Speak the Way you Do

March 3, 2017
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If you want to be an English translator for Chinese diplomats, an esteemed ambassador representing China in other countries, or a powerful official in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you shouldn’t speak PERFECT English. Clicking at the jeers by uneducated netizens on Lu Kang’s Chinglish (a jocular epithet for saying English that has strong Chinese accent), I feel it is ludicrous for people to question Lu Kang’s ability to be the minister of Chinese foreign affairs. Lu Kang’s Chinglish does not harm China’s reputation but bolsters Chinese identity. In fact, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affair requires its officials – from translators to foreign ministers – to speak Chinglish in public, in order to show Chinese identity and cultural independence. As I close my eyelids for a short rest, my long-time love-hate story with Chinglish flits through my mind.

My English education actually began in primary school. My Shunde English teacher was my “Supreme Court” of English accent and usage for six years, but I never realized what I learned was Chinglish, as my English teacher was an old man who learned his English in Shunde and had never talked to any native speakers. Afterward, I moved to an IB school in Shunde where I was laughed at for my accent. I never took the mocking seriously and continued to speak the way I do.

However, everything changed when my Singaporean English teacher gave me a painful lesson about my weakness in pronunciation and accent in Grade 8. I couldn’t really recall what his question was, but I clearly remembered that I put my hand up right after the teacher asked. Certainly, some amazing ideas had seized my mind. He let me answer. I blurted out my whims, and breathed with satisfaction and happiness after finishing sharing my inspiring thoughts. Afterwards, however, the classroom was completely silent, and I tried to look at other students’ countenances – it was always a great joy to see other students’ reactions when you answer an abstruse question. I sat on my seat proudly, waiting for jealousies of students and praises from teacher.
Time passed. I heard clearly that the clock’s second hand beat once and again as if it were a hard-working man who must accomplish his duty. Unusually, my teacher uttered no response, as he was thinking something seriously.

 “Can you repeat your answer,” his countenance suggested he had just made a solemn decision, perhaps as hard as whom he was going to marry and spend the his whole life with.

I paused, and answered again with full enthusiasm. But I didn’t get the chance to finish.

“Okay, stop,” he interrupted me, when I just finished the first two words. I gaped and looked at my teacher confusedly.

   “Repeat what you just said,” my teacher commanded authoritatively.
   “The world,” my voice was loud and clear, but mixed with confusion and convulsion.
   “Say it again.” His voice became more commanding and committed.
   “The~ worl~~d?” I subconsciously weakened my tone, as it seemed that I had done something wrong.

What came next was again absolute silence. Some students looked at me with pity for my unpredictable fate. Time was like a drop of water hanging on the needle in the intravenous drip bag-relentlessly slow. What I wanted was simply a hole under my chair, which I could sneak out and disappear. My heart beat faster and faster as it just was caught up to be twice faster than the hand of the seconds and trying to double his speed again.

 Suddenly, the “educated” students returned from English-speaking countries had an epiphany and start uttering titters that could not dissipate easily from the small sealed classroom box. I used my eyes to beg them to stop this inhumane abuse as their laughs reverberated in the entire room, piercing my ears and heart.

“I don’t know what ‘the wor~d’ means, can you explain it to me?” Perhaps, he decided to give me mercy, or at least I hoped so.

I used my hands to draw a circle, to gesticulation meaning the “world”. He surely understood the meaning I wanted to express. A hint of smile passed his lips and his mood came serious again.

   “So you mean the “wor~l~d, right?”

I nodded my head strongly, and saw a hope to get out of this embarrassment just like Columbus thought he saw the continent of India after months wandering on the endless Atlantic.
   “So it is ‘the wor~l~d’, repeat your answer again.” He ordered a clear command; for me, it was like a faint sparkling lighthouse that provided precious hints of land.
   “The wo~r~d.” I said quickly, scurrying to jump out the unfathomable abyss.
   “Stop, ‘The W~o~r~l~d’.” He interrupted again.

It was not India-it’s America with full dangers hid inside thistles and horns, and indigenous people who were unwelcome to their expenditures. I suddenly realized that was far from the end - he picked up my accent, and this was a sound that I never had paid attention. 

   “The w~o~r~d.” I nearly choked. My returned classmates were not a modicum better than jerks - they uttered huge grating voice as they were much better than me - a yokel who never went overseas, uneducated, who could not control his own tongue.

I was just a little bit more desperate than Adolf Hitler hidden in the Berlin bomb shelter in 1945, waiting for the Red Army to catch him. For him, he dreamed he still had a chance to overturn the situation; for me, I knew that there was totally no possibility for me to properly utter this word.

“The w~o~r~l~d.” My teacher repeated again, in a dispassionate tone which would make him seem really patient and a good teacher. He didn’t give me a break.

 “The w ~o~r~d.” I begged him, trembling my tongue.

We repeated for several times until he realized how stubborn my tongue is. However, he decided not to stop but to torture me more.

“Try to say ‘m~i~l~k’” How evil he was! A Nazi soldier invented another methodology to make the massacre more entertaining. I looked at his devil face as if it was where the world’s sin was concentrated.

