Fear of Forgetting

explains the uncomfortable dualities of being an international student

Integrating into York’s University community comes easier than I’d expected. Freshers’ Week had none of the awkwardness and jarring culture-shock that I’d been bracing myself for, and there was none of the ‘flat drama’ I’d been dreading. Conversation flows easily with my course, and flatmates – we laugh at the same things, and have somewhat similar attitudes and personalities. I got lucky, I admit, but I’ve discovered something new: as an international student, it is not culture shock that I should have feared when coming to a new country. It is forgetting.

Image: Qi Wei Fong

I forgot the first day of Chinese New Year when it came. Waking up in the morning and seeing wishes in my WhatsApp inbox, and Chinese New Year outfits, oranges and steamboat pictures on my Instagram feed reminded me that it was the first day, and people were out visiting. The eight-hour time difference between England and Singapore meant that it would have been evening in Singapore already. Had I been back home, my day would have started with noise – a flurry of slamming toilet doors as we hurried to get dressed, car honks and yells to get in quickly, and the familiar chatter of cousins, aunts and uncles. My day here starts with a quiet, early breakfast, scrolling through Instagram on my phone.

On the third day of Chinese New Year, small talk with a Chinese student on the bus out to town flowed jerkily, with me in my hesitant Mandarin, struggling to recall words that have slipped into the deepest corners of my memory and eluded me. The Chinese student told me my pronunciation was very accurate, and I laughed, telling her sheepishly I do not use the language often enough to know the colloquial register. I struggled to find the Mandarin words for my favourite Chinese New Year goodies, and settled for googling a picture of them.

I’m not sure how much of my culture I’m allowed to claim as mine without feeling like a fraud

Lack of use, despite spending a good six years in a Chinese school – even studying Higher Chinese for four years – meant that my proficiency in the language is shamefully poor. Some Singaporeans brush off their weak Mandarin skills self-deprecatingly, and in my later teenage years I admit being guilty of that at times, when saving face meant a slighting of my heritage. Most times though, my halting speech causes nothing but immeasurable embarrassment and makes me scared of speaking Mandarin, for fear of being laughed at. I compare her easy flow of rapid Mandarin, lilting and lyrical, to my slow trickle. We are both Chinese, but my words sound foreign even to my ears. I second-guess my pronunciations – did I use the correct intonation? There is no acceptable way to explain why I am a Chinese girl who cannot speak Mandarin well.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘mother tongue’ as: “the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult”. This definition makes English, not Chinese, my mother tongue, and this knowledge that I am a Chinese-Singaporean whose first language is not the language of my ethnicity, but the language of our colonial masters, sticks me in a state of liminality. I am not sure how much of my culture I am allowed to claim as mine without feeling like a fraud.

It takes being in a land far away from home and speaking to a mainland Chinese student to trigger in me a full-blown fear – that I may one day forget my roots. It is equal parts alarming and sad that Chinese New Year was not important enough to register in my memory. What does this say of me as a 21st century Chinese-Singaporean, if I don’t remember such an important cultural celebration simply because there weren’t any reminders of it where I now live? For all those years, back home, was it the Chinese New Year sales in shopping malls and the glossy advertisements of consumerist Singapore – not to mention a public holiday students looked forward to – that reminded me of the approaching Chinese New Year?

I see on social media platforms posts by Singaporeans who study or work overseas speaking of missing the celebrations back home, missing the annual tuan yuan fan (reunion dinner), and the morning-until-night visiting. But there also exists another group, one who with each passing month living in a foreign land feel a slow-rising panic, a paranoia that one day they would slip further and further from their roots to a point where one forgets what home is (and sounds) like.

With academic and work commitments, I don’t call home as much as I should (7pm here is 3am back home). Most promises to close friends that we will Skype and catch up don’t end up materialising. I hear a lecture replay of a British voice talking about poetry instead of the staccato Singaporean accent from a video call. I have found that it takes a quick three weeks of not hearing the distinct intonations of Singapore English, coupled with constant interaction with my British friends, to notice slight changes in my speech – from the way I pronounce ‘thank you’ to slang terms.

As a Literature and Linguistics major, this phenomenon is not strange to me, but knowing full well that it is an unconscious modification of one’s speech to be more like the person one addresses does not silence the ever-increasing fear that there might come a day where I forget my Singaporean accent, like one forgets lyrics to a song not listened to in ages. The linguist in me labels what she sees occurring – wdramatic irony at its finest, for try as I might, I cannot speak in my Singaporean accent when talking to British friends.

Singaporeans pronounce the ‘th’-sounds (as in ‘think’) without the tongue in between upper and lower teeth. The tongue instead touches the back of the upper teeth. The Singaporean accent is not stress-timed like British accents, but is instead is syllable-timed. This means that each syllable in Singapore English occupies roughly the same amount of time, whereas in British variants, some syllables have more emphasis (as in BOOK-let). I can feel this new rhythm make a home in my voice, settling in quickly and effortlessly, sharing a space with my musical home accent.

A three-hour long Skype call with a dear friend from home re-calibrates my speech. Hearing the familiar sing-song tune of Singapore English and its shortened sentence structure constructions, and being able to reply in kind, was a relief to me – reassuring me that I have not fully lost my accent, despite my fears.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore, posts by friends and family on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds celebrating with relatives or hosting an all-Singaporean Chinese New Year dinner in their various flats overseas have petered out finally. I can scroll without being reminded shamefully of how I had forgotten this celebration. Funnily enough, it takes leaving home to develop some semblance of attachment to my homeland.

International students leave home for a new place and miss the food, the culture, and the language of their home country. But for those of us more free-spirited and people-oriented, those for whom independence means they miss home and people a little less, attachment to home waxes and wanes more frequently. It is with conscious effort and paranoia that I cling to my roots, and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there feeling this way.

At a late Chinese New Year gathering here with the Singaporeans in York, we sit around and speak with each other with the English from home. I wonder how many of them feel the way I do, the fear of one day not knowing how to be Singaporean.

A friend asks me what makes me think of home. I tell her it is the fear of forgetting my roots and feeling like a stranger in my own skin. M

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