I don’t remember if we introduced ourselves. How we made our first attempts at small talk. Whether we sized each other up. Were we so similar?
But there we were, on the edge of 19, in a university hostel canteen. A motley crew of teenagers trying to be cool, brought together for one reason only: Failing our mother tongue.
My Singapore Life
Karaoke and murdering a language in Chinese bootcamp
A 19-year-old takes an intensive Mother Tongue course – and bonds with other Mandarin misfits. Read by Karen Tan and written by Denyse Yeo. My ...
It was 1995. Britpop bands like Pulp, Blur and Suede ruled on my CD player. Clueless was on the big screen; Seinfeld and Friends on the small. Earlier that year, I did casual work as an admin assistant for a few months, and then later as a waitress in a hotplate steak restaurant.
In those days, if you did reasonably well, applying to a local university was a no-brainer.
To get in, however, you also had to pass your mother tongue.
I did not.
I scored an E8 in Chinese as a second language at AO levels – even after three tries. But I did okay in my A levels after mugging like a maniac.
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Armed with three Bs, I applied and was accepted to do arts at the National University of Singapore. It wasn’t my first choice – I couldn’t get into Communication Studies at NTU. But like many teenagers at that age, I didn’t have a very clear idea of who I was or what I wanted to do.
So the arts, it was.
You had to pass your mother tongue. I did not.
Along with other students who were as equally inept at Chinese idioms, I was offered provisional entry.
That provision was: Spend an entire month in an intensive mother tongue programme after the first semester. Pass that course, and everything would be “feng he ri li” – which means “a beautiful day”, also the most commonly used idiom when it came to Chinese composition writing in Singapore.
There were about 15 or 16 of us in Chinese boot camp. In the Malay course, there was a girl named Amy and two boys, all Punjabi.
The girls in the Chinese platoon came from different backgrounds. Some, like me, were sheltered, giggly convent girls. Others came from tougher, not-as-privileged upbringings.
Different personalities, too. There was Dee, the Peranakan sweetie. Jay, also Peranakan and a God-fearing teacher in-training. Chilli padi Lydia with her huge laugh. Chocho, the old soul who – as a latchkey child – had American TV as her babysitter. Tina, the smart sex bomb. Nana, Punjabi and the most street-smart, self-assured person I had ever met.
And me – the sarcastic klutz.
The one thing we had in common was that we simply could not pass – let alone ace – the Chinese language.
In my case, no one knew a single Mandarin word at home. My Malaysian father spoke English and Hokkien, and my Singaporean Eurasian mother spoke English and pasar Malay.
The only time I spoke Mandarin with family was when I saw my Ah Ma from Penang at Chinese New Year.
It was almost a miracle that I had passed Chinese at O levels – a C5 when I was more interested in boys, singing along to George Michael and watching Melrose Place – and moved on to an affiliated JC.
Nothing could make me excel at Chinese in school. I do not know if it was because of that particular strain of 80s and 90s rote learning, being called “hopeless” by Chinese teachers. Or my stupid belief that Mandarin was uncool. Or just my own laziness.
The rumour was if we did not pass, we would be enrolled in Chinese camp until we graduated. Oh, the horror.
So there we were, Mandarin misfits, on that canteen bench. Waiting for the fun to begin.
A language immersion course involves being plunged into an unfamiliar world. Full days of verbal and written Chinese in and out of the classroom. Speaking in Mandarin not only to the teacher, but also to one another. Zero English was to be used – even when we were having curry puffs in the canteen.
And we were being monitored – not by AI but by our seniors. Chinese Studies undergrads who were helping the hapless teacher. “No English!” they shouted, rolling their eyes at having to shepherd us recalcitrants.
The punishment for speaking English at Chinese camp was that it would count against us in the final grade.
The rumour was also that if we did not pass, we would be enrolled in Chinese camp until we graduated. Oh, the horror.
Every day, we took “ting xie”, spelling tests that I used to dread back in primary and secondary school. Jay was the only one who studied diligently for them.
We memorised cheng yu – Chinese idioms – and sluggishly flipped through the pages of Lianhe Zaobao.
