Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
Dialect Talks Back

it was such a big no-no that I had this impression of dialects 方方言言 being like swear words, or haram

By SueKi Yee, Ann Lee, and Anne Louis

Ta Pau // Bungkus: the bringing home of food prepared in a kopitiam or restaurant or cafe

The Ta Pau folio of the Transpacific Literary Project explores this cornerstone of Malaysian culture as a launching pad for honest conversations on national identity, race, religion, class, gender. Read here a WhatsApp text exchange with SueKi Yee, Ann Lee, and Anne Louis, then take yourself back to folio’s home, for more Ta Pau conversation.


[12/04/2019, 20:30:16] SueKi: Just to share something from memory. I went to a Chinese primary school so I was (am?) fluent in both English and Mandarin but somehow it never really “clicked” in my head that “tapau” is derived from mandarin. Perhaps because the actual pinyin in mandarin is “dabao”, it was only in secondary school (I went to kebangsaan by then) that I hear it being used frequently (because students stopped bringing lunches from home?) by everyone regardless of ethnicity, and perhaps it was because of that that I didn’t think of tapau as a mandarin word. The realization only set in much later, so overdue and so obvious. It’s a small thing but I wondered how could I have overlooked that all those years ????

[13/04/2019, 00:19:55] Anne Louis: True… tapau is as Malaysian a word as anything

[13/05/2019, 12:08:31] Ann Lee: I just saw this, written by a friend.

[13/05/2019, 12:08:43] Ann Lee: Examining the Evolution of “Pendatang”

[13/05/2019, 12:09:42] Ann Lee: Hv a read n see if we want to talk abt this at all?

[The powerful word pendatang is used to describe not just other migrant groups, but also Malaysians residing in the peninsula, in a derogatory and disparaging way. Originally a neutral term without political insinuations, pendatang evolved into a synecdoche—with a new modern meaning—from the late 1970s and 80s. Today, pendatang is used by Malaysian politicians as an exclusionary tool of identity politics. This article argues that the term has grown in influence over society over the years, but also examines how people have attempted to fight back.]

[13/05/2019, 12:23:57] Anne Louis: I’ve skimmed and some immediate thoughts:

1. The piece made me (h)angry and opened some ulcers in my stomach i suspect. But good to know some old giants railed against the term ‘pendatang’ and more recently, a Minister chose to reject it. So hangry so I’ve reached for a banana! A lovely Pisang Berangan, and i already feel much better.

2. I much prefer ‘perantau’–more open, inclusive, and able to evolve. Aren’t we all travellers in one way or other at some time? i think if we aren’t, we should be!

[13/05/2019, 12:40:30] Ann Lee: I agree with you abt perantau

[13/05/2019, 12:40:53] SueKi: Interesting. Especially about how the word pendatang was so deliberately curated to form its context. The shift in the meaning and also the shift in the “categories” of people (bumiputras, citizens, but “pendatang”, other immigrants etc.) is also quite “new” to me in that I thought it has always been this way. I didn’t experience the shift but I do remember my parents talking about this. About how it used to be much easier. There was less segregation among people, there was a lot more freedom to interact and act, regardless of race and religion. And how all these “pendatang” words have quite seamlessly fused into the Malaysian language.

[13/05/2019, 12:54:42] Ann Lee: I wonder how ‘seamlessly’ occurs. It’s seem (it seems) like d article suggest Mahathir made deliberate use of the word in negative sense and this had resonance but there are attempts at new words (like Anwar) that didn’t catch on

[13/05/2019, 12:55:08] SueKi: And like Anne, I felt angry reading the article. Not just angry but, displaced..? If that makes sense. That feeling of being blamed for something not your fault and it’s not even wrong. And I remember the first time I felt this. I used to scoff at ideas of racial segregation because I went to kebangsaan school and had many friends from all races. It truly didn’t matter to me. And I thought a racial divide is because of personal prejudices. But then I found out about university quotas. And matriculation. And how my best friend who didn’t do well in spm got into matriculation and I know it will be smooth sailing for her. And I can’t even apply for most scholarships because I got a B+ for BM, nevermind that all my other subjects were A+s. Because BM is THE SUBJECT. And suddenly that divide is there. Even if I try not to let it affect me.

