In a series of essays, Eunoians reflect on life, love, and loss. The essays were written in Mandarin, and translated into English.
As the saying goes, “Life isn’t a bed of roses.” Despite having heard this quote many times over, I still cannot help but grumble about my misfortunes in times of adversity. When I’d first started learning English, for instance, I struggled to learn all 26 letters of the alphabet. I often had to burn the midnight oil, writing till I was physically and mentally exhausted to finish writing a full essay. I had to constantly refer to the dictionary when writing, lamenting about my exasperating and difficult circumstances as I went. But in spite of the pain and suffering, I also realised that these were necessary challenges I had to endure on the road to success; if I couldn’t tackle them head-on, I would never be able to overcome those challenges. Smooth-sailing events will only stagnate me in my progress; rough times are the moments that keep me trudging forward.
Mankind has faced all sorts of trials and tribulations since the dawn of time. Some choose not to face these challenges head-on, hence failing to learn and improve in the process. Others choose to be tested by these hardships in order to become a formidable power. Mengzi once said: “Thou who is plagued with worry and hesitation is blessed with prosperity and growth; thou who is blissful in content will inevitably perish.Thou who is blessed with Heaven’s mandate is first made to suffer, tested by enduring hardships to strengthen thy resolve, and gifting upon thee unforeseen gifts.” A person who wishes to accomplish a huge task would first have to encounter obstacles, strengthen their resolve and renew their passion in order to reinforce their abilities. Conversely, a smooth-sailing life without ever facing challenges would lead one to grow content and fail to make progress.
Helen Keller’s incredible life story seems to prove such an understanding. She was born with numerous sensory defects but never gave up on life. Through her own hard work and some help from her tutor Ms Sullivan, she managed to overcome numerous odds to attain a Diploma in Literature. Despite being both visually impaired and hearing impaired, she held on tight to her strong sense of determination, allowing her to accomplish feats that others said were ‘impossible’; in doing so, she left a legacy behind her. After reading about her awe-inspiring story, I could not help but think: If Helen had been born without any disabilities, encountering none of the challenges she’d faced, perhaps her story would not have gone down in the books as it had. It is precisely the challenges and obstacles in her life and her determined character that made Helen Keller as inspiring she is.
However, the hardships we face in life aren’t only determined by our fate; a dysfunctional society can also manifest huge problems in one’s life. The Harry Potter series may be widely renowned now, but its author J.K. Rowling had been poverty stricken prior to becoming a famous author. She was also unable to find a job and had to raise her children independently. Rowling could only afford to write on tiny pieces of scrap paper, but never once did she bow down to her misfortunes. Instead, she persisted through writing and publishing her work, and was finally able to present the fascinating world of her imagination to millions of readers. This allowed her to not only become a famous writer, but also break out of the poverty cycle.
Similarly, Benjamin Franklin was also born into a poor family and had to drop out of school at the tender age of 10. However, that did not stop him from continuing to learn; the self-accomplished Franklin then went on to become an inventor, a politician, as well as one of America’s ‘3 Founding Fathers’. As Franklin once said, “Obstacles create opportunity.” The hardships that we endure don’t merely serve as a low point in our lives; they can also be a turning point for success.
Adversities aren’t something that only humans face; animals, too, have to fight for their own territory, escape from predators and hunt for food. They often have to face obstacles that their natural environment provides. This is explained in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as the widely-known concept of ‘Survival of the Fittest’. In the ever-changing world of nature, competition abound; if animals are unable to overcome their evolutionary challenges and adapt to their surroundings, their species would be decimated. The species that survive are those who evolve in the face of hardships, and grow stronger. If these evolutionary challenges never presented themselves, these species would have never experienced the test of survival and evolved; apes would have never walked erect as Man. Evidently, adversities are the factor that inspires change.
Hardships are an inevitable part of life; everyone is bound to experience them on some level. However, what truly separates the victors from those who are defeated by their hardships is the crucial choice between submitting to your hardships, or achieving spiritual growth in the process.
In secondary one, I lived far from my school, so I had a full hour to immerse in my thoughts while travelling back.The afternoon after my first mid-year assessment, I counted in my head the number of semesters I had in secondary school. Watching the blossoming flowers through the bus window on the way home, my heart bloomed at the thought that I had just completed one-eighths of my secondary journey.
