While exploring diagrams, I revisited the issue of my relationship with language(s). It stems from my anxiety regarding my “Singaporean voice” and my “American voice,” which I had first explored artistically in my sophomore year. These were the sketches/notes I had done regarding language – with some Mandarin thrown in as well (full disclosure: I had to use Google Translate at some points):
At this point, I was still encountering the problem of including too much text in my diagrams. I couldn’t help it – I had so many thoughts that I was so tempted to put into words, and that I simply could not express in diagrams. Then it struck me – if I’m going to focus on language anyway, and voices in particular, then it makes sense to have actual voices in the piece. What if I wrote a voiceover, and then animated my diagrams accordingly? Then I would remove the text, which might otherwise be problematic in a 2D visual representation, and lay it over the images in such a way that the audience would still be able to listen to my every thought.
I remember being genuinely excited about this prospect. It felt like the solution to all my problems. Of course, more issues would arise later that would lead me to abandon this track. Nonetheless, I delved into the construction of my voiceover. The following are the two versions that I wrote.
1) A Dialogue Between Voices. I wrote a reimagining of my two voices as two different personas. I even recorded it in one sitting, alternating between my voices. The dialogue contained a lot of animosity and angst, which I felt to be too petulant. A: American Voice, S: Singaporean Voice.
A: I can tell that you hate me.
S: I don’t hate you.
A: Oh, really? Then why the animosity?
S: It’s not anything personal. I just resent the circumstances surrounding your existence.
A: By extension, you resent me.
S: Maybe I do. I don’t really know. I just know you were some kind of involuntary artificial creation of mine… Even admitting that you’re “mine” is uncomfortable.
A: I come out of the same mouth, don’t I? I’m you, eight months out of every year at least.
S: You know that you’re just an act right?
A: Right. A context-specific act, easily segregated by geographical distance. A mask. I know. Except you can’t even control when I slip out sometimes
S: I had forced you into existence. I had trained myself to use you – maybe I trained myself too well. I hate that I can’t control you.
A: You slip out too sometimes. Why don’t you ever hate that you can’t control yourself, during those times that you’re supposed to be me?
S: I guess it’s probably easier for me to forgive myself for breaking free, than for me to forgive you for your infractions.
A: Oh, like it’s so easy to compartmentalize. Aren’t we speaking the same language?
S: It doesn’t feel that way to me. You feel entirely… alien. You’re the one that’s an alien immigrant.
A: You’re the one that can’t be understood in this country. And you try to assert your authority over our shared language?
S: I never laid any claims on the entire English language.
A: Come on, I know you secretly type in British English. You won’t even say “dance” (dens) or “can’t” (kent) like everybody else does. You have to be all self-righteous with your insistence on “dance” (dahnce) and “can’t.” (kahnt)
S: Isn’t it enough that I have to suppress myself? I can’t even allow myself those few linguistic principles? In any case, I have a legitimate reason for saying “can’t” (kahnt) – how many times have I had problems differentiating “can” and “can’t” (kent) the way people say it here? Ugh, saying “can’t” (kent) is so nasal and it just makes me want to puke.
A: Oh my god you’re so dramatic. It’s literally just one word.
S: Lit-er-a-lly. Litrally. It’s like back in freshman year when I had that moment of realisation that people here say “lit-er-a-ture” and not “litriture.” Or “li-bra-ry” and not “libry.” All these little corrections I had to make… Every time I encountered one of those words that I told myself I had to change, I – you – would stop, and somehow end up mumbling something incoherent. Then I got upset at myself – at you – for giving people the idea that I was ineloquent. Sometimes I think that creating you has made me more ineloquent.
A: Then why did you create me in the first place?
S: You know why.
A: Remind me.
S: I never wanted to create you. I think I had this vague idea that I would just continue speaking in the way that I always did in formal situations, maybe a bit more British or something, and people would understand. Then when I started introducing myself to people, and I would say “Hi, I’m Berny” (Buhny) and they would think my name was “Bonnie” or worse, “Bunny” – “oh what a cute name!”… That’s when I realised I had to start emphasising my Rs, or risk every single person getting my name wrong. I had to choose between two markers of the Self – my name, or my voice.
A: Why should you have to change? Why did you consider it your responsibility?
S: It was much more convenient for me to change, than for everyone that I meet to change. And then it was the look in their eyes too – this brief flash of confusion that I would see sometimes, or a furrowed brow, signs that they weren’t simply understanding what I was saying. They actually had to actively interpret it. I just became too sensitive to that.
A: So you do understand that it was an active choice on your part. You made the decision to create me.
S: It doesn’t mean I was willing. As I said, I resent the circumstances…
A: The circumstances didn’t force you to do anything. Don’t make yourself into the victim here.
S: I’m not. I’m just saying – you were born as this tool of convenient communication.
A: If you truly treated me as simply a tool, then why put yourself through this emotional turmoil? Why is my presence a threat to this “Self” that you hold so dear?