[13/05/2019, 12:57:58] SueKi: Ahh okay I was actually referring to “pendatang” words, not the word “pendatang” itself but words from other languages that is now a part of the Malaysian language, such as “tapau” or “cincai”

[13/05/2019, 12:59:07] Ann Lee: Oic. Sorry yes understand now abt which words you mean

[13/05/2019, 13:07:36] Ann Lee: Am w u also abt the emotions that are arisen from being called this word. The exclusion is painful and unfair. Exclusions of one form or another seem both productive and reductive. I wrote a story abt one time when a child in Sandakan, I entered a contest to collect the rubbery insides of Fanta bottle tops and I collected lots of them only to discover the contest was not open to residents in Sabah n Sarawak. Being kacukan or chap chung, hv had examples of racism from both sides of family. I think education really sets hearts aflame bc of obvious influence on the future of any child.

[13/05/2019, 13:10:19] Ann Lee: Given the BM is THE subject it’s ironic that it doesn’t work as inclusive. Bahasa Indonesian example of wide and deep fluency by Indonesians is only achieved by denying vernacular

[13/05/2019, 13:13:36] Anne Louis: v interesting Ann… with your mix, double-whammy of angry-making exclusions and generalisations in your lifetime huh

[13/05/2019, 13:15:31] Anne Louis: so is VERNACULAR–while charming n exotic n specific n all–necessarily exclusive and if so, not open to otherness?

[13/05/2019, 13:16:29] Ann Lee: All of us hv so many experiences to share:) which is why the more ‘black and white’ something seems the less truthful: nuance and paradox in the toothpaste hv been squeezed out of the tube!

[13/05/2019, 13:17:07] SueKi: This is heartbreaking to imagine. To face that sort of exclusion as a child. And it’s so weird to face racism from your own family. My parents were always very fair and open that I didn’t really experience (consciously) of any of these prejudices that I now realize most kids actually do, as in the racist, sexist etc. comments some parents make to their children. But my large family is a bit different. I have a bit of Thai keturunan from my dad’s side, so I don’t look “typically Chinese” and I remember relatives saying, oh your sister is so fair. But you, your skin a bit dark ah. You look like Melayu. And I remembered feeling so confused because I didn’t take it as an insult but why did they make it sound like it is?

[13/05/2019, 13:20:44] Ann Lee: Alamak, whopper of a question!

[13/05/2019, 13:24:46] Ann Lee: So interesting SueKi, the thai keturunan. Ya, and of course they meant it as insult.

[13/05/2019, 13:27:10] Anne Louis: my elders could not appreciate the “loadedness” of their our words. Sure, insult la, that’s easy. we don’t like, because we don’t imagine ourselves to be like that, or we’d RATHER NOT imagine ourselves that way

[13/05/2019, 13:31:01] SueKi: Even now I have a particular aunt that often ask why I have so many Indian friends. And other than “they’re my friends”, I really don’t know what to say. She makes it sound like I specifically list race as a prerequisite for a friends checklist. I guess this idea of the “other” is so instilled in some that they don’t even think of themselves as racist when they say something like that.

[13/05/2019, 13:32:39] SueKi: This made me think of schools and their rules about what language can/cannot be spoken. Not sure if both of you experienced it?

[13/05/2019, 13:37:05] SueKi: The kindergarten I went to, you can only speak mandarin in mandarin class and Malay in Malay class and all other times like meal time, play time ONLY English. Chinese primary school—sort of flexible but NO dialects allowed (hokkien etc), I spoke mainly in Chinese and sometimes English with certain friends. Kebangsaan secondary—generally I spoke English more (assembly etc), students spoke in English peppered with Malay and Hokkien, spoke mandarin with certain friends.