I had forgotten whatever happened before or after this, but this was the only moment that I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday. In those four years, those eight portions of time, how much had been forgotten and how much remembered? Just like the first time stepping into the secret darkroom at the back of the art room and soaking the film in the developer solution, what emerges from my memories is not the entire picture, but rather, fragments of it.
Towards the end of secondary school days, we were all very busy. I moved, and my new house was only 10 minutes away from the school. My travelling time to and fro school was almost 2 hours less; however, it also meant that I lost the time spent pondering in the bus like I previously did. I was so busy that I didn’t even realise that that had been the last of the eighths of blue pinafore days I had spent in my ‘second home, St. Nicholas’.
As I gathered the memories captured in the films, I realised that my bittersweet struggle with art had taken a huge part of the last eighth. Nonetheless, the days where art forcefully stayed by my side turned out to be my most unforgettable ones.
Thinking back about the art room, you could say that it was untouched by light under the spectator stand; it would be in complete darkness before we switch the lights on. The windows that line the two walls are always open, but the air in the room always had a trace of paint, clay and some kind of chemicals. The art classroom is stubborn – it doesn’t let light in but doesn’t let smells out either. In that very classroom locked the days of my youth, and the only gift I had gotten out of the generosity of the art room were the memories which I could bring along with me.
My memories relating to art seemed to be gleaming with a tinge of gold. It’s not that those memories were precious, but that for every art class, we would have to stay back in school for additional three hours closer to the “golden hour”. So, as we neared the end of the lessons in the evenings, the last rays of the sun always crept past the door of the art room.
That golden light was just like the lamp in the corner of the room that illuminated still life. I am still baffled about why the sunlight only illuminates a few tiles before the door, just like I’m equally baffled about why the lamp only brightens the still life under it, leaving the rest of the room in darkness.
Back then, we often scrambled to keep our laptop and art brushes after our teacher urged us out and switched off the lights in the room. Just before walking out, I would glance up and observe the reflection of the indistinct orange rays on the ceiling. We rushed out of the classroom under the rays of the setting sun, which made us squint and rushed us home. Those orange rays gilded the days of our youthfulness, imprinting the silhouette of our youth onto the ground whilst we unknowingly hurried home with the falling rays in our eyes.
The days nearing the end of my secondary school days might have been the longest time I had spent with my oil paintings, spreading the pungent and unwelcoming oil paints and turpentine onto the equally unwelcoming canvas. As I rushed the final project, time slowly crept on to the days of our last examination of secondary school. In the day, I would be attempting what seemed like never-ending practice questions. After school, I would rush to paint in the art classroom. I visited the art classroom twice a day, up from once a week. Overwhelmed with art and my other schoolwork, I felt like I was drowning.
The smell of oil paint and turpentine can be dizzying after a while, so I moved my easel from indoors to the space outside the back door, hoping that the fragrance of the plants in the backyard would overpower the pungence. Under my brush, the paint felt soft and slippery on the raw canvas. The blend of the paint, brush and the canvas seemed to make my stress from school briefly disappear.When the sky started to dim, I knew that the sunset would be waiting for me on the other end of the art classroom.
I finally submitted my final oil painting after months of struggling with it. At that time, my mind was preoccupied with starting my revisions as soon as possible, in order not to lag behind the rest. So, just like that, I bid farewell to the final eighth of my secondary school journey, not realising that this was my farewell to art as a subject, too.
To a photographer, dusk was a magical moment. After my final exams had eventually concluded, I flew back home to my homeland, China. I was strolling with my cousin under the golden rays of the setting sun one evening when I suddenly turned to her and said, “The lighting is nice. Let me take a picture of you”.
She squinted against the sun, looking at me in confusion. Through the camera, her face was gilded with a layer of gold, reminding me of the days when my artmates and I rushed to leave the art room. In that instant, the setting sun seemed to freeze in what seemed like an eternal moment.
Just like the splendour of rainbows and the beauty of shooting stars, my youth was fleeting yet so beautiful. It was marked by your amazing hands, unwavering care, constant encouragement and so much more. Grandma, did you know? You are my Youth.