S: You don’t understand. Creating you – it was a choice, but it was also necessary. You’re a tool, but you’re also a symbol of difference.
A: You’re putting far too much stock in me. But let’s backtrack a little and point out a few fallacies in your argument.
S: It’s not an argument. I’m fully aware that it’s not logical.
A: Let me say my piece anyway. You say that you wanted to avoid people getting your name wrong. But they’re not even saying it the way your – our friends and family say it. They’re saying it the way that it’s spelt, but it’s still their way. You still flinch when you have to introduce yourself as “Burrny.” You still feel relieved when someone calls you “Buhny.”
S: “Burrny” is better than “Bonnie” or “Bunny.”
A: Jeez, you’re really great at settling.
S: I would rather call it a reluctant adaptability. And I would like to point out that I would never have said words like “Jeez” before coming here.
A: And you would have never said “BRB” before you began instant messaging. That’s my other issue – you constantly assert that there are many varieties and dialects of spoken English. You don’t think these were created through years and years of overlapping, of transformation? God, Singlish was created in this anarchic intermingling of British English with Malay vocabulary and Chinese grammar and Hokkien curse words, and here you are trying to possess it like it isn’t fluid, like you don’t speak it differently from someone who didn’t have the privilege of going to the same elite schools and having the same elite friends, like you’re not being cautious of your grammar. Here you are trying to see my variations on your speech as some kind of huge linguistic incursion!
S: It’s different. It’s different.
A: Yes, I know full well that you want to make sure that I’m different. That I don’t emerge to embarrass you when people back home congratulate you for not returning to Singapore with an American accent.
S: It’s a paradox. We wouldn’t be discussing this if it wasn’t a paradox.
A: It’s a paradox that you’ve created in your own mind, and now you’ve dragged me into it. Now you’re trying to blame me for something that was your own doing!
S: Look, what I’m trying to say is that your existence is purely artificial. You didn’t learn how to speak the way you speak, I constructed it.
A: All language is artificial. All language is political. You wouldn’t be speaking English if Singapore wasn’t a British colony. You wouldn’t be speaking Mandarin if it hadn’t been adopted as the national language by the Chinese government. You wouldn’t be bilingual if the Singapore government hadn’t established that education policy. You’re only sensitive to my existence because I came twenty years later than all the other languages that you speak, languages that you seem to have no problems mixing?
S: But you realise that when I created you – and I’m not alone among Singaporeans in creating fake foreign accents – I had to admit that the way that I spoke wasn’t… legitimate. It could not be understood because only four million people in the world speak the way that I speak. The creation of this new voice was equivalent to admitting the insignificance of my own language, and yet this language is still the world’s lingua franca… It is an accent with the monumentality of a language to me, a signifier of something bigger, of relationships with four million strangers…
A: Oh, so we’re taking the “sense of belonging” route now? Then why can’t you speak either of our grandparents’ dialects well?
S: I’m not proud of that!
A: And you think the way you speak is somehow indicative of some kind of “national identity?”
S: I’m trying to avoid using that phrase, but I can’t deny that it feels good to be part of some larger concept of community.
A: By holding onto that, is it your way of maintaining distance? To reinforce your disconnectedness and the absence of this feeling that you somehow belong? Maybe I’m not your mask, I’m your shield against – assimilation.
S: I guess it helps solidify a sense of self within a state of flux. You need to hold onto something when you’re far away from what you thought you knew.
A: Will I ever be accepted as part of this self?
S: I don’t know. I might just let you become a temporary aberration.
A: And what about Singlish? You haven’t used it so far. You’re just borrowing parts of the accent but you’re not actually allowing the idiosyncrasies of the creole to come through.
S: I can’t help it. I’m writing this dialogue. When I read it I’m going to be following a script. Singlish is purely conversational. If I try to simulate it in writing, it’s just going to sound unnatural.
A: Unnatural – you mean artificial, like my presence?
S: There is definitely a parallel between my active role in constructing an American voice and my active role if I attempt to… paralyse Singlish in writing.
A: These just sound like excuses to me. Are you afraid? Are you embarrassed?
S: I – they won’t understand. It’s too hard. There’s too much to explain.
A: Is there a need to explain anything? Is this need to provide a provenance for your sake or for theirs?
S: It brings up too many questions. I’d rather not answer them. Maybe I want to protect it. It has this weird sacred quality, and to explain it, to put it in writing, diminishes it.
A: You still tell people about your “normal voice.” And then they ask you to enact it, and you can’t. You’ve been code-switching all your life, between English and Mandarin and Singlish, and then you find it hard just to switch between you and me.
S: Partly because it’s not something you perform. Partly because I’m afraid that when they hear it they’ll just think it sounds like bad English. It makes no sense. I just don’t want to deal with potential criticism. And partly because you’re tied to a very specific context, whereas for me, and for all the languages that I speak and switch between, I’m tied to my own context.
