“Grandmother Tongue” is written and directed by Thomas Lim. I had the chance to talk to him last evening after the show. I was too shy to approach him (yes, I am that reserved), however, and held back. I wanted to say: What a dazzling gem of a play it is and how much I enjoy and could relate to it. But then I thought he definitely has already heard such sentiments expressed by countless people over and again and again. Because it’s the story of how our pioneer generation suffered, in silence, the Great Lingual Disenfranchisement caused by the… ok, hush, you-know-who are always listening.
For all its humourous lines and situations, what struck me most afterward, and what lingered on, was the sense of pathos. It’s a painful play to sit through – and I mean that in a good way. My 80-plus-year-old Ah Ma and I si heng hua lang. And I cannot really communicate with her except via the most basic of phrases: Eaten already. You good? I good. Don’t know. Didn’t go out? We go home. What makes it all the more mortifying is: I don’t know – I don’t even know! – what dialect, exactly, we are speaking. My birth cert says mum and dad are both Henghua, so I guess we are speaking Henghua which seems to be closely linked to Hokkien.
It wasn’t like that though, and it could have turned out differently. A few of my cousins, raised largely by grandma, are conversant in her dialect. And I remember my parents used to speak to us kids in a rojak of English, Mandarin and dialect when we were younger, then stopped completely when we enrolled in primary school. And I have since become one of those largely monolingual potatoes (or maybe an undercooked french fry) – I can understand a bit of spoken dialect, cannot speak it; understand some Mandarin, can barely speak it; and I’m all the time using those big words in writing and speech in English – a third or fourth language to my mum and one which is totally hm zai le gong simi to grandma.
It made me think how it must have been like for grandma all these decades.
And it hurts.