Grandma, your hands were neither extraordinary nor exceptional. As they aged with time, they gradually got rougher too. But these hands were always filled with warmth. In kindergarten, the innocent me always wanted to hold your hand. I wanted you to accompany me to school, and only agreed to go home if you fetched me. And this was because I liked how you held my hands so tightly while you told me the story of the Big Grey Wolf and the Small White Rabbit as you walked me to and fro school. Even though it was always the same animals, always the same story 365 days a year, I never, ever got tired of it; it remained my favorite story for a long time despite the many more stories I heard later on in my kindergarten days. “My grandma’s stories are way more interesting than our teacher’s!” was something that I often proclaimed to other kids at school. Grandma, did you know? Your stories and the touch of your hands became such precious memories of my childhood. I also came to understand that good begets good and evil begets evil. (And I know that the evil big grey wolf would definitely get his just desserts).
Grandma, your hands were neither extraordinary nor exceptional. As they aged with time, they gradually got rougher too. But these hands were extremely skillful. Since young, I loved changing outfits for my Barbie dolls, and you were their exclusive fashion designer. You always sewed dresses for my dolls, one prettier than the previous. To this day, I still vividly remember that white princess dress that you sewed ever so beautifully. The rim of the skirt was edged with purple cloth, the shoulders decorated with a handmade ribbon and the dress flourished with purple flowers that had gold rims. Somehow, the doll dresses that you made always turned out to be exactly what I wanted. No matter how complicated the design was, it never seemed like a big deal to you.
After the 2008 WenChuan Earthquake, I donated all my dolls and their beautiful dresses to the kids who were hit by the disaster. I can still clearly remember what you told me, “Many kids lost their fathers and mothers because of the earthquake. They don’t have a home of their own and need the company of these dolls way more than you do.” Grandma, did you know? I really loved every single doll dress that you made. However, I still chose to give them away because of your words. Thank you for teaching me what kindness and empathy was when I was still an ignorant young child.
Grandma, your hands were neither extraordinary nor exceptional. As they aged with time, they gradually got rougher too. But these hands were magical. To me, you were basically a magician,making sumptuous dishes appear on the dining table ever so quickly. Whenever you cooked, the aroma of the dishes never failed to waft up my nose, making me drool. Whenever it was meal time, my younger brother and I always fought to hurry to the kitchen. And when we got there, we would be greeted by the vast variety of dishes, leaving us completely clueless about where to begin. My favourite dish was your braised ribs, poached pork slices, hot and sour potatoes, salted vegetable fish and many, many more… Whenever you cooked, I would always have a huge appetite and a huge smile. You would always remind me, “Don’t hurry! There’s still half a pot of rice left for you.” Grandma, did you know? Your dishes were the best in this world,peppering my youth with mouth-watering aroma; my baby fats stayed on me way past childhood.
When I was 10, because of my parents’ jobs, our entire family had to migrate to Singapore, a beautiful country. I had to say goodbye to my hometown, my friends and you — the one who loved me the most. At the airport, I couldn’t bear to part with everything I had here, especially you. But with a big smile, you told me, “Singapore has everything. Study hard when you get there and remember to call me often.” Whatever you said afterwards was completely a blur, but I nodded non-stop, all the while struggling hard to hold back my tears; Grandma, did you know? Singapore has everything except you, whom I loved the most.
I could not have felt more alienated when I started schooling in Singapore. Every student and teacher spoke in a language I did not understand. Communicating with them was impossible. I was completely lost during lessons, and had no idea how to do any homework. I felt like giving up. Whenever I called you to complain about my plight, you always encouraged me with your gentle voice. “A tree can only thrive after it has experienced harsh weathers; one can only achieve success after they have gone through tumultuous times.” Your words left a deep impression on me. Whenever I was on the verge of giving up, these words never failed to dry my tears, giving me the strength to carry on.
Over time, I started to adapt to life in Singapore. I made a bunch of interesting friends, started to answer questions in class enthusiastically and actively participated in various school activities. Gradually, my life in Singapore was getting better, but you were not …… Your health started deteriorating and you started to sound weaker, slurring over the phone. Over time, we called less frequently. I started to look forward to and treasure the holidays when I could return home. I’d treasure being reunited with you, holding your hand and walking through the mall with you, lying next to you at night as you told me your story slowly but steadily.
“Grandma, I’ll surely be back next year! Please look after yourself!”
“Of course, I’ll be waiting.”
Grandma, did you know? I loved every bit about you, except that promise that you never kept.