 “M~u~ck~er,” I tried my hardest to simulate his tongue, hoping to pry off his mouth and use a flashlight to know what the heck is happening in his mouth like a dentist.

“No, it is ‘m~i~l~k’.” Trying to pretend patience, he was Nazi solider who did not want his Jews to die too soon.
It is hard to judge whether he did the right thing or not as he decided to spend the rest of the class torturing my tongue and my confidence and my interest in learning English, with every sound that you need to roll your tongue to utter-“oil”, “loyal” and “foil”.

It was a significant and substantial lesson. Like a runner who took last place in a race and decided to train himself ruthlessly, I decided to speak PERFECT English no matter how I would sacrifice. From that day on, I tried every effort to become a perfect English tongue - from the beginning of the day starting with BBC Daily, to the end of the day with 60 minutes of VOA. I caught every chance that I could to simulate the native speaker: I would repeat every sentence my English teacher uttered silently with my stubborn tongue-the tone, intonation, speed, even the facial expression when he was saying this. However, I never spoke or raised my hand ever again in his class - my confidence in uttering English was destroyed.

Nevertheless, thanks to his teaching, I became more educated - at least speaking accurate English makes you seem more educated. Originally, I couldn’t distinguish “v” and “f”, “s” and “th”, “a” and “ei”. I pronounced no difference between “think” and “sink”, “vain” and “fan”. I appreciated him for making me more civilized. He taught me the theory that how you speak reveals your education, and if you are “uneducated”, you deserve to be discriminated against. Although discriminating against someone upon his language is cruel, it is how it works. For all these, I determined that I would speak PERFECT English.

One year later, my path to PERFECT English was heavily disturbed. I got an IB English teacher who graduated from Princeton as a literature Ph.D. Supposedly, my English should improve greatly under her teaching, but the only spot was that she was a native Indian holding with a strong Indian accent. My learning in literature began with her giving me the funniest classes about the most basic literary devices: nothing would cause more laughter than a reading of assonance poem or a performance of onomatopoeia in Indish (a humorous saying for Indian-English). We viewed her as the destroyer of the romance between Romeo and Juliet, of the mediation in Hamlet, of the fantasy of Odyssey - as every verse spoke in Indish was like turnips grown in a cesspit.

Afraid to be contaminated by her Indish, I put on my earphones, no matter her sincere didactic “this is very important!” or the romantic love between Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps her classes were meaningful and significant, but they were not worth listening as they are taught in imPERFECT English. My faith did shake sometimes, when I was thinking about why an imPERFECT English speaker could get a Princeton Ph.D; however, the retrospection of that harsh class soon brought me back to the right path to CIVILIZATION.

The torture of Indish didn’t last long. After one year in Singapore, in Grade 9, I had the chance to examine my effort and my uncontaminated PERFECT English. I was elected to be the exchange student with Hwachong International for two months. I had the chance to exercise my language supremacy; for one year, I hadn’t dared to speak English publicly once, but now I finally had the chance.

 Nothing went wrong from airport to Hwachong International, from exchange student orientation to my dormitory teachers; I spoke perfectly and no one pointed any problems in my accent. I was secretly pleased that my efforts worked. However, I had not yet seemed my classmates, who never knew how badly I spoke before. It was going to be a REBORN.

But God decided to show me his ability of making things out of    people’s plans. 

I appreciated my classmates’ welcome; it was really well-planned, in 27 different languages Malaysian, Indonesian, Tagalog, etc., but not Chinese and English. I was slightly disappointed, as my PERFECT English couldn’t be put into use. My disappointment deepened when I discerned that most of my classmates speak really poor English-actually Janpanish, Indish, Malaysish, Indonish. However, I felt despaired when my classmates were just like totally uninterested in English; they were interested in every accent in English except PERFECT English. Everyday, I was immersed in spoiled English, but I could not cover my ears like what I did to my literature teacher.

 It was the time that self-comfort was needed. I constructed a theory myself that they couldn’t speak PERFECT English only contributed to my supremacy, to show that I was educated and civilized.

 This theory worked really fine with my pride to support my action   - refusing to speak any Chinese with any friends. Despite of all the proudness of speaking PERFECT English, I still needed an opportunity, an opportunity to show off my English.

At the end of my exchanging season of two months, my chance came: we were going to have a Farewell Festival and there was a drama show, Romeo and Juliet, which needed someone in charge. Indubitably, I was the most active and became the director, but, a fly in an ointment, my team was literarily unprofessional. 

The teacher assigned me the team -a Japanese, a Singaporean, an Indonesian and one Indian, and told me “You have the best team. Give us the best performance.” Her words became IRONIC when I found out my team to be totally unsuitable for performing drama-none of them could speak English in accurate pronunciation.

Therefore, I required them to watch the perfect English version of Romeo and Juliet again and again before the first rehearsal, and asked them to remember not just the words, but also the sounds, the pronunciation, the intonation by heart. Speaking accurate English is the basic premise for a successful show.

