Category Archives: Modern Life

So You Think You Know Your Mother Tongue

Near my house in north London there’s a Belarusian church made of wood. The Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church is the only wooden church that has been constructed in London since the great fire of 1666. Next to the church is a double-storey house – Marian House – where the priest lives. Marian House also serves as a community centre. By now you must be scratching your head, wondering why I’m telling you any of this.

The Beautiful Church Interior

It’s because I was at the Belarusian community centre last week, at a literary event to honour mother tongues. The concept of mother tongue is incredibly important to Belarusians, whose language was widely spoken in the region until they were Polonised and then Russified by conquering Polish and Russian empires. First things first; where is Belarus? For the answer, see the map below.

Where is Belarus?

The above comes from the BBC’s country profile. Belarus is a landlocked country in northern Europe, stuck between Poland to the west and Russia to the east. In the south is Ukraine, while Latvia and Lithuania lie north. The region has a fascinating history. I’m no expert (for a summary here’s a Wikipedia link), but the point is this: Belarusians in Belarus have been discriminated against for speaking Belarusian, their mother tongue.

Language shapes perception, and when those perceptions don’t accord with what an authoritarian regime wants them to be, the solution in that part of the world has been to crack down on language. This happened under Soviet rule.

Although Belarusians are now allowed to speak Belarusian, their language suffered years of decline. Even their Nobel Prize-winning author, Svetlana Alexievich, writes in Russian. It’s thus fitting that the Belarusian centre in London should host an annual event marking UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day.

And so we gathered, on the sunny afternoon of 23 February, to read poems in our mother languages. I, for one, had to think hard about which language to read in.

The first language I ever heard was Cantonese – which isn’t really a language, it’s a Chinese dialect. My parents also speak English, Malaysian-style English (known affectionately as Manglish), and up to the age of 10, I could not make head or tail of Western accents. When I started school, a third language – Malay – was thrown into the mix. Malay was the medium of instruction for us. By the time I left for England in my teens, I spoke and wrote Malay and English fluently while also using Cantonese in daily conversation.

What, then, is my mother tongue?

When someone asked the question after my talk at the 2018 London Book Fair, I fudged. I didn’t know. I’ve never consciously thought of Cantonese as my mother tongue, in the same way that China is not my homeland. I’ve visited China only once, and I left feeling eternally grateful that my ancestors went to Malaysia. English is now my first language and I write in it, but mother tongue? My mind just couldn’t get there. I also speak and read French, which I had to learn at my British boarding school; in fact, I speak English and French now better than either Malay or Cantonese.

In the end I reverted to the comfort of Malay. I read a couple of poems. Not my own, I hasten to add. My repertoire doesn’t yet extend to poetry.

First, though, I had to introduce Malaysia. People know the country for downed jetliners (MH17 ) and corruption (1MDB), but Malaysia is so much more than that.

The Excitement of Malaysia

You can see how animated I get when I talk about Malaysia. I made no bones about the profusion of languages in my life. These comments challenged some of what the two invited Belarusian poets of distinction, Uladzimir Arlou and Valiantsina Aksak, had said. They kicked the event off with beautiful poetry in Belarusian (their own). One of them then expressed the view that a person cannot exist without a mother tongue. Given Belarusian history, I understand this perspective, even if I disagree with it. Here they are below, listening graciously.

In multicultural Malaysia, some of us exist happily with no mother tongue or with more than one. Or with a present-day mother tongue that is different to our childhood mother tongue. Or a mother tongue our ancestors never spoke.

Distinguished Poets Uladzimir Arlou and Valiancina Aksak

The poems I read come from the Malay tradition of pantun. Pantun are verses in groups of four which have both rhythm and rhyme. I used to love pantun at school. The verses are witty, amusing and evocative: real, living poetry that people use in conversation. Here’s one:

Pisang emas dibawa belayar,

Masak sebiji di atas peti,

Hutang emas boleh dibayar,

Hutang budi dibawa mati.”

(Source: Soscili)

Below is my attempt at a rough translation:

Golden bananas are carried on voyages,

One ripens on top of a chest,

Debts of gold can be repaid,

Debts of kindness are carried to the grave.

For me, the lines above distil the essence of old Malay culture, where human kindness was valued above riches. A far cry, in other words, from what Malaysia became in recent years.

Elsewhere, I have mentioned how poetic Malay is as a language; pantun conveys this so well. At the same time, a lot of the poetry reveals the gentleness inherent in Malay culture. For instance, verses can be used to give someone a telling-off (without really telling them off). The audience giggled at the idea of poetry as admonishment.