When I was sixteen, you taught me one last lesson: we would never be able to avoid getting old and passing away… This time, however, you did not teach me this through your words, but through your actions. When I found out about your departure, my whole world shattered. I came to realise that no one can be by my side to protect me forever, not even you, the one who loved me the most and whom I loved the most. This realisation ushered me away from my youth and into adulthood. Grandma, your hands accompanied me throughout my childhood, bringing me so much joy; your words wiped away my tears, teaching me perseverance, kindness and how to treat this world gently. Finally, your actions led me to recognise that I have grown up. Although my youth was fleeting, it was never boring or uninteresting because of you. Grandma, did you know? You are my youth and I really miss you!
During graduate study, I took a module titled ‘Designing for learning by creating’ by Karen Brennan. A paragraph in the course syllabus read:
I find grades stressful. Too often, I see grades preventing people from taking intellectual risks, discouraging people from being bold, causing people to worry about the least important part of the process. So let us remove that concern. You have an’A’. If you’re attending class, participating in activities, making a sincere intellectual investment in the course material, etc. ,this will not change.
Perhaps this clause was possible because my classmates cared deeply about their learning and would not use it as an opportunity to slack off (this was at the Harvard Graduate School of Education). Regardless, that was the first and only time I had encountered such an assessment system. I remember how planning my final project was so completely liberating because I was not afraid of doing something that might be too difficult, something that I might get stuck on and”fail”at. I did not agonise over balancing passion with what would also”work best”at fulfilling the assessment rubric requirements. Instead, I could ask, What am I curious about? What do I want to explore? What project will stretch me the most intellectually and contribute the most to my learning, regardless of whether it “succeeds”？I recently became a first-time mother and I spend a fair bit of time observing my five-month-old baby Ezra navigate his world. To me, watching him connects with the spirit of that module, reminding me to be curious and inviting me to contemplate the richness of learning that could unfold when exploration takes centre stage.
Ezra and I have a naptime routine which ends with me putting him in his cot, drawing the curtains and popping his pacifier in his mouth. Invariably, he would fidget and it would fall out before he falls asleep. He would then reach for his pacifier and try to put it back. However, his hand-eye-mouth coordination still needs work and he frequently swipes his pacifier off his bed by accident,at which I would proclaim,＂Uh oh! Cumi ja kai! “This translates to” [your] pacifier has fallen! “-a mash-up of Hungarian (“cumi”) and Kristang（＂ja kai”) , and a nod to his half-Hungarian and half-Kristang Eurasian heritage.
I watch him bring his cumi towards his mouth and miss, and am tempted to swoop in and do it for him. I often do, because my intervention means he falls asleep sooner, without me having to pick up, wash, sterilise and return his cumi again, and again and again. . .
I keep watching as my wriggly bundle of smiles reaches his chubby baby fingers towards his just-out-of-reach cumi, and, with a grunt (“Eh! “) , wiggles his bum a few centimetres forward, grabs his cumi, shoves it towards his face the wrong way around, and then drops it, where it falls on his cot mattress teat-side up. I expect him to reach out again. He does not. Instead, he face-plants into the mattress, and-somehow-gets his mouth over the teat of his cumi! “Ugyes baba! “I squeal with pride (“skilful baby! “) as he merrily sucks on the cumi that he put in his mouth.
Here, I wonder, what will I see if I suppress the urge to swoop in and help Ezra with whatever new problem his baby brain is tackling? How many new and delightful solutions will he find? What else will he learn along the way?
I mapped out some of my observations of Ezra’s cumi explorations and came up with this:
In reflecting on these observations, what initially looks to me like problem-solving – how do I put my cumi in my mouth? – might really be just a tiny part of a great big quest to explore, where curiosity and learning takes centre stage.
I am struck by how limited his learning would be if he were only interested in achieving the”successful outcome” of putting his cumi in his mouth (quickly) and going to sleep (quickly) . While my adult brain might tend towards this outcome, I speculate that Ezra’s baby brain favours exploring and learning, and is not particularly concerned with “failing” to achieve the “successful outcome”. Because exploring possibilities reveals new solutions (like face-planting into a cumi). If not, we learn what does not work. As a bonus, we might uncover unexpected outcomes, like the fact that we really enjoy playing with the mosquito net.
