Singapore Adventure

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Malay Class
by venitha

Our first Malay class was a blast. An entertaining and energetic teacher, amusing and apropos words, and best of all, no other expats. Jim and I want both to learn some of the local languages and to befriend some of the natives, so we left our initial lesson with big smiles and high hopes. Bagus!

It was with a stifled wince five minutes into class #2, then, that I greeted another Caucasian couple as they thundered in. Did the other students, all Asian, do the same? And, worse, had they cringed the first time they saw me?

I am quiet and unobtrusive in general, a marked contrast to our newest classmates. Roseanne, as I have dubbed this new woman, in honor of another American who makes me wince, is large and loud, brash and bold, the epitomy of how Americans are perceived abroad. She asks boisterous questions and sucks up all the oxygen in the room, leaving the rest of us gasping for breath like the fish at the wet market. We've all been busy coloring daintily within the lines, but Roseanne hogs all the crayons and carelessly breaks them as she scribbles wildly taking notes.

Generally criticized for their classroom passivity, Singaporean students are silent, seeming unwilling participants in their own education. By nature shy, this is how I prefer to learn, too, though I realize I have no hope of blending into Singapore's background, even if I remain mute. And, anyway, I do have my questions. Is there no verb to be? Does Malay for I like cat imply, as in English, that you like to eat cat? Does white hair mean gray hair or blonde?

Roseanne elbows her way into my questions, explaining them to Sham, our guru, who has difficulty understanding my English, but can easily comprehend hers. Like the ancient Chinese durian hawker outside Cold Storage twanging through his sales pitch, her voice is harsh, composed of pointed shards and sharp angles. It grates on my nerves, leaving me yearning for a cold compress, a darkened room, and Yanni playing softly in the background.

For although Roseanne is clearly American, Singlish and a Singaporean word pronounciation have mingled with her speech, giving birth to an unattractive and frightening mutant. Is this how I will sound after two years here? I want to be understood, but still, it's an appalling thought.

My little sister, Vadrian, returned to the US from a year of study in nearby Australia sporting a gorgeous tan, her blonde locks bobbed into an adorable short hairdo, and speaking with a classy Aussie accent. Me, I've won the sunburn/even more freckles when you would not have thought it possible/hatchet job combo... and I'm going to sound like that?

Tak bagus! Not bagus at all.

Notes and disclaimers:
  • My humor and sarcasm are frequently lost on the various different ethnicities reading this blog, and I refuse to insert lots of smiling emoticons.
  • Jim thinks that even with smiling, blinking, and giggling emoticons, this blog entry is too mean to post. I agree with him in theory, but in practice, I love the images I've evoked, particularly the treasured memory of my beloved sister's arrival home after a year of my missing her dreadfully, too much to resist.
  • It was Dorothy Parker who said Art is a form of catharsis. She wrote much meaner things than I could ever hope to.
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker is one of the many books I shipped to Singapore from Colorado. I would never dream of leaving Dorothy anywhere.
  • Bagus is Malay for Wunderbar! Formidable! Estupendo! Magnifico!
  • Malay does have the verb to be, but it frequently dropped from simple sentences in conversation.
  • I like cat, literally translated to Malay, does not imply feline consumption, regardless of my suspicions about the local cats' missing tails.
  • White hair means gray, both in Malay and in Singapore in general, so my lovely mother-in-law Marilyn will fit right in here.
  • Ang moh, a common Singaporean term referring to Caucasians, translates literally from Hokkien as red hair, so you might think that my mother will fit right in here as well. But, well, erm, I don't think ang moh is um... let's just say that in spite of its attractive color, they're not admiring my hair or anything else when they call me this.
  • The haircut is starting to grow out, and the fellow expat we met outside Raffles Hotel Friday night because he recognized us from pictures on this blog did not say, Wow, Venitha, that is a bad haircut. Thanks, Mark.
  • I love Vadrian dearly and have worked through the childhood jealousies that led me to break a plate over her head. Sorry, Vad!
  • Writing so cruelly about a woman I don't even know surely will result in her ultimately becoming my bestest bestest friend here, and I'll end up deleting this blog entry, so read up!