Monday, June 27, 2011

Relatively Speaking

In case you're wondering, it's not my family photo

I always look forward to seeing my baby nephew whenever he comes to visit. His laughter, tricks and antics never fail to brighten up my day. While I shudder at the thought that this boy will soon been calling me Uncle Isaac when he learns to speak, I can't wait for him to grow up as I am curious to find out what amazing things he will achieve. While I wait in anticipation for that day to come, one of his recent visits made me ponder about family relations.

During a recent visit, my aunt (his grandmother) tried to teach him to call her grandma. On seeing this, my mother remarked that he should call my aunt "Ah Ma" as compared to grandma. Being the liberal that I am, my initial reaction was to scoff at this suggestion as being old-fashioned. But it later led me to muse about the importance of the language in relation to one's culture and its bearing on family ties.

While I do agree that it is important to preserve one's culture through the usage of the language in one way or another, I feel that this would be at the expense of strengthening family ties. In the case of my nephew, he is being brought up in which his mother tongue* is English and to ask him to address all the branches of the family tree in a different language would immediately distance himself from them.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the dialect is confusing as it distinguishes the maternal and paternal branch. It gets worse when it comes to uncles such as myself as I am the maternal cousin of his mother. For those who are wondering how to address an uncle that is the maternal cousin of your mother in Hokkien, it is "biao gu". As an icing on the cake, his father is Hainanese and he would probably have to address his paternal branch in the Hainanese language! Talk about having identity crises!

So for those who were initially unconvinced that one is distanced from one's relatives when forced to address them in the native language to their race, would you approach this uncle if you have to call him "biao gu" (it gets even more complicated if I had siblings which fortunately for my nephew, I don't) or would you do so if you only need to address me as Uncle Isaac?

In this light, one's efforts in preserving one's culture actually leads to the disintegration of the family tree as the child already being distanced by language will not keep in contact with the extended branches. Sooner or later, these extended relatives are acquaintances at best and strangers at worst. 

Having said that, how does one synthesise between preserving one's heritage and keeping the family as close as possible? The best solution I can think of is to teach the child to address relatives in the mother tongue but to train him to be as multi-lingual (in consideration of the child learning mandarin and a dialect) as he grows up and exposing him to facades of his heritage. That way, he will still be in touch with his culture but not at the expense of distancing himself from the extended family.

Do you have similar experiences as you were growing up? For those who are parents, what are your thoughts about this issue? Share them by leaving comments below the post!

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* For the purpose of this discussion, mother tongue refers to the dominant language that one learns from birth. While it is a different definition from what the Ministry of Education prescribes, it is important to define it as such due to the multi-lingual make-up of Singapore.  

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