Watching Ezra reminds me of my work in my classroom of JC1 students, where seeing them struggle tempts me to swoop in and suggest a way forward so that the work would be completed sooner. And just as I often swoop in to help Ezra prematurely because I am exhausted and just want him to sleep, I too swoop in to help students more often than I would care to admit, because Socratic questioning is exhausting and I still have another 24 students to attend to. Then I think of how proud I was when Ezra face-planted into his cumi and how the pieces of student feedback I am always most proud of are the ones saying”Ms de Souza teaches us to think. “
Ezra reminds me to watch, wait and honour the learning.
Soon, my students will choose projects to work on. I hope that they will be guided by curiosity. That they will explore possibilities and push themselves to “be bold” and “take intellectual risks”. And while there is still an assessment rubric to consider, in the balance between doing something that will “work best” at showcasing the rubric requirements and one that will contribute the most to their learning, I hope the balance will tip towards the latter.
Ezra reminds me of the kind of learning I hope to see my students and myself embrace. And as Ezra gets older, I hope he will always approach learning the way his five-month-old self does.
我每天哄以斯拉睡午觉都有个固定流程。流程的最后一步就是由我把他抱到婴儿床上、拉上窗帘并把奶嘴塞进他的嘴里。他总是不停乱动，还没睡着，奶嘴便掉了。于是他便会伸手去捡他的奶嘴，想把奶嘴放回嘴里。然而，他的手、眼与嘴巴的协调能力仍然还有很大的进步空间，经常一不小心就将奶嘴从床上扫到地上。每当我看到这一幕时，我便大喊道：“哎呀！Cumi ja kai！”这翻译过来就是“奶嘴掉了!”——一句话混搭了匈牙利语(“cumi”)和克里斯坦语(“ja kai”)，也算是对他一半匈牙利、一半克里斯坦的欧亚血统的认可。
I’ll lie on the world’s largest and most comfortable couch
Eat, sleep and repeat for a whole year
Ever since I heard this song by Chinese Singer Mao Buyi, it has been stuck in my head. On the surface, there seems to be nothing special about this song — it even has a tinge of negativity. But after listening to it and taking in every word, you will realise this song has a strong message, that youngsters like us can resonate with.
Indeed– what would I do if I really become rich one day?
As a kid, my answer would definitely be to travel the world! However, as I grow up, I slowly understand that having lots of money is only one of the conditions to fulfil this “dream” of mine. On top of that, I need to have the capability and freedom to put aside time for this. In Singapore, every aspect of our lives are fast-paced, and that makes travelling the world an extravagant dream. This is especially so with the world’s top class education system driving us forward, causing us to feel suffocated by the heavy (academic and non-academic) workload. And whenever we have free time, we often yearn to do what the song lyrics say: have a lazy day with no work or worries, lay on our cozy beds for a nice long nap, and do anything we want when we wake up. Or sometimes, just simply do nothing at all! In fact, how many of those adults who hustle on weekdays and bustle with chores on weekends yearn to do the same? But the harsh reality is that everyone has their responsibility in society, one that they cannot escape from. Hence from this perspective, the desire for this laidback lifestyle may not be a bad thing; at least it motivates us to seize the day. Work hard and play hard should be a life philosophy that youngsters like us should embody.
If I become rich one day
I can keep everyone close to me
Laugh, eat, drink and repeat everyday
With no worries about tomorrow or goodbyes
“All good things come to an end”. I still vividly remember the day when I graduated from primary school and my form teacher handed me my graduation certificate. Surrounded by my teachers and classmates, it was meant to be a joyous occasion, yet I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I was well aware of the fact that in this generation of advanced communication technology, we could still keep in contact after graduation and Singapore isn’t that big, so we could always arrange to meet up. Even so, I could not help but dread this parting, fearing that we would become strangers and drift apart . Eventually, I have come to realise that each of us have our own lives to lead, our own paths to walk, and with the passage of time, drifting apart is a reality we cannot avoid. Even if we make it a point to stay connected, these online interactions becomes superficial over time, till one day we will barely know one another on a surface level. When the net is broken, the fish swims away. Goodbyes are part and parcel of life, and what’s important is how we graciously accept it and cross that hurdle within us. As the saying goes: To miss is better than to meet. May we take each goodbye with a little more positivity and a little less negativity.
“Becoming rich, becoming rich,
How many have wasted their time all day and night
Becoming rich, becoming rich,
And then pretended to be humble by claiming that money was not everything”
Money cannot buy us time. Indeed, time is extremely valuable. We cannot buy back the time we have lost, but if we make good use of it, it allows us to lead a more fruitful life.