[13/05/2019, 13:41:31] Anne Louis: ok i got something to say about this

RN i also manage a Speaking Skills & Drama centre in JB with about 120 kids enrolled. Principal is VERY STRICT about kids NOT speaking Chinese (Mandarin or dialect) or Tamil on our premises. She says (and this is true) parents send their kids to us to learn to speak fluently & confidently in English, we can at least control that while we have them on our premises

[13/05/2019, 13:47:44] Anne Louis: i feel bad and conflicted about this sometimes but i also think: If there’s an identified need to learn a language, there must be some merit in enforcing usage time of that language?

[13/05/2019, 13:50:39] SueKi: Yes actually I think it depends on the purpose of the place. Like for a speaking skills and drama centre that is clearly for learning English then yes definitely relevant. But I guess looking back at my schools, I understand the “speaking the particular language for specific classes” but other times in canteens or playground or the field I feel it’s a bit weird? My family don’t speak hokkien at home so I hardly know it. In primary school most of my friends did, but it was such a big no-no that I had this impression of dialects 方方言言 being like swear words, or haram. I thought nobody are allowed to say it, even out of school territory I thought people spoke hokkien illegally. ????

[13/05/2019, 13:59:00] SueKi: Yes I’m not sure at what point I realize the truth ???? but I also think if we were allowed to speak dialects in school, I would have picked up a lot more hokkien. What I know now is barely basic hokkien

[13/05/2019, 13:59:27] Ann Lee: I went to Uplands international school n only know more abt national schools via my three godkids

[13/05/2019, 13:59:44] Ann Lee: (And friends and their kids)

[13/05/2019, 14:02:13] Ann Lee: I don’t know enough abt how kids learn languages. Ex gf once didn’t speak until she was three n everybody thought she was a special needs child. Turns out her family so diverse that they speak 6 languages n as a child she said she didn’t speak bc she didn’t know which one to choose

[13/05/2019, 14:05:27] SueKi: Omg! Quite incredible to think about. Also, I was watching Arrival and subsequently read up about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Which is about how languages shape the mind (by the attached meanings to words, choice of words, distinctions between words particular to that language, way of speaking etc.) and also suggests that by learning a new language you are “re-wiring” your brain. Thus as a kid, the more languages you learn, the more “open” your way of thinking is, more flexible to different kinds of “wiring”.

[13/05/2019, 14:06:47] Ann Lee: What do u think is ideal For Msian kids?

[13/05/2019, 14:07:41] SueKi: So I imagine for that 3 years her brain must’ve kept trying to switch around the different “sense” and “logic” of the 6 languages. esp at that age where you don’t even comprehend the idea of different language systems!

[13/05/2019, 14:07:51] Ann Lee: So interesting!

[13/05/2019, 14:09:40] Anne Louis: Different language systems embrace all of that culture too, don’t they? In their nuance, spoken/ unspoken words, facial expression, gesture… so complex. Some languages don’t have words for something which may have 2 or 3 difft ones in other languages/ dialect

[13/05/2019, 14:12:28] Anne Louis: ok like a millennial would say, this is random, but while typing and thinking this, i am eating my first meal of the day–spicy minced pork with frozen veg tossed in, and Ramadan dates thrown in for extra fibre! it is absolutely delish but what does that make me??

[13/05/2019, 14:15:57] Anne Louis: and we have an AFS exchange student living with us rn–a Punjabi Californian–who is fasting in solidarity with the Muslims in Msia but who breaks fast on pulled pork and homemade pork beriyani. i like the transplant n juxtapose 🙂

[13/05/2019, 15:30:11] SueKi: I used to dream about studying linguistics haha. Even now I’m constantly intrigued by the nuances of different languages. Like what Anne mentioned about a language having 2, 3 words for the same thing that may not even exist in another language. And one of my questions as a child learning 3 languages was why does BM have the distinction between kita and kami? Quite interesting this “inclusion/exclusion” of the person being spoken to. Which you don’t find in mandarin or english. I wonder what other languages have that distinction. Also on a tangent note, that whole issue of Bahasa Melayu being changed to Bahasa Malaysia happened when I was in primary school I think.

[13/05/2019, 15:37:36] Anne Louis: *kita and kami*-v interesting indeed
My experience n learning has been that are that kita is more informal and intimate, kami more formal?