There were also sports and social activities in Mandarin after class. We played Captain’s Ball, netball and basketball. On the concrete outdoor courts, we reverted to childhood. We scraped our knees. We gibbered in Mandarin and muttered under our breaths desperately in English.
“Eh… How do you say ‘pass the ball’ in Chinese?”
“Er, wait, is it… ‘Gei wo qiu’ (give me the ball)?”
“Faster! Qiu! Qiu qiu ni (The ball, I’m begging you, please)!”
Yes, you could just taste the progress we were making.
Some of the social activities were more... musical. Someone slipped a laser disc into the player in the hall canteen, and when we watched the woman on screen cycling joyously in a rose garden, we knew immediately what we were in for – and let out a collective groan.
“Karaoke time!” the older undergrads roared with glee. So we sang to Teresa Teng and old SBC Chinese drama theme songs.
With a mic to our mouths and a metaphorical gun to our heads, we crooned Voices From The Heart from Neighbours and that Good Morning, Sir! theme song. Ai yo yo!
We cringed and cackled. Maybe I thought myself too cool for “uncool” songs. Perhaps I was also posing, masking my own incompetence in the language.
On Wednesday nights, some of us snuck out of campus for Mambo Jambo at Zouk, in the Land of the Potato Eaters.
But, secretly, we enjoyed the camaraderie.
On Wednesday nights, some of us snuck out of campus for Mambo Jambo at Zouk. We drank Long Island Iced Tea and danced in a circle to Square Rooms, so glad to be back in The Land of the Potato Eaters – if only for a few glorious hours.
Thursday mornings, we were hungover and woefully unprepared for another round of composition writing and spelling tests.
Neil, one of the Chinese camp boys with a shy smile and a shiny motorcycle, sometimes hung out with us girls. Sometimes, we took turns to sit pillion on his bike, squealing into the wind on those joy rides. We thought we were going at 80 kilometres per hour, but it was probably only about half that.
Neil loved it.
By the time the final exam came around, most of us had given up.
The night before, we put our papers aside – seriously, who were we kidding? – and congregated in the hostel room that Nana and I shared.
We spread out across the two perpendicular, single beds, and painted our nails blood red with Lydia’s coveted bottle of Chanel Rouge Noir. Nana painted Neil’s nails black, and we gossiped about current and potential boyfriends.
That was the night I learnt the trick to sleeping with wet nail enamel – arms crossed in an X, like Dracula.
On the last day, after the final group photos and lots of hamming it up for our cameras, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and get back home. We had actually passed the final exam. Who knows how? Maybe our attendance was all that mattered.
In a weird way, we relished being so bad at Chinese. Like a scarlet letter – not an A but F. Failing mother tongue showed that us girls that we were flawed in the same way. We had found our tribe. Bonding over our dishonour.
My rapport with the Chinese camp girls has endured over two and a half decades of heartbreak, betrayal, love and hope.
Later on, even after the last karaoke song was sung in the canteen, most of the girls continued to hang out and became tight.
Some of us chose to take the same classes together, in philosophy, sociology and political science. A sizable number from the programme – Amy, Neil, Chocho, Tina and me – later became journalists.
A few friendships slumped along the way. I haven’t seen Lydia since we graduated. Tina became more of a colleague than a BFF. Nana’s friendship is the one that I regret losing the most.
But my rapport with the remaining Chinese camp girls has endured over two and a half decades of heartbreak, betrayal, love and hope.
I cannot recall what we learnt at class that month. All those hours, between nine and five, wasted.
It dawned on me only later that it was silly to squander a language skill. I have tried to brush up on it by watching Taiwanese TV serials, willingly singing Stefanie Sun songs at karaoke and going on the language app Duolingo.
But, I guess: You lose some, you win some.
Or… You “shu” some and “ying” some.
Oh, you know what I mean.
Denyse Yeo is a freelance editor and writer who fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of old SBC drama serial theme songs while writing this piece. New episodes of My Singapore Life are published every Sunday at cna.asia/podcasts.