We constantly lament about how fast time passes by, but we do not treasure and make good use of the time we have in the present. This vicious cycle then repeats itself. Are we going to let it continue? Seizing the moment is enough to grant us spiritual satisfaction, so all the more we should stop wasting time dwelling on our regrets.
“If I became rich one day,
I will buy all those rare smiles
Let all vulnerable children have no more fears,
And all evil to lose their right to speak”
Smiles always brightens people’s days, be it from one’s parents, friends, lovers or even strangers. During the Eunoia Junior College’s 2018 Bicultural Studies Programme overseas trip, a group of us followed ChongQing No.8 Middle School students to a nursing home near their campus ground and had lighthearted interactions with the elderly. Time flew by; in seemingly a split second, the excitement then has now become part of the memories. Till today, I still remember Granny Wang’s kind smile. Even though she could not express herself clearly, the genuity in her eyes made me determined to communicate with her no matter what. Even though I could not stay by her side for long, I tried my best to make her happy with the limited time I had,– be it by dancing or singing. I also managed to take a picture with her as a memento. During the time spent with her, I could feel how lonely she was, how happy and touched she felt when we went to visit their nursing home and how she could not bear to let us go when we were leaving. That was the first time we met, and mostly likely our last, but her smile constantly warms my heart, pushing me forward.
There are many people who are less fortunate than us in this world, but when we are successful and enjoying ourselves, we rarely pay attention to others’ pain and struggles. On one side of the world, here we are, enjoying our stable life without having to worry about the bare necessities. Yet on the other side of the world, there are plenty of people who are suffering from the shortage of food and clothing and are constantly starving.
What’s fortunate is that many capable and ambitious people hold a grateful heart and know to give back to society, displaying the best of human nature. Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s former president donated 90 percent of his salary to charity organisations when he was still in office. He even rejected government funding after he retired, living a simple but meaningful life.
Similarly, Malala Yousafzai, an activist from Pakistan who fought for female education rights won the Nobel Peace Prize when she was just 17. She was the youngest Nobel prize recipient ever. Despite being threatened by the Taliban, and was even shot by the Talibans, she never gave up her mission, that is to stop the unfair treatment of women and continue to fight for their education rights. Of course, there are many other successful people who gave back to society, for example, Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and many more…
Even though Mao Buyi’s “If I became rich one day” was a song that kept emphasising on the fantasy of becoming rich, it’s last sentence “From the bottom of our hearts, we can then truly say that money is not everything” was able to shed light on the song’s real purpose- Money can’t buy everything. It is indeed important as it allows us to survive and fulfill our materialistic satisfactions. Yet it will never be able to grant us spiritual satisfaction. Since we became obsessed with monetary gains, we tend to neglect the most valuable things around us, like time and kinship. As the Chinese saying goes, “The tree would prefer stillness, but the wind continues to blow. The child wishes to practice filial devotion, but his parents are already gone”. There are some things in life that you will not get to redo. If we do not treasure our loved ones now, we may not have a chance to love them when they are gone. Hence, I hope that people will look past the practicalities of life and pay more attention to other things besides money, grabbing the opportunities to love and care for family and friends instead of wasting precious time!
——这个问题如果是问年少时的我，我的答案一定是环游世界！只是长大后的我们都渐渐明白，金钱只是实现“幻想”的条件之一，除此之外还必须具有与之匹配的能力和支配时间的自由。而生活在各方面节奏都很快的新加坡，环游世界对绝大多数人来说真的是一种奢望，尤其是作为世界顶尖的教育系统中砥砺前行的我们，平时在繁重的课内外任务的“压迫”下常常有种喘不过气的感觉。偶有闲暇时的渴望就是能像歌中所说：拥有慵懒的一天，抛开所有任务和烦恼，躺在舒服的床上，睡个懒觉，起来后想做什么就做什么，什么都不做也完全可以。其实，平时忙着打工、周末忙着家务的大人们，何尝没有同样的渴望？只是现实中每一个人都有各自既定的、无法逃避的社会责任罢了。从这层面上来说，对慵懒生活的渴望也未必是件坏事，起码它成了促使我们努力在当下的动力。Work hard & play hard，是我们年轻人应有的生活哲学。
During my internship, I noticed a girl who was not proficient in the Chinese language but was incredibly attentive in the Secondary 3 class I was teaching. Whenever I taught Chinese composition writing, she would copy down all the model sentences incessantly. Afterwards, she would annotate every single new Chinese vocabulary in English. Teachers all love hardworking students, do they not? Just then, I felt that I should be ashamed of myself if I don’t manage to teach her well.
