Having grown up in an education environment so wholly English-speaking, I feel awkward, almost handicapped, in most of the social contexts that I’ve found myself in since I left NUS.
In the States I found myself craving Singaporean company, people who would understand my rapid-fire off-tangent rambling without there needing to be a point. On the occasions that I found that during CMU Singapore Students Association meet-ups, it was easy to forget that most of Singapore didn’t communicate on that wavelength, and associate the place with that sense of belonging, simply because we thought that was the biggest thing we had in common.
Now that I’m back, it might prove surprising for some that I find myself even more alienated than when I was overseas.
My office environment consists of almost wholly Chinese, with a capital C — Chinese in both race and nationality. I have one other colleague who isn’t Chinese. He’s not Singaporean either — he’s Indian.
Because there are so many Chinese, there really isn’t any impetus to speak in English, whether during work discussions or lunches. Of course meetings are still held in English, for the benefit of Shan, my Indian colleague. Outside of that, no one gives two fucks about being inclusive. Not that I blame them — by utilitarian reasoning, it’s really more reasonable for one person to bear with a conversation in a language he doesn’t understand, than to make 15 other people painfully construct their thoughts in English for small talk.
What about me? Even though my mandarin is seriously half-baked, making some of them speak in English contributes less to my understanding than otherwise, so I try my best to translate chinese technical terms. As for social conversation, there are a lot of lingo and jokes that require not just competence in chinese, but an immersion into their internet and pop culture. It’s easy to drift out and not engage socially.
On more serious implications, it is clear that a programmer who doesn’t understand mandarin is missing out on a lot of talk that, while not directly relevant to their work scope, very likely impacts how much contribution they can make. Discussions about the larger picture which you can chip in with your perspective; answers to technical questions which you’ve had experience with; trust that comes with the sense that you are all working on the same thing, which gets built up the more you participate in problem-solving together.
I’m okay — I have lcy and my close friends who will nourish whatever social needs I have, and I understand enough mandarin to function sufficiently. Sometimes though, I miss the feeling of belonging, and the lively self that had the chance to pop its head out more all those years ago.
Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish? Gloria asks, in an episode of Modern Family. I want to modify it, in my case, to Do you even know how interesting I can be?, but I’ve been feeling so rusty in social groups that I don’t have confidence to ask that now.