   However, the first rehearsal began with disappointment.
   “Two household, both alike in dignity, in fair~” my Indian aside said.
   “Stop,” as I expected, the rehearsal would start with unacceptable cacophony.
   “It is not ‘do horsehord’; it is ‘tu hausehoud’,” I screamed out.
   “Try again.” I lowered my voice, as I knew I was going to shout a lot that day.

   My Indian partner did try and showed his effort in repetition. However, the tongue is tongue; mother lode won’t change due to attention. It would only worsen your pronunciation.

I could do nothing else besides stopping him again. 

 “Let me show you your way. ‘Du horsehord, bous alicke im digger~nidy. Im fare Varona, whare wi lei our sing. Fang einshun guge bake du nu moodinidy.’ Do you see?” As I was imitating his accent, I suddenly felt a joy, perhaps for the exaggeration I made of his accent. He was staring at me, eyes blinking like sparkling water drops reflecting lights on the smoothest glass.

Suddenly, I felt déjà vu, like when I was staring at my English teacher years before begging for mercy. I uttered the loudest laughter I ever heard, with great satisfaction, reverberating in the whole cinema.

 It followed by absolute silence.

 My Indian partner was standing still on the stage, eyes shining like a kindergarten child bullied by his teacher.
It was quiet, awkward and solemn.

 “Do you think you speak PERFECT English,” the silence was finally interrupted by Japanese Romeo jumping off the stage, walking step by step to me.

He stopped his ponderous steps, and stood right in front of me, face to face.

“Do you think you speak PERFECT English?” He repeated his question again, in low but dreadful voice.

I tried to respond, but my throat was stuck by mysterious fear, making me defenseless.

 “Let me say some words that were perhaps equally harsh as yours. You don’t speak English; you always speak Chinglish. It was determined from the day when you spoke ‘MAMA’ instead ‘MOM’. This is truth – we just don't want to tell you and hurt you because how you speak. If you don't believe, just record your voice you would know.” He finished every vowel in his sentence slowly and clearly, perhaps for making sure that I wouldn’t pick it up as Japish. However, no matter what language, it was the most acrid and harmful sound that I had ever heard, more harmful than a dolphin’s whistles in high pitch, or the reverberating titters of my classmates years ago.

 My body started trembling. His voice, clear and low, did not reverberate a bit in the spacious hall, but it knocked every fragment of bricks in my heart.

 “By the way, the teacher organized us in this team, because he wants the drama to be a multifaceted symphony rather than a grating solo of violin.” He came a step forward. My cerebellum was overloaded, losing control of my heartbeat and endocrine system. All that I knew about my body was that I became totally sweaty and could heart my heart beating clearly.

 “People are not going to discriminate against people for what they speak, just as people cannot discriminate people for their color.” His voice contained no anger, but pity and justness.

 “Your laughter just now makes you not only disgusting, but also despicable. We are an orchestra that consisted of different instruments. The difference in the sounds won’t make a symphony sound terrible. It was the basic nature of a beautiful symphony. If you are a director that finds the variety of instruments uncomfortable, I suggest to leave.” He continued dispassionately, as if Veritas was on his side.

I clenched my fists as hard as I could, and if felt like my nails would penetrate my own skin. My brain was a broken-down machine being forced to work, but actually it was collapsing. I couldn’t think anymore; perhaps my intuitiveness offered the best suggestion – run away!

I left.

Siting on the last roll of chairs, I hid myself from everyone and finished watching the play. Teachers who encountered me again and again praised me for “showing the diversity” of Hwachong International and commented that my play as “a vivid representation of Singapore”, with full of proudness and contentment, making me ashamed of myself again and again. In the rest of the days in Singapore, I, again, could utter no English sounds. It was lucky for me that the time remaining was short.

Laying on the bed and listening to the record of my own English, I realized how ridiculous and despicable I was. It’s true that I could not speak PERFECT English as I wanted; however, accepting yourself is much more glorious than changing yourself due to vanity. Discriminating someone for the language they speak is not a any less despicable than racism. Just as a black man cannot change his color into white, a person cannot modify his mother tongue to any shape he wants. People who want to do so are ludicrous. I was one.

After I came back to China, I started speaking English loudly again, regardless of others’ laughter and mockery. If they laughed, I laughed with them, as if their laughter was much better than the despise I once received in Singapore, and as if their laughter acknowledged my proper Chinglish. The tongue in your mouth is just like your color of skin; it is one of the intrinsic natures that defines a person. Having no confidence in your language is like having no confidence in yourself. When I pretended to speak the PERFECT English, I was actually self-abased, trying to hide my identity as a Chinese. Actually, each vowel and consonance uttered in Chinglish accent should be proof of my confidence, my self-assurance. I will speak Chinglish and be Chinese in the future, no matters what.

My understanding of languages actually sublimated in the world’s most revered educational institute, when the Harvard professor said “Listen to this beautiful weaving of languages. We are only nine people and we have sounds from every continent in the world – Italish, Mestizo, Indish, Chinglish, Francish, Singlish… It is going to be the best discussion class I ever had,” in a strong accent of Russian.

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