Yet, her answer to a survey questionnaire shocked me – she did not like the Chinese language at all. To her, it was useless. I went to her after class the next day, hoping to talk about her response. She was practising for tingxie (Chinese spelling) with her classmates then. Once again, she admitted that she disliked the language and felt that it was difficult.
Nonetheless, she was indeed studious. She diligently practised writing the new Chinese characters that would be tested for spelling, again and again. She said that even if she had memorised the words by heart, she would still forget them shortly after the tingxie test. “Is Chinese really useful?” She asked me in all sincerity.
I was at a loss for words. The Chinese language is definitely of use if one wishes to connect with the Chinese-speaking world or work with China, a rising superpower, then the Chinese language will definitely be of use. There was a series of advertisements a few years back, in which Caucasian cast members could pronounce Chinese words more clearly than I can. At the end of the advertisements, the slogan “华文谁怕谁（I don’t fear you, Chinese!)” was flashed on the screen. These advertisements were, in fact, screened as part of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. How could one say that the Chinese language is impractical when even the Caucasians were speaking it now? But the word “fear” stood out too much to be ignored. Had I shown those advertisements to my students, I was afraid that this would have ended tragically.
Perhaps I should have reiterated that the Chinese ought to learn to speak Mandarin? I was reminded of another incident with another class, which I had gone to relief-teach. Their learning attitudes then were atrocious.
I asked one of the girls, “Don’t you want to properly grasp the Chinese language?”
She replied with a question, “Why should I? I’m not even Chinese.” It turned out that she was from another race, and I was left speechless.
What exactly is the point of learning languages? What’s wrong with not learning your mother tongue? “Don’t you find it hard to study Chinese?” Another teacher intern asked me. Even though she was born in China, she was raised in Singapore and had wholly embraced the Singaporean way of life. I could not have told her apart from any other Singaporeans. “It is easier to form words in English. And even if there is a word you don’t understand, you can still somewhat spell it. But for Chinese, you have to get all the strokes correct in order to form a character. When picking up a language, isn’t it most important that words are easy to form? ”
“Easy”– a key word that is ever so closely linked to the concept of practicality.
Is the Chinese language challenging to pick up? According to the experiences of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, it is a language that requires hard work. The speech he made during his book launch had a lasting impression on me.
He expressed, “It would be tough to survive in Singapore if one does not know how to speak English; it will be your lifelong regret if you do not know how to speak Mandarin. We should learn to speak Mandarin not because of the rise of China’s economy, but to understand our cultural roots.” One would have mistaken these stirring words as those that would have been spoken by Chinese education advocates. He might have indeed felt remorseful. However, Singapore’s education policies for the Chinese language currently focus mainly on the spoken tongue, not so much on reading and writing. While Chinese lessons are undoubtedly much easier now, are we able we preserve our cultural roots this way?
Then again, which is more important: to understand one’s cultural heritage, or to be more practical?
The little girl told me, “What’s the problem? My friends and I speak in English in school all the time.” She sounded almost identical to those“successful” figures who disdainfully brag, “I only speak English. Even so, I can still afford to live in a big house and drive a big car.”
Ardent supporters of the English language policies would confidently claim, “Singapore would not have been able to reach where it is today if English had not been the main language.”
We can’t possibly turn back time. If Chinese were to be Singapore’s main language from the very start, what would Singapore be like now? For a start, Singlish– something that we now take much pride in– probably would not have existed. Also, how would the different ethnic groups communicate with one another? Would our economy still prosper as it does now? The essentiality of English in modern Singapore is not one to be arbitrarily questioned. It would be difficult for Mandarin Chinese to go head to head with the English language taking into consideration pragmatism and the assumption that one can only master one language. it may even be accused of being an impediment that burdens Singapore and hinders her from moving forward. Is Chinese that important? My English-educated friends barely spoke Chinese in their lives. Yet, they are still doing well. It is not fair to assume that they are failing at life, is it?
