Hi, I’m Jennifer. I actually have a Chinese name, but no-one in my family ever knew how to write it. When I moved to Singapore in 2012, a local friend proficient in Chinese gave me some characters to match the sound of my name. Voila! Sounds simple, right?
Firstly, you might be thinking that it’s strange that no-one bothered to record my name in the first place. True, even a scrap bit of paper would have been helpful. But the truth is, my father never learnt to read or write Chinese. How could a Chinese from Singapore not know Chinese?
The bilingual education system (meaning Mandarin Chinese and English) was introduced in Singapore primary schools in 1960. For high schools, it was introduced in 1966. So my father, born in 1948, missed out on the chance to study Mandarin. Some people debate the calling of Mandarin a ‘mother tongue’, since so many families speak their own dialect, whether it be Teochew, Cantonese or Hakka. My paternal grandfather’s family spoke only Hokkien.
The ‘baby’ language spoken by my dad with his mother was Baba Malay - a kind of pidgin Malay with some Hokkien words thrown in, I believe. Growing up in the village of Chai Chee near Kembangang, he presumably spoke Malay to many of his neighbours. In recent years, I’ve attended a few plays held in Baba Malay, and I am surprised by its richness and strangely, sense of familiarity for me.
Apparently, there were attempts to send my father to Chinese school, which his older stepbrothers and sisters were attending. These older siblings were the offspring of my grandfather and the first wife, who were both Hokkien. After six months, he called it quits, according to my mum. I suppose the school was overly strict or just too culturally unfamiliar.
When I was in high school, I distinctly remember asking my dad to write my Chinese name. I was sent away with a flea in my ear and decided it was safer to wait for the chance to ask someone else. Since moving to Singapore, I’ve met a few Peranakan aunties and uncles with the same sort of experience as my dad. It would have been nice to tell him that being unable to read or write Mandarin was not something he should feel insecure about.
So finally in my early 40s, I'm pleased to be able to present my business card in English, Chinese and Japanese. Knowledge is power, or for me, it feels like knowledge is a comfort. I may never be able to speak Mandarin or Hokkien, but at least I can now finally write the name given to me by my grandparents. And what is it, you may ask? Lim Wei Mei, or 林 薇美. Lim means ‘grove of trees’, Wei means ‘a rose’ and Mei means ‘beauty’.
And for the mix, you can also address me as ‘Nyonya Jennifer’ to acknowledge my Peranakan side. It’s a very long-winded multicultural world when you dig into it!