronyms were already hip in the early ’90s) programme that was meant for students who did “considerably poorer in Chinese compared to their other subjects” i.e. jia kantang. This meant that we had to stay back every Friday for “enrichment” courses and sometimes, a moustached MOE inspector will visit and give us sparkly sharpeners. However, the biggest bonus of being in this programme was getting the best Chinese teacher in the school, Mrs Su, to teach us Chinese from Primary 4-6. I adored her. I LOVED Chinese lessons because she made lessons interactive and fun (e.g. teaching us to sing along to Faye Wong songs, watching “dramatic” Channel 8 Iraqi war news clips and getting our current affairs on par simultaneously) and took a genuine personal interest in our emotional and educational progress . I was totally motivated with her lessons and my Chinese composition skills improved so much such that one of my essays was even printed in the school magazine (before that my storyline was pretty much limited to a windy bright day with Xiaoming going to the market).

The point I’m trying to make is, it’s not so much the teachers but the system (as with most things in the world). I am still very much hopeless in Mandarin not because I hated the subject in school, but I just really wasn’t able to get much practice with the language thereafter. This seemed largely due to this not-talked-about-but-you-know-it-is-there-East-West cultural divide whereby:

a) My “kantang” friends take pride in how hopeless they are in Chinese (no guesses as to which schools they are from). Inversely, there is this subconscious condescension towards people who speak predominantly Chinese. Damn post-colonial hangups.

b) My “cheena” friends totally cringe when I attempt to speak in Chinese with them. There is this disdain of my “alien angmohness” and lack of pride/knowledge of my “roots”. So really, it’s not that I want to be “cheem-angmoh” but more like I don’t have the zi(1) ge(2) to banter in Mandarin with them.

I found that the only time I felt my Chinese improving in recent years was in Melbourne, where I made friends with PRCs who very patiently conversed with me in Mandarin (even when angstily bemoaning about dramatic relationship problems!) I truly felt a new intimacy with the language but that of course totally dissipated once I returned to Singapore and had the “don’t speak Chinese lah” label slapped back on.

The thing is, I really did and do enjoy learning Mandarin  and still read Lianhe Zaobao at my MIL’s place whenever I can. But if I’ve been relegated to “don’t even try being cheena” (with the exception to hawkers and taxi drivers), I think it’s going to be a while more before bilingualism truly succeeds in this country.

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12 Responses to “In defence of Chinese teachers in Singapore”

  1. olduvai Says:

    I was in SPECHLL too! I remember having to take Social Studies in Chinese and playing all kinds of word games. It was pretty fun (although I still needed tuition!). I think my HCJC Chinese teacher was a pretty awesome one too.

  2. melch Says:

    Hello SPECHLL friend! Did you get Mdm Cai in JC? She was very nurturing, but I was such a bum in Year 1.

  3. woollendrums Says:

    You really hit the spot on the ‘unsaid’ issues! You should go to the papers with this 🙂 And, I was actually quite envious of you all who got to be in SPECHLL cos it was so Special and you got all the good teachers!! And my Chinese was no better than yours! 😛 Guess sometimes it’s luck whether u get a good teacher or not – and it’s not only for Chinese. But you’re so right – it’s not the teachers’ fault, it’s the system.

    Can’t believe we are also ex-Hwa Chongians lor. Very diu1 lian3.

  4. Lianne Says:

    I had Mrs Su also! She is the best Chinese teacher I ever had, and she allowed English to be used in class. I always prepared the English meanings of the new words because otherwise I would always be lost in class, and she would call on me to share the meanings of the words in English with the class.

  5. melch Says:

    @Sheryl: I still feel I got no zi(1) ge(2) to say that I was from HC.
    @Lianne: On retrospect, she was probably the best teacher EVER for me.

  6. enette Says:

    Hmmm… while I do see your point about the east-west divide, and i do struggle with my condescension towards cheenapoks (hehe) and my embarrassment at not being fluent in mandarin, living abroad has changed my perception of my identity and need for speaking chinese fluently.

    In singapore i’d always say i’m chinese, but here i’d say i’m singaporean and make sure the person asking knows there is a distinction. yes, i’m ethnically chinese (with indonesian bits thrown in) but the generations above me in my family are better in malay than mandarin as their second languages. And there’s no shame in that because ultimately, we are many generations removed from our chinese ancestors and have intermarried with the locals in this region. i guess i’m torn between the fact that i don’t consider myself chinese like the china chinese are and the fact that i’d still want my kids to know chinese. HMM.. complicated.

  7. melch Says:

    @enette: My maternal grandparents were first-generation immigrants so this means a lot of my uncles/aunties still speak in Hakka or Mandarin most comfortably. My grandfather’s house, with all its “ancestor artefacts” and my childhood memories, serves as my “family roots”. But yeah, like you, the disconnection to motherland is definitely there. Ideally, I want to be fluent in three languages: English, Chinese and Spanish because this means I might be able to related to a majority of the world’s population (why I’d need to know so many people, I have no idea).

  8. enette Says:

    hahaha! i know! i want to learn a 3rd language too but i can hardly manage 2! definitely spanish features highly but also french and italian. language is really like a secret code to different cultures/peoples.

    p.s. i’m 3/4 hakka! and proud even though i don’t know why!

    u have inspired a blog entry…

  9. […] discussion has led some to criticise Chinese teachers, which led to my friend Melanie’s post, which has led to this […]

  10. Ching Says:

    @melanie… are you the melanie that i think you were? I got Mrs Su too and I know that pinny was too good at chinese to get into SPECHLL. ha ha ha

  11. melch Says:

    @Ching: I probably am! Are you Hejing but now no longer use hanyu pinyin?

  12. […] However, because these said course mates could not really communicate in English, they did not have much choice but to tolerate my half-baked Mandarin. I bet they were wincing pretty hard too. And I’m starting to understand why the Chinese-speaking camp does not want me to torture their ears with my … […]


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