If Mandarin is so unpopular and unwelcomed, even less needs to be said about dialects. Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign has been implemented for 30 years and seemed to have made remarkable results. Youths in Singapore hardly know any dialects now. Has the sacrifice of dialects increased the Chinese proficiency of Singaporean youths? Definitely not. In fact, quite the opposite. I often have to use English to aid in my teaching, but I could never use Hokkien or Cantonese to explain certain words. What should I tell the students? Should I say that dialects are not our mother tongues? Or that dialects play no significance in preserving our cultural roots??
As a mere relief teacher, I stopped myself from elaborating further into ethnic pride or languages being the medium in preserving cultural identity. Instead, I only explained the formation of the Chinese characters briefly, using the few words that I had tested them to write in the tingxie. No one will ever ask if a piece of art is “useful” when created, would they? Even if she has yet to recognise the beauty of Chinese characters, at least it would be less tedious for her to prepare for tingxie.
“That is actually quite interesting,” she said as I was about to leave. And those genuine words were enough to soothe my heart.
Nevertheless, there are some things which I still cannot get over. If the purpose of studying is to find out more about the world, we should start by understanding ourselves better. It is always a shame when people wish to know more about themselves but do not know much about their own culture or mother tongue. And what is even more of a pity is when any race completely loses grasp of languages that were once theirs, never knowing what they had lost.
Afterword: I wrote this article to pen down my thoughts in July 2012, after a 4-week internship at a neighbourhood secondary school in Singapore.
He would have been more dumbfounded, had he known that she made the decision because of half of a kennel.
He finally acceded to her request after three years. Yet, she cowered.
She once firmly believed that she would never fall for a married man like him. Yet, firmly, too, she once believed that should she ever fall for a man, she would have loved him, bravely and unapologetically.
Her disposition was probably formed since young. She had always perceived herself to be a free and independent woman, and was strongly convinced by the notion that happiness was never for someone else to give. This conviction was probably why she never kept pets. She did have a liking for dogs. However, as she had later on realised the vast and inherent difference between the lifespans of humans and dogs, something dawned on her: wasting your emotions on something that could so easily pass on was simply worthless. She loved dogs as a child. Whenever she had passed by the pet shop with her Daddy, she was never able to take her eyes off those puppies. Just a few weeks before her birthday that year, her Daddy told her, “I’m going to give you the most, most special birthday present this year.” And that gift was the pure white chihuahua she had been eyeing for the longest time.
“I will also build a beautiful kennel for the chihuahua,” her Daddy said.
Although she had no clue how the beautiful kennel would have looked, she was still so thrilled that on some nights, she would dream of the different shapes and constructions of the kennel. However, Daddy was not much of a carpenter. He took ages to build the kennel, and amidst the numerous heated arguments with Mommy, the kennel was never completed.
She was reminded of these trivial matters when she saw a stray dog on the streets. At that time, she had finally decided toconfront the man’s wife. They were living in the same city, and were sleeping beside the same man. And yet, despite seeming to be so near to each other, she had never seen the woman before. She had seen pictures of the woman, but she knew that these were useless in saying anything beyond the photos. This sitch was very much like how she could not say what breed the stray dog was despite the self-asserted dog knowledge of hers. The stray dog lumbered about the streets slowly. It looked lonely…so lonely, that it was compelling people to pat its head; that yet, at the same time, looked so dirty that people would subconsciously avoid the unkempt canine from afar. She avoided it, while imagining how the woman who opened the door would call her a bitch. It was as if she could see the anger and abhorrence in the woman’s eyes. Her feelings towards the stray dog then got even more perplexed.
She thought of that chihuahua she never owned. At times, when she looked at her family portraits taken when she was young, she would always regret not taking a picture of the chihuahua. When Mommy subsequently took her to walk past the pet shop, the chihuahua was no longer to be seen on the outside of the shop. Someone must have bought it, she thought. She had desperately wanted to cry at that moment, but with Mommy beside her, she held her tears back. She held on. And on. And on. And all of a sudden, she had already walked to the doorstep of his house.
Never had she considered that his wife was not home. It was their 8-year-old daughter who opened the door. She looked a lot like her father. Stunned, she widened her eyes with all her might. The girl was holding a pure white chihuahua in her arms.
Then, she was reminded of that one deeply buried in her heart, that one uncompleted and will forever remain as, that half of a kennel.
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