This (monolingual) life


OCTOBER 01, 2011 12:00AM

This (monolingual) life

This (monolingual) life

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IN my inner-Melbourne electorate, mail for last year’s election campaign began with a pamphlet in six languages, including Greek, Chinese, Somali, Vietnamese and Arabic, all of these double Dutch to me.

An Anglo-Celtic politician once sought my support in a letter printed entirely in Chinese characters except for my name and address. Where I live most passers-by speak English but occasionally I hear Mandarin, Cantonese and even my ancestral dialect, Toishanese.

On the tram or in the street white-faced strangers practise their Chinese on me: “Ni hao.” How different from when I grew up in 1950s Hobart.

Although I’m told I was fluent in Chinese until the age of three, when my Chinese-born grandmother died, after I began school Chinese proved a hindrance. “My mummy says I can’t play with you because you’re Chinese,” said a little five-year-old, shunning me on the playground.

The taunting my sister and I received didn’t last long, however, even though we were the only two Ching Chongs among 500 girls at our school. The Catholic nuns kept insults under control.

But if my mother broke into Chinese in front of my friends, I withered with embarrassment. Anyone heard speaking a language other than English aroused suspicion. People gaped as though watching monkeys at the circus.

When we lived over the family fruit shop my sister and I walked home for lunch, sometimes bringing a classmate. Our mother presented us each with two baby lamb chops, half a grilled tomato and fresh vegetables, all of which we ate with knives and forks. I dared not tell anyone that in the evening my family ate with strange implements called chopsticks and I shovelled rice from a small bowl straight into my mouth.

As the time came for me to leave school my mother’s partner, a New Zealand-born radio announcer with a rich golden voice, made a suggestion: “You’re Chinese. You should be able to speak Chinese. You could go to Canberra, learn Chinese and maybe join foreign affairs or the Chinese service of Radio Australia.” I was horrified. I couldn’t help my Chinese face. Everyone asked, “Where do you come from?” At least I could forestall the slowly enunciated, “And do you speak English?”, by opening by mouth. I had to assimilate. Being Chinese made me peculiar enough. Why learn to speak Chinese?

So today, when Australians of Chinese ancestry make up more than 3 per cent of the population, Chinese is the most spoken language after English in Australian homes, and the country only recently experienced three years under the Western world’s first Mandarin-speaking leader, I can’t say much more than “Wo bu hui shuo Zhongguo hua”: I can’t speak Chinese.

It’s just as well that electioneering bumph also appears in English. Or is it?