Essay
MOTHER TONGUE

This essay was originally written in English by Woo Yen Yen.

*****

Warning: there’s considerable potty language in this story.

My daughter was verbal very early. One day, when she was two years old, she yelled urgently, pointing to her bottom “Jiá zhù lè, jiá zhù lè!”

I didn’t know what she was saying … until her Shanghainese nanny eased her discomfort by pulling her wedgie out.

It was an awakening for me…

Who is this child that I’m bringing up in Flushing, Queens?

Is she going to grow up using the language of “jia zhu le, jia zhu le” to describe a wedgie, instead of the more correct linguistic form (to my Singaporean ears, at least) of “kiap tio leow, kiap tio leow?”

How did this happen, right under my nose?

“Jia zhu le” – what is that?

We have been living in New York City now for the past 16 years and have lived in Flushing, Queens, the past eight years. Yes, Flushing. As in what you do after you go toilet. It was established by the Dutch West India Company and named after the Dutch city of Vlissingen. How Vlissingen became Flushing, I don’t know.

Flushing, Queens, is a crazy mix of immigrants from all over. More obviously, you see Chinese immigrants from all different parts of China, and you hear on the streets all the languages they speak: Taiwanese, Fuzhou, Northern Chinese, Cantonese, and many more I don’t recognize.

And there are also many Koreans, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Irish, Greek Russians, Jews and Italians.

If ever there was a city of Babel where people spoke all the different languages, sometimes understanding, and at other times misunderstanding each other, it must have felt something like this. There is no one Center. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or how long you’ve been in the country. Everyone assumes that they are the Center.

Neighbor: Nimen nali ren (where are you from)?
Me: Xinjiapo (Singapore).
Neighbor: Oh, waidiren (you’re an outsider, a migrant).
Me: Ni shi nali ren (where are you from)?
Neighbor: Tianjin.
Me: Lai duo jiu le (how long have you been here)?
Neighbor: San ge yue (three months).

So … you’re not a “waidiren” like me?

We all assume we are the Center.

As I observed my daughter’s language development, I began to notice one important assumption that she acquired growing up in this crazy linguistic world.

She is five now. She does not assume that she is the Center linguistically. When someone doesn’t understand her or doesn’t respond, she doesn’t assume that it’s because the other person is stupid. She assumes that she just hasn’t got the right language.

When she sees an Asian-looking person in the elevator, she would try…
“Ni hao.” … no response.
“Ahnyung hasyeo.” … no response again.
“Konichiwa?”
“Ola commo est ta?”

If she meets a little girl in the playground and all languages fail, she might touch her hair and go, “Your hairstyle and my hairstyle are the same.”

She works hard to listen to responses to find the right language.

The kid in her classroom has communication challenges?
“Phil, give me the block?”
“Phil, 给我.
“Phil,  let it go, let it go…ooo …‘“ (she sings the refrain from the popular Disney movie, Frozen).

And Phil lets go.

What are we able to do, who are we able to communicate with, when we listen like we are not the Center?

There are a few words and phrases she uses that I would consider her Mother Tongue. Words that have survived the journey between Singapore and New York City. These are the words she speaks in her most visceral moments, in a moment of urgency, in a moment of pain, in a moment of love.

She says:
Shee-shee (pee)
Ngh-ngh (poop), she would say when she was younger.
Bang sai (regular poop)
Lau sai (diarrhea)

I warned you there was going to be potty language in my story.

And as I recently discovered, her Mother Tongue vocabulary also included the word “chi-ba-boom”.

We were registering her for a new kindergarten and her teacher was evaluating her facility with English to see if she needed English as a Second Language support.

The teacher asked her, “ What do you want to do when you grow up?”

She answered, “I want to be a scientist.” The teacher was very impressed. “I want to study chemistry.” The teacher looked at me and gave an approving nod . But my daughter didn’t stop there. “I want to study chemistry because you can mix chemicals and then the chemicals go chi-ba-boom,” she explained, using the unique Singlish description of how all explosions sound.

When Kaikai was three, we went to an Afghan restaurant in Flushing, Queens. This was widely rumored to be where the important NYPD, New York Police Department, hangs out to listen for terrorism leads.  The fact that it’s also where you can get the best kebabs in all of New York has, of course, nothing to do with why it’s an NYPD hang-out.

At the restaurant, she had to go to the toilet. We went, and she was struggling to get onto the potty herself when she suddenly yelled out in pain, “Mommy!!! The potty kiap-ed my pee-gu!” (the toilet pinched my bottom)

Imagine this mother’s pride and joy at this visceral utterance in my young daughter’s moment of pain and extreme vulnerability… “The potty kiap-ed my pee-gu”….three languages in one six-word utterance!  English, Hokkien, Mandarin!

And I have to say, the English teacher in me was especially proud that she even used the correct tense. It wasn’t “kiap” but “kiap-ed”.

At that moment, in that small restroom in the Afghan restaurant in Flushing, Queens, the words that automatically came out of my mouth were the words that my mother used to say to me and that her mother before that used to say to her, “Mommy sayang, mommy sayang.”

*****

This story was first told in 2014 at the Second Saturdays Series, a monthly gathering in New York City for the reading of Singaporean and American literatures.

Woo Yen Yen grew up in Singapore and has been based in New York since 1998. Over the years, she and her husband, Colin Goh, have helmed an eclectic slate of projects that includes feature films, audio CDs, books and graphic novels, live events, websites and iPad apps. A former doctoral research fellow at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Yen Yen is currently an Associate Professor at Long Island University’s College of Education and Information Sciences where she teaches curriculum development.  She is now a visiting professor at Taiwan’s National Central University.

Featured image ©Yanping Nora Soong under CC BY-SA 2.0.