Who’s afraid of the Chinese?

By Gwen Lee

PHOTO: LIANG LEI


Me. At least, at one point in my school life.

This was when I was a junior college student in a class dominated by Chinese nationals, some of them on scholarships. I had chosen unconventional subjects: Chinese Language and Literature, and Chinese Studies, both taught in Mandarin.


My secondary education was attained at a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school, stereotyped to have stronger Mandarin speakers, but even my peers thought I was insane. Most of them couldn’t wait to throw Mandarin out of the window after having taken the O’Levels Higher Mother Tongue examination — and here I was looking for more pain.


I guess I was one of the few who actually enjoyed reading and writing in Chinese. But it wasn’t something I proudly owned up to. It felt as though people labelled you by the subjects you chose to study. If you excelled at mathematics or science, you were smart; if you studied English literature, art or music, you were artistic. But Chinese literature… I definitely didn’t qualify to be the cool kid in school.


I remember being pumped for my first literature class — until I stepped into the classroom. I counted only four other born-and-bred Singaporeans in a class of about 15 students. The rest were Chinese nationals, and their very presence scared me. Where in the bell-curve would I fall, I thought.


I was resentful too. Here I was, taking a leap of faith to pursue subjects I had an interest and passion for. But my Chinese-national classmates had, seemingly, taken the “easy way out” with subjects where their natural aptitude for Mandarin would guarantee them high grades.


The reality of a bell-curve grading system is, it’s not enough to be good. You have to be above the rest. In a class crowded with native Mandarin speakers, did I actually stand a chance? I toyed with the idea of dropping Chinese Literature for a more conventional subject like Economics several times. At least I would be competing with students from the same starting line.


But that would be conceding defeat. And that isn’t me.


I carried on.


I remember studying extra hard because I was afraid I would lag behind or not perform as well as the Chinese nationals in my class. I sat in the front row, paid attention to every lecture, while a few Chinese nationals seated behind me dozed off occasionally. Maybe they were bored. Or maybe everything was too easy for them. Gulp.


I remember I once, full of bravado, told a Chinese classmate: "I'm going to score higher than you for this class test, I studied hard for it!"


We were close friends and it was a friendly jibe. But he took me down with one snarky response: "We actually studied this text in primary school."


I was gobsmacked, with no idea how to continue the conversation. Talk about feelings of inadequacy!


And with fear came irrational thoughts. Why were Chinese nationals, who clearly had a more sophisticated command of Mandarin, allowed to take Chinese subjects where they would have an unfair advantage in? I began comparing myself with them. It felt like we were on different starting grounds, fighting to be on the top of the same bell curve.


We may all be ethnically Chinese, but we have different accents, backgrounds and problems. Singaporean Chinese band together, differentiating ourselves from our China-hailing counterparts, whom we call “China Chinese” or “PRC Chinese’’. Is this really for differentiation — or for marking out who is supposed to be lesser or superior?


Singaporeans often lament the lack of a common identity, but ironically, unite over discord with immigrants. The Singaporean identity seems its strongest when Singaporeans are pitted against foreigners. Perhaps it is here that we differentiate “born-and-bred Singaporeans” with immigrants or foreign talents.


The Covid-19 virus outbreak saw the return of negative stereotypes of Chinese nationals, who are painted as dirty, unhygienic people who eat anything and everything. Our prejudices show in how we box Chinese nationals in unrepresentative categories. But we may have more in common with the Chinese nationals than we think.


In my experience, it is unfair to tar a whole nationality with one brush. My Chinese classmates were helpful, humorous and kind people who were always ready to share their notes or essays with me. I remain friends with a few, despite being continents apart. Never mind our different accents; we had the same school experience and I no longer see them any different from my fellow countrymen.


The guy friend, who teased me earlier, was not just good at his studies but had artistic talents that proved irreplaceable in the school committee we were in. He had painted beautiful banners and constructed realistic props. Some Singaporean friends even wished for Chinese nationals as group members, because they were thought to be smart and hardworking. One even lamented that her group would be at a disadvantage because it did not have Chinese-national members.


Some young Singaporeans might, in fact, see the benefits of having foreign nationals outside of a classroom. An Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) study showed that in 2016, 62.5 per cent of young Singaporeans thought that foreign talent contributed to Singapore’s development as much as Singaporeans did, up from 45.4 per cent in 2010.


You may ask at this point how I fared in my H2 Chinese Language and Literature subject. I got a B.


I suppose I could blame the Government for letting in the Chinese nationals who pushed my grades down. Or I could blame myself, for choosing to compete with Chinese nationals instead of sailing through something like economics.


But I am older and wiser now. My command of Mandarin is likely better than most Chinese Singaporeans, maybe even better than those who consider themselves proficient in the language. That B stuck out like a sore thumb on my report card, but I deserved it. My Chinese classmates were really much better at the subject. Plus they are smart, motivated and hardworking.


I was scared, but fear should spur us to better performance. In seeing them as competitors for our grades and jobs, we may fail to remember that we can learn and grow alongside them too. I probably would have gotten my A if Chinese nationals weren’t in the running — but it would have been a weak A, benchmarked against “weaker” students.


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