They were surprised by the absence of titles. Pantun don’t need titles because this isn’t a high-faluting verse form; on the contrary, pantun is down-to-earth poetry anyone can make up. Yet, even in the eight lines I shared, people were moved by the beauty in its cadence.

The audience must have liked my presentation – they voted to give me first prize!

The prize was none other than a bottle of what will surely be a memorable Belarusian speciality. See that number at the bottom: 40? That’s the alcohol content. I kid you not. Apparently this is medicinal alcohol, a balm, I’m told. We shall see. (In fairness, the label does declare 20 herbs.)

The Highly Alcoholic Prize!

I know that my hosts are waiting anxiously for feedback on Balzam Belaruskii. For the moment I’m afraid I must disappoint them. Each time I look at the 40%, I shake my head. I’ll have to be very sick before I dare open this bottle.

In the meantime, I would like to thank the Anglo-Belarusian Society for a great event. Special thanks to Karalina Matskevich for her energetic organisation, Father Serge Stasievich for generous hosting, Aliaksandra Bielavokaja for her photography and to everyone else who was there, too, the young as well as the not-so-young. We departed into a glorious evening and I’d like to leave readers with an uplifting view. Here’s London’s Belarusian church at night, all lit up.

London’s Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church at Night

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Modern Life, Writing

A Month Away from Social Media

After reading an article about social media addiction, I decided to retreat into a virtual cave in September – just to see what it would feel like. And in light of the role played by social media in recent atrocities, being an online hermit doesn’t seem altogether crazy. But first, let me tell you about my September experiment.

It started with this article in Psychology Today. The article contains 6 questions. I answered ‘No’ to all of them, which put me firmly in the ‘Not Addicted to Social Media’ category. Nonetheless I thought abstention could be instructive.

It was.

The first thing that surprised me was how hard it was staying away. So, a word of warning for those who believe they’re not addicted to posting updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Tumblr: you may be more hooked than you think.

I’d initially planned for my social media avoidance to commence on September 1 for one month. Then, the American senator John McCain passed away. This happened during the last week of August, and as I watched his daughter Meghan McCain deliver her eulogy at the memorial service held to celebrate his life, my first impulse was to post a tweet. I reached forward, before realising that it was Saturday, September 1. I was not supposed to be posting anything. I found myself debating what to do, can you imagine? I actually spent time contemplating whether to hold strong or to succumb. In the end I gave in, reasoning that I could postpone social media abstention until the next day.

This is how we get sucked in. Social media platforms have been very adept at training us in supposed ‘spontaneity’. No sooner does something happen than we reach for the nearest device in order to ‘share’. For the first few days I had to fight the urge.

And then Twitter noticed. This was by far the most interesting part of the experiment. Those of us who’re on social media – and that’s most people I know – are already accustomed to the emails routinely sent by various platforms to tell us what we’ve missed during our absence.

Twitter stood out for the intensity of its deluge. Once Twitter realised that I had not logged on for a while, it started sending me three reminders every single day. It only stopped when I resumed tweeting in October.

Think about this. Imagine how you’d feel if your mobile/cell operator were to send you 3 messages each day to remind you to use your phone. That’s the equivalent of what Twitter was doing.

Here’s the difference: your mobile/cell operator doesn’t need to remind you to use your phone. Sure, it may encourage you to use your phone more by advertising cheap minutes and ubiquitous data. At the end of the day, though, we use our phones because they’re pretty much indispensable to modern life. Social media isn’t at that stage (and on current evidence, may never get there). It’s amazing how we forget this.

What I learned during my month of not posting and sharing and reacting to every event as soon as it happened was that after a few days, I stopped missing social media. This is the greatest fear of social media platforms. That’s why they work so hard to keep us on.

Because once we start experimenting with social media detoxification, where will it all end? Heck, we may even find other ways of expressing ourselves and leave these platforms altogether. That’s the nightmare of social media owners and operators. If enough moderate people leave their platforms, then much of the venting which passes as conversation would end up in the hands of the implacably aggrieved.

Even though I’ve never been as big a fan of social media as some of my friends, I’m convinced that a month of voluntary detoxification has had an effect. My mind is less cluttered as a result. Honest.

If you’re reading this and wondering whether I’m being over the top, I’d recommend getting off social media for a week. Just try it. You may be surprised by how therapeutic the experience is.

On a slightly different note, let’s contrast Twitter’s robust response when I ceased activity with how the platform responded to a death threat reported to it. Twitter told political analyst Rochelle Ritchie that the threat she received from the now arrested pipe bomber broke none of its rules!

Twitter Ignored Death Threat

Such a response should be enough to focus anyone’s mind. If a death threat doesn’t break Twitter’s rules, what would?

And yes, I do intend to share this blog-post via social media. It’s a twist of post-modern irony.

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