“I got into theatre by complete accident. When I was in secondary one, I wanted to join the choir, but my school had this policy where students had to audition for every performing arts group that’s made available to them. Somehow, I ended up in Chinese Drama.
Back then, my Chinese was terrible. During the audition, they made me read this really difficult passage with a lot of words I didn’t even know. They also asked questions like why I was there and why I wanted to join the club.
For every Chinese word I spoke, I spoke about 10 English words; it was the worst audition ever. When I got in, I had to use a classroom ruler to match my name to the assigned club, just to make sure they had me in the right place.
I’m effectively bilingual now partly because of my training in Chinese drama, but I think my Chinese was horrible because I read a lot of English books growing up. My parents also spoke primarily in English, so I had a hard time communicating with my grandma as a kid.
Apparently, I rolled around the floor and pretended to be a ball because I didn’t know how to convey that I wanted an orange. It took her half an hour to figure out what I wanted. I even told my mom one time that I wasn’t Chinese, and she was absolutely horrified.
My first memory of learning Chinese? I was five. I was actually bullied in kindergarten because I wasn’t like the other kids. Everyone was very Chinese-speaking and it gave me social anxiety. The trauma made me associate Chinese with ‘bad people’ and English with my safe environment.
Now that I’m older, I think it’s very important to have a grasp of both English and your Mother Tongue. Beyond the cultural significance, it’s what helps you communicate with people. My Cantonese, for instance, is very subpar, but I can at least understand what my grandparents are saying.
I’m even learning French and Malay. My father is Malaysian, and learning the language helps bridge my Malaysian relatives and I. Sometimes, when my Malay friends crack jokes, I would go ‘Uh huh! I get it!’ Learning a language really is a way for you to get to know somebody better.” – Esther, 23
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