One of the first things my friend visiting from Australia asked me on Sunday was, "So what language do people speak here?" Which surprised me because he'd already had breakfast at the Fairmont, not to mention successfully navigated his way from Harbourfront MRT station to the backpacker place Ali's Nest in Little India the night before. He's a bright boy --- how had he not figured out that we speak English, yo?
Well, he'd thought it was English, but had been confused by the babble of languages that swirled around him. "On the train, there were, like, these Chinese girls speaking French."
Okay, that's pretty unusual.
"Almost everyone speaks English," I told him, "we all learn it in school. In fact, if you meet someone who doesn't speak English at all, they're probably foreign and didn't go to school here."
Some hours later (this might've been when we were wandering around Tiong Bahru), he asked, "So how do you greet people here?"
I gave him a look. "'Hello.' Or 'Yo, wassup?' Okay, fine, Chinese, it's 'ni hao.'" I didn't get into the rest of Singapore's official languages (Malay and Tamil) because, "This isn't Vietnam. You don't have to learn to say xin chao to break the ice."
That night, when we were sitting around a coffeeshop table having dinner from Big D's, one of the people at the table was from Beijing and her mother was in town visiting. There were polite introductions all round in Mandarin, which was all her mother spoke, but even though all of us except my Australian friend had studied Mandarin in school, only one person was fluent enough in the language to carry on a proper conversation with her for the rest of the evening.
Needless to say, it wasn't me. I wish I could've, but I'd've had to spend the afternoon swotting up first.
So now that I think about it --- my friend's reaction to Singapore's mixture of languages (a mixture he found pretty cool after Vietnam), juxtaposed with the older woman from Beijing, surrounded by (mostly) Chinese people in a country that's predominantly Chinese, but where only one person besides her daughter at dinner could converse in Mandarin with her while the rest of us chattered effortlessly in English --- well, there you have it, the kind of place Singapore is. Visibly Asian, audibly Asian (mostly), but not only Asian, not anymore.