Being Teochew my dear (now-departed) mum decided in my tender years I should be formally educated in the Teochew language in addition to the national school education I was already receiving.
Maybe she wanted me to sing Teochew opera songs along with her; she crooned those – narrating bits and pieces of China’s classical history - when she was happy, which alas was seldom.
Maybe she wanted me to reply for her those Teochew letters from one of her cousins who was always appealing for money, yes, from my mum who was as poor as a church mouse after my father’s sudden death.
Whatever her reason was, she soon discovered that there was no Teochew school in Penang. There were private tutors but we sure couldn’t afford their fees. I was thus spared a possible career as an actor in Teochew operas which one of my ex’s told me I was most suited for … er … as the villain who was eventually executed by the Emperor … gulp.
Informed by one of my uncles that one could still learn to read and write Chinese in a Mandarin school, she packed me off to one (a private establishment) after my Unc offered to pay the fees, though she did still try to push for the Teochew private tuition; but my Unc told her private tuition wasn’t as good as regular schooling. Besides he was paying the bill so the matter was settled. But as usual, my mum couldn’t resist giving me a final blistering glare as if I was the cause of her losing out in the Teochew vs Mandarin bout.
If anyone was born to be an arch-scapegoat, c’est moi!
So in the morning I went to Methodist Boys’ (Primary) School while immediately after that I joined the private Chinese school. Of course, given the travelling time between schools, I would always be late for the afternoon session, and without lunch too other than a hastily gobbled cheap pow or an equally cheap eu char koay.
Being late for class didn’t go well with any headmistress of Chinese schools, let alone the one I had acquired. She already hated people like me, a Chinese sent by his parents to a national type school in preference to a Chinese one – well, ‘twas not my mum’s decision but my late dad’s.
She demanded to know why I hadn’t abandoned my main (national type) schooling so as to be on time and full time at her school. Being a wimp, I remained silent to her relentless inquisition which of course infuriated her even more. My sin as a student in a national type school cum my stoic demeanour earned from my new headmistress also a blistering glare for what she perceived as my insouciant treachery to Chinese culture.
I didn’t really enjoy Chinese classes, more because the school put me in a very junior standard to enable me to catch up with the Mandarin, where I then had to sit through English, maths and Malay, etc lessons that were some years behind my standard in Methodist school. Boring.
However I sat next to a cute dimpled sweetie who took pains during any spare time to tutor me in Mandarin while I helped her with maths and English and of course some Malay. Alas, this was unfortunately at a time when I wasn’t yet keen on the fairer gender – that’s the story of my life, wrong place at the wrong time :(
Several months down the track, on one fine day, spoilt somewhat by the lesson being taken by the headmistress herself (she still laser-ed me regularly with her accusative looks), Sweetie decided to advance my Mandarin lessons – Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, so to speak.
Dimpled Cheek pushed a piece of paper to me, on which I saw three Chinese characters. I recognized two (mind you, not that I could write them yet).
The first one looked like a ‘J’ combined with several criss-crossed strokes slashing the ‘J’ horizontally and slantwise a la Zaitochi – it was a ‘wo’ or ‘I’ (moi). The second one looked rather complicated so I skipped it for a while. The third was easy, a sloppy ‘T’ plus some other strokes, which I worked out to be ‘ni’ or you.
So it was ‘wo’ – something – ‘ni’. I looked at her to see whether she was offering any help but she just smiled in that sweet mysterious Mona Lisa manner. I glanced back at the middle character again and thought it looked like what my Unc once taught me. Wellllllll ..... could it just be ..... but no, surely not .....?
Wrapped in deep thoughts on the mysterious Chinese character I didn’t observe that the headmistress was coming my way like a steam engine. She had spied Sweetie smiling at me while I was doing a Rodin. I was rudely brought back to earth when she snatched the piece of paper from my hands.
When I looked up into her eyes, I realized how those crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims in Spain must have felt when confronted by Tomás de Torquemada, the Catholic Church’s Grand Inquisitor.
During the auto-da-fé, she accused me, a national school degenerate, of writing love words to an innocent young Chinese educated lassie. I decided to remain silent as I could see she was all worked up and determined to punish me, and any explanation would have been futile. Besides, I did like Dimpled Cheek, mind you just platonically, so I wasn’t going to dob on her. And of course there was that rebellious streak in me ;-)
The sins of a non-Chinese educated Chinese must be exposed and punished, not unlike what someone (who knows, maybe a kinfolk of the Jiang Qing-ish headmistress) has been doing to Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Hannah Yeo and most of all, Josh Hong wakakaka.
Bananas must have their ‘yellow’ skins peeled back to expose their ‘white’ and thus non-Chinese core.
Jiang Qing ... er ... I mean ... the headmistress wrote to my mum about my ‘sins’, for which I was given a severe belting plus an earful of how undedicated and ungrateful I was, to waste good Unc’s financial support.
Much as Unc continued to have confidence in me and urged me to continue, I decided I had enough of the Chinese Ilse Koch and left my Chinese education behind, which has been why I became a banana.
In my next episode on ‘Bananas’ I’ll reveal how one sly sneaky dog, who claimed he despises bananas, secretly and sweetly stole my banana sweetheart from me ... ;-)