I Am Uniquely Chinese

by: Adelyn Koh (16S06H)

The first thought I had when I stepped into Raffles Institution (JC) was “wow, this is something really different.”  I was used to walls with Chinese sayings etched upon them, red banners proudly displaying the age old Chinese proverbs. Hailing from a school deeply couched in Chinese tradition by way of history, RI provided a stark contrast – a school so westernized in almost every aspect possible. The school itself is one that favours English, seeing as it admits students from every race. However, I have a question for the Chinese students of this school: have we forgotten our culture, and have left behind the things that make us uniquely Chinese, leading to a tangible lack of Chinese presence here?

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Having taken the H1 Chinese exams myself this year, I realized one thing in common about many of the students that took it – there’s little love for the language.  To most of them, it was an extra burden to shoulder, a troublesome and unnecessary task that the quicker they completed, the better. A huge majority of the students taking Chinese had no passion or initiative to be involved in Chinese related activities. In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the stereotypical ‘Banana Chinese’ people – ethnically Chinese in appearance, but oriented in the inside, in reference to a new generation who grew up in westernized environments, leading to a lack of appreciation of Chinese culture, loss of proficiency in Mandarin, and in severe cases, even an inability to speak the language entirely. Instead of seeing Chinese culture as something they were proud to be a part of, they were all too happy to discard Chinese culture like how one discards a banana peel, discarding all the yellow parts away. This is a rather worrying trend that may indeed lead to some unwanted personal implications in the future. A man of Chinese ethnicity that is unable to speak his own language will be a laughing stock amongst people. He will be criticized, for not being able to stand up, and represent his own culture. A simple Google search will reveal countless stories of Africans, Europeans, Americans, and people of even more varied backgrounds who speak Mandarin fluently as though it was their own native tongue. All over the world, an increasing number people are picking up the language. Yet in RI, a school widely considered to be the most prestigious for pre-tertiary education Singapore, our Chinese students are studying the language with a reluctant mindsets and a heavy heart.

One of the most concise and systematic languages in the world, Chinese has a certain beauty to it. Each and every stroke adds a whole new word, and in some cases, changes the word entirely. I did pass my Higher Chinese exams in Year Four, but a part of me was drawn to the beauty of the language. However, the overarching reason was that I was adamant about ensuring that I, as a person of Chinese ethnicity, would be able to speak and write the language. For these sort of linguistic skills get rusty after long periods of non-usage, it was a way for me to make certain that I did not walk out of RI after two years, not being able to speak fluent Chinese nor write it. 

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My class’ timetable had four more periods than the average class’ timetable. We complained about the long hours, and we groaned about the extra homework we had to do. Most people find two hour Chinese periods torturous, but it was really pretty alright. My teacher tried to make it as painless as possible for us, by sharing interesting anecdotes about her life, little pearls of Chinese wisdom accumulated with age. We were the pioneer batch of students that underwent oral examinations that had videos in them. Perhaps you might have found me silly, subjecting myself to an extra four hours of lessons per week, four hours which may have had been better spent on other H2 subjects, but in all seriousness, I can honestly say that I do not regret the extra effort and time spent. Not the least bit at all.

Only after leaving my previous Chinese culture saturated school did I see Chinese and all of its culture, as a valuable thing. These traditional Chinese values of honesty, loyalty, integrity, filial piety, just to name a few, are things that we, as Chinese people, should hold dear to our hearts. These values are so deeply entrenched within our culture that it proves a rather difficult task to have one without the other. Perhaps as Chinese students in RI, we should not be more Chinese, but rather less westernized. It would be great if during this festive period, we take this opportunity to be more “Chinese” than usual, and appreciate our roots. Also, don’t forget to spend time with your family – after all, filial piety is indeed one of the most important traditional Chinese values.

Here’s to wishing you a happy Chinese New Year!

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