It was a game of hopscotch that did it.
We took a piece of white chalk and drew the squares on the pavement, rough and gravelly. The other kids were from the Malay kampung nearby so we spoke Malay, of course, not the proper Malay we learned at school but a more casual version. Our teachers called this bahasa pasar (literally “market speech”) as though it were uncouth but it’s what we used; it was our language.
There was an older Indian kid, one of my father’s badminton students. He was waiting for his own father to come and pick him up. We asked him to join in. He spoke to me in Mandarin and I recall being extremely embarrassed because I couldn’t understand him. I am Cantonese so I grew up speaking English and Cantonese at home; my father was the headmaster of a Chinese-language school so this kid spoke Mandarin, naturally.
We ended speaking in Malay; my father told me later the boy ended up telling his other badminton team mates that Mr. Mah’s son couldn’t speak Chinese. How odd. But then – I wasn’t Chinese, was I? I am Malaysian and that means you speak whatever works for you.
I didn’t realise the difference till that game of hopscotch. Years later, when I was a Master student in Munich, I managed to pick up not only German but also Mandarin from a few other students from China. They were more than happy to teach me Mandarin; in actual fact, I had no choice but to learn it as they were quite clique-ish about it. They had asked me if it was weird growing up Chinese in Malaysia. Again, I had to explain I didn’t grow up Chinese; I grew up Malaysian.
Why is this so hard to understand? It didn’t seem so complicated all those years ago when a bunch of us kids were throwing tiny beanbags and hopping over squares…