On languaging

A code-switching poetics

I’ve been perfecting my code-switching skills. With friends in Singapore, I speak Singlish. With middle-class and wealthy Singaporeans I’ve met through the writers festival, I speak Singapore Standard English. On the phone with my partner, I speak Australian English. When I order food from aunties and uncles minding their stalls at hawker centres, I speak either Mandarin Chinese or Singlish. In Malaysia, I speak a mix of Manglish and Malay. And here in Indonesia, I speak a hybridised English that could sound like a combination of general American and British English to the untrained ear, with a smattering of the tiny bit of Bahasa Indonesia I know.

Despite this, I don’t consider myself multilingual. I’ve only spoken languages other than English or Singlish out of necessity, and even then my level of fluency is akin to a child’s. If asked, I’ll say that my second language is Mandarin Chinese, considering I spent 16 years in school studying it. But I would stop speaking it when classes ended.

Ultimately, I paid little attention to the language in my formative years: both as a victim of western hegemony and Anglophile Singaporean-style rejection of any marker of Chinese-ness as lower-class. My working-class blood family internalised this, making sure that we would not speak it in public, as much as the English that came out of their mouths plainly betrayed their socioeconomic status. Regardless, through that and through a lonely childhood sequestered with books and media from the Anglosphere, I aspired to leave it even more. Today, to attempt to rekindle my tenuous connection to Mandarin Chinese would seem 1) pointless, because literally no one in my social circle—whether in Singapore or elsewhere—relies on it as a form of communication; and 2) overwrought, because what am I trying to prove, really?

To some people, switching accents from the one you’re “born with” feels fraudulent, like you’re pretending to be someone else. To me, it’s more like speaking another language; a kind of mirroring to better absorb what people are saying. It’s also a kind of survival mechanism: years of standing out like a sore thumb within many contexts has taught me to quickly adapt to the situations I find myself in. The trick of being a social chameleon is that you don’t have to reveal anything you don’t feel like revealing about yourself until you feel like it. Being “uninteresting”, in order to observe better.

Getting stared at blatantly on the street is par for the course in the places I’ve been in. It’s a combination of everything that I am: visibly queer, visibly tattooed, awkward/clumsy demeanour that doesn’t read as “feminine” despite looking “femme”, round face, unshaved legs, a big ol’ grot. Together these are seen as freakish or worthy of curiosity; together they don’t conform to both Asian and Eurocentric standards of beauty. This used to bother me when I was younger, but now I’ve leaned so hard into it I often don’t realise that I inhabit this corporeality—other people’s looks jolt me back in. And that serves as a reminder for me to act trollishly in return, looking back intently at them until they avert their gazes. Who’s a freak, now? It still doesn’t cease to amuse me how quickly this continuum flips, how cheap a thrill it is.

In so-called Australia, it’s easy to take certain types of unconventionality for granted. I often bemoan the perils of western individualism but I also cannot deny that it’s afforded me many more freedoms, even as the weight of coloniality slumps (harder) on me like a heavy rock upon my shoulders, even as I reckon with the fact of my settlerhood. As a light-skinned English speaker, it’s easy to fall into step with it. There are no hard questions, only a convenient path that’s been prelit by legacies of dominance. The challenge, then, is to unravel these inheritances to locate my belonging, while at the same time not acquiescing to it; pursuing the shapelessness of incoherence while concreting a self that is mutable. Or, as Aime Cesaire once wrote, “I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal.”

In many exchanges with friends, we would return to the question of resisting empire as much as acknowledging that we are the children of it. How have we collaged a sense of self from this tension? How many times have we performed a false image of authenticity to reconcile what was seen as inherent contradictions within ourselves? There was also the gradual recognising and working with the specificities of our particular locations rather than hewing to a North American-centric identity politics. In a world that desperately wants to project itself as universal now more than ever—particularly as global networks of extraction deepen—equilibrium could come in surrendering to incoherence, every step a surprise that doesn’t warrant a smooth solution.

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