A: Ironic, isn’t it? You created me to bridge a gap. And now you can’t seem to traverse this rift between you and me.
S: No. I can’t.
2) A Soliloquy About Voices. As an alternative to the dialogue, I wrote a monologue/soliloquy that was a more straightforward, linear exploration of my relationship with language. It even talked a bit about Singapore’s history, before going deeper into my so-called emotional struggles with language and its implications for my identity. I recorded it in both my American and Singaporean voices, intending to layer both, but decided to just go with my Singaporean voice going forward with my animation.
I created something when I came to New York from Singapore – it’s just a few months shy of three years since I first started school. I created something which I shall now refer to as the Other Voice. It started out as a practical concern, really. I was introducing myself to various people during the first week of school. I would say, “Hi, my name is Berny” and they would say, “Oh, nice to meet you Bonnie,” or, “Bunny! What a cute name!” I couldn’t possibly subject myself to four years of this “Bunny” bullshit. That’s when I figured out how much I needed to emphasise my Rs – BURRNY BURRNY BURRNY – something which British colonial residue had always taught me to resist. Then came the receding Ts – “wodder” instead of “watuh” please. And then the, shall we say, extra syllables. Li-bra-ry instead of li-bry. Lit-e-ra-ture instead of li-tri-ture. And don’t even get my started on the vocabulary – line instead of queue, elevator instead of lift, bathroom instead of toilet. I allowed myself a few linguistic principles – I still say “dahnce” and “kahnt” instead of “dens” and “kent.” But every few days I would find a new word that I had to say differently. Then it became every few weeks. Then every few months.
I’m fairly used to it now, but I remember that feeling of suffocation. Or sometimes it felt like there was cotton wool stuffed in my mouth. It seemed an absolute negation of the way that I was always taught to speak growing up. You see, Singapore is a strange place when it comes to linguistic matters. There’s a bilingual education policy, so everyone is supposed to be fluent in English, which we speak with tinges of Britishness, since we used to be a British colony. And we’re also supposed to be fluent in our respective mother tongues. Officially, my mother tongue is Mandarin, since it is the national language used by the Chinese government. But my mother’s Chinese dialect is Henghua, and my father’s Chinese dialect is Teochew, though I can’t speak either of them fluently.
And then there’s Singlish. It’s this anarchic intermingling of British English with Malay vocabulary and Chinese grammar and Hokkien curse words. That’s what happens in a country that’s made up mostly of immigrants from all over Asia and their descendants. It’s this strange freedom to be able to engage in a civil conversation, or even an intellectual conversation that’s made up of completely counterintuitive grammatical structures, and then insert a Mandarin or Malay word in place of an English one, or even break out into a curse on some random person’s mother’s smelly vagina. Everyone speaks Singlish differently, depending on your upbringing and education. But it’s still ours, in a country with not very much culture to bind it together. And it has no rules. I don’t have to worry about how I pronounce every word. I don’t have to deal with sudden flashes of hesitation about whether I’m saying something that someone else will be able to understand.
When I go home, I often experience the profound sense of having woken up from an extended dream. It’s a startling, comforting feeling to be able to wake up from a dream and know that reality is still there. It has changed, but it’s still there. I think that’s why it’s necessary for me to separate the Other Voice from my Normal Voice. The Other Voice is strictly what I use in America. The Normal Voice is strictly what I use in Singapore. It helps that the two are separated by a huge geographical distance. Other Voice – Normal Voice. Other Life – Normal Life. Other Me – Normal Me. I have to use the Other in order to define myself.
I think that’s also why it’s necessary for me to harbour this resentment towards the Other Voice. I can never accept it as a part of myself because I need to reject it in order to affirm myself. Language – it ties me to a place, you know? Whatever I speak back home – Singlish, Standard Singapore English, Mandarin, Singdarin (which is apparently a thing), or even some embarrassing smattering of Malay or the one Tamil word I know – it anchors me. The Other is the Other is the Other. I need to know that what I am here is separate from my “real self,” so that I won’t be somehow absorbed. The Other Voice is not so much a mask as a shield against assimilation, a shield that I artificially constructed twenty years after my birth.
It’s actually very silly of me to be so sensitive of the difference. It’s not just a shield against assimilation; it’s a shield against people’s judgments. On the one hand, it’s that person who gives you that quizzical look, or says it’s weird that you say it like that, or repeats what you just said with parodic exaggeration of your pronunciation. On the other hand, it’s those people you meet back home who say, “Oh, I’m glad you didn’t come back with an American accent.” Or, “Eh, Are you Singaporean? How come you speak like ang moh?” (Sidenote: The literal translation of “ang moh” is red hair, and is a generic term for Caucasians.)
I know I’m not the victim here, because I chose to create this new voice, and it’s just this tool of convenient communication, it’s just a performance. But somehow, when I created it, I needed to tell myself – the way you speak isn’t good enough. It isn’t significant enough. And by extension, I had to diminish myself. And that still scares me, even now.