Split Language Disorders
It is a well-documented fact: multi-lingual people have multiple personalities. I am no different, though I was only recently cognizant of that. Of how my languages affect the way I perceive myself, present myself to the world. How I trade, make contracts; how I fall in love.
For as long as I can remember, ‘foreign languages’ were never foreign to me. They just seemed like perfectly formed words in very different chords. When I started travelling, my language brain and place brain also got inextricably tied up with each other.
When I am home in Singapore, I code-switch. Every ten minutes. English-English. American-English. International-English. Singlish-English. Then I go from that largely English existence to, broken-English-if-I-have-to. Then to Mandarin. China-Mandarin. Taiwanese Mandarin. Singaporean-broken-ass-Mandarin. Then to what I actually consider my mother tongue, which is early 1900s Chaoshan area Teochew language.
In my ‘international English’, learned from a decade in a privileged upper-middle class English speaking school setting, I fit in anywhere. My politics are liberal. My passport takes me to any country in the world. I am both privileged and not, in this language. I can become American, Australian, Singaporean. Or I can become this weird hybrid, which is closer to the truth: that I speak in a certain way because I have been everywhere and nowhere.
But the me that speaks in an affected Singlish accent, that is also all me. It does not come naturally to me, but I have learned its inflections and quirkiness. I have learned how to express anger, despair, annoyance and joy - using the same words - but I have learned to separate my emotions with the ascent or descent of a single tone. With the addition or subtraction of a single suffix. Lah. Lor. Leh.
Why you so like that leh, means resignation and acceptance that your friend is an asshole.
Why you you so like that one, means you are still surprised your friend is an asshole, because he isn’t often one.
Why you so like that lor, means you have been an asshole for a while and I know that, but I am still annoyed that you are.
Why you so like that lah, means I am in equilibrium with your general assholery.
It’s that Singlish that gets stuff done. I pick up the phone and yell at someone in it. No matter the colour of their skin, the understanding is universal. “Eh why you like that can you help me or not bro”
My Mandarin brain is complicated.
I literally cannot go to China without having an existential crisis about it. When I was 4, my Chinese teacher in kindergarten yelled at me, saying “why don’t you understand Mandarin? What kind of stupid Chinese person are you?” At that point, I decided: not a very good one. I don’t want to be a Chinese person, then.
Eventually, I made peace with it. I learned that my grandparents spoke more Tamil and Malay than they did Mandarin. I learned that the Mandarin that had been plugged into my brain, with all of its accompanying cultural baggage - oh, you should learn Mandarin because you are the daughter of the Yellow Emperor (correct answer: who the fuck is he and why am I his daughter. And why does he speak Mandarin?) - is always going to be a part of my unstable, cultural identity. At this point, the language I keep as my second one is functional. It is sufficient. But that is what it is.
I can order food in it, and have political conversations. But I do not care about that language - in fact, I hate it. Absolutely detest it.
Because Mandarin takes a part of me away from who I think I really am, which is, a Teochew in Southeast Asia. The idea that I find no comfort or joy, instead I find downright disgust, at the language I was forced to speak for a decade or more. When the language I dream in, wake up blabbering in, feel happy and loved in, is not even a designated language at all. It is considered a dialect, not a language. Teochew is the dialect of my heart and soul. I live it, love it, breathe it, revel in it. I sound like a fairy with helium in my mouth when I speak in it.
My English and Mandarin selves are whole identities. My Teochew self is a private, semi-religious self. It is the language I use to tell my grandmother that I love her. It is the language that I use to love, and to be loved in. English feels clumsy in comparison: love in Teochew, is by far a superior experience. Partly because everyone who I have ever loved in this obscure language of mine, has loved me unconditionally.
It is then difficult to take the language of love in one plane and to try to translate it to another. Especially if it is a language you barely speak. My Indonesian brain is about 3 years old at this point. Half-formed; the other deformed. My Thai brain is a little bit better, but not by much. One time, I tried to date a Thai woman, and I spoke as good Thai as she had good English, which was not at all. It showed me that love, sex and attraction is all about language for me.
I do not think I could ever love someone who spoke Mandarin to me. Even if I understood it perfectly. It just does not work. It is not my love language; it is my functional language. English, yes. Hindi, somewhat. Indonesian, maybe.
And as I go off into the big world at large, carrying a pocket full of several languages with different lives, I am also reminded that there is no other language in the world that makes me feel the most love; only the one I speak the least. When I have dreams, more and more it is in that obscure southern Chinese dialect: my dialectical love and life, carried with me in a different passport, in a different time, in multiple other lives and languages.