[13/05/2019, 15:44:13] Ann Lee: Hv fasted every Ramadhan for the last 20+ yrs on account of Malay partner, cultural ease and spiritual simpatico… but not so far this year. Menopause playing havoc w metabolism, but hope to before end

[13/05/2019, 15:48:20] SueKi: This is so strange! I actually heard someone say this last year because we were discussing a potential title and I thought it was the person’s individual attached meanings. But I was very clearly taught (in no uncertain terms) that “Kami” means “we”–excluding the person you’re talking to; and “Kita” means “we”–including the person you’re talking to.

[13/05/2019, 15:52:38] Ann Lee: Ya, me too, I wondered abt kita/kami. I think Javanese also has. But maybe that’s more about formal/informal. Awak, anda. Eg French has ‘Vous’ for formal you and ‘tu’ for informal you, also the third person use instead of ‘I’. So much status w language. But ya kami/kita always struck me

[13/05/2019, 15:54:52] Ann Lee: Oh I also know kami as we excluding but kita as we including.

[13/05/2019, 15:57:27] SueKi: Jumping back to schools. I don’t have an answer. But I guess I wish I grew up learning Hokkien, especially in Penang where everyone speaks that, even most of my non-Chinese friends. I think setting a language rule is okay in class (only speak Malay for BM class etc.); but outside of class children should be given the freedom? And I think most children are inquisitive and pick up on languages well, like it happens all the time when I was in school, teaching each other Hindi/Mandarin phrases etc. I just feel it’s a bit sad and misleading to make it seem like (to children especially) that some languages are of lower status, or are “not allowed”.

[13/05/2019, 18:21:22] Anne Louis: i really like what SueKi has to say here. about the “gentrification” of language.

[13/05/2019, 18:23:03] Anne Louis: the standardisation or gentrification of language, and what we lose to it?

[14/05/2019, 12:00:55] Anne Louis: Just thought to note here that it’s serendipitously significant to me we chose to start this discussion in earnest on the 50th anniv of the May 13 riots in our beloved country. I was 5+ then and can’t remember a thing from personal memory.

[14/05/2019, 12:06:57] Ann Lee: You know for many in East Msia, the riots were something v far away. Of course the consequences in terms of laws and policies affected all Msians. But Sabah had its own riots later that are better known

[14/05/2019, 12:09:36] Anne Louis: i am ashamed to say I know little of Sabah’s riots except what I read yesterday

[14/05/2019, 15:28:43] Ann Lee: I don’t know many histories of other states, I think it’s like that for many. Received official histories. I hope that changes in Msia baharu

[14/05/2019, 15:41:15] SueKi: Oh yes I’ve just realized it after you pointed it out! Interesting… and same for me about not knowing about riots in Sabah before this. There was a lot of heated discussions/debates going on in regard to our change of textbooks, specifically for Sejarah. I watched Mark Teh’s Baling talk earlier this year, and one of the things that struck me the most was that I’ve always thought of history being cold, hard facts. When in reality it is impossible for any recorded history to be “neutral” or “objective”. I mean we can try but.

[14/05/2019, 15:52:14] SueKi: Yes exactly. I think dialects especially are in danger because of that. And since it is only spoken by selected communities, and is not being “graded” on in exams so why practise it, etc. And actually both my parents knows Hokkien but because my mom is from Johor and my dad is from Kedah so their Hokkien is different, and as a result they never speak Hokkien to each other or to us kids.

[14/05/2019, 17:29:43] Ann Lee: Ya, I thought history was just kings and queens, dates and ages.

[15/05/2019, 23:39:15] Anne Louis: When I worked in a Singapore newsroom with a bunch of Indian expats, there was the equivalent in “Malayalam whispers”. (Malayalam is my “native” Indian language from Kerala.) Malayalam whispers was not the mainstream convo but i kinda enjoyed it in an “inside joke”, subversive kinda way. Also becos Sg mah, so the Chinese predominant. The Malayalam backtalk was ghetto-ising, but also felt strangely satisfying, comfortable, “flexing” and… acceptably vengeful… all at once, or variously?

[15/05/2019, 23:40:18] Anne Louis: Dialect Talks Back. I like that as a slogan.