Mother Tongue


By Yen Yen Woo

There’s considerable potty language in this story. So, if you have a problem with that, you may wish to cover your ears.

My daughter was verbal very early. One day, when she was two years old, she yelled urgently, pointing to her bottom “Jia zhu le, jia zhu le!”

I didn’t know what she was saying … until her Shanghainese nanny eased her discomfort by pulling her wedgie out.

It was an awakening for me…

Who is this child that I’m bringing up in Flushing, Queens?

Is she going to grow up using the language of “jia zhu le, jia zhu le” to describe a wedgie, instead of the more correct linguistic form of “kiap tio leow, kiap tio leow?”

How did this happen, right under my nose?

“Jia zhu le” – what is that?

We have been living in New York City now for the past 16 years and have lived in Flushing Queens the past 8 years. Yes, Flushing. As in what you do after you go toilet. It was established by the Dutch West India Company and named after the Dutch city of Vlissingen. How Vlissingen became Flushing, I don’t know.

Flushing Queens is a crazy mix of immigrants from all over. More obviously, you see Chinese immigration from all the different parts of China, and you hear on the streets, Taiwanese, Fuzhou, Northern Chinese, Cantonese.

And there are also many Koreans, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Irish, Greek Russians, Jews and Italians.

If ever there was a Babel where people speak all the different languages and they sometimes understand each other and at other times misunderstand each other, this is Babel. There is no one center. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or how long you’ve been in the country. Everyone assumes that they are the center.

Neighbor: ni men na li ren (where are you from?)

Me: xin jia po (Singapore)

Neighbor: Oh, wai di ren (you are from elsewhere)

Me: ni shi na li ren (where are you from?)

Neighbor: Tianjin

Me: lai duo jiu le? (How long have you been here?)

Neighbor: san ge hue (three months)

So … and you’re not “wai di ren” (from elsewhere)?

We all assume we are the center.

As I observed my daughter’s language development, I began to notice one important assumption that she has growing up in this crazy linguistic world.

She is five now. She does not assume that she is the Center linguistically. When someone doesn’t understand her or doesn’t respond, she doesn’t assume that it’s because the other person is stupid. She assumes that she just hasn’t got the right language.

When she sees an Asian-looking person in the elevator, she would try…

“ni hao” … no response

“ahnyung hasyeo … no response


“Ola commo est ta?”

If she meets a little girl in the playground and all languages fail, she might touch her hair and go, “your hairstyle and my hairstyle are the same.”

She works hard to listen to responses and to find the right language.

The kid in her classroom has communication challenges?

“Phil, give me the block?”

“Phil, 给我“

“Phil, “Let it go, let it go … “ (as in the Elsa song)

And Phil lets go.

Image 2IMG_2417

What are we able to do, who are we able to communicate with, when we listen like we are not the Center?

There are a few words and phrases she uses that I would consider her Mother Tongue. Words that have survived the journey between Singapore and New York City. These are the words she speaks in her most visceral moments, in a moment of urgency, in a moment of pain, in a moment of love.

She says:

“shee-shee” (pee)

When she was younger, she said “ngh-ngh” (poop)

“bang sai” (regular poop)

“lau sai” (diarrhea)

I told you there was going to be potty language in my story.

And as I recently discovered, “chi-ba-boom!”

We were registering in her new school for kindergarten and her teacher was evaluating her facility with English to see if she needed English as a Second Language support.

The teacher asked her “what do you want to do when you grow up?”

She said “i want to be a scientist.” The teacher was very impressed. She continued “I want to study chemistry.” The teacher looked at me with that nod of approval. She didn’t stop there. “I want to study chemistry because you can mix chemicals and then the chemicals go “chi-ba-boom” (the Singlish sound for explosions).

When Kaikai was three, we went to an Afghan restaurant in Flushing, Queens. Where the important NYPD, New York Police Department, reportedly hangs out and listens for terrorism leads. Apparently the fact that it’s also where you can get the best kebabs in all of New York has nothing to do with why the NYPD hangs out there.

At the restaurant, she needed to go to the toilet. We went, she struggled to get onto the potty herself when she yelled out in pain, “Mommy!!! The potty kiap-ed my pee-gu!” (the toilet pinched my bottom).

Imagine this mother’s pride and joy at this visceral utterance in my young daughter’s moment of pain and extreme vulnerability… “the potty kiap-ed my pee-gu”….three languages in one utterance! English, Hokkien and Mandarin!

And I have to say, the English teacher in me was especially proud that she even used the correct tense. It wasn’t “kiap” … it was “kiap-ed”.

At that moment, in that small restroom in the Afghan restaurant in Flushing, Queens, the only words that came out of me were the words that my mother spoke to me and her mother before that spoke to her, “Mommy sayang, mommy sayang.”



Assoc. Professor Yen Yen WOO is the CEO of Yumcha Studios LLC, a New York-based multimedia production company and the co-creator of DIM SUM WARRIORS, a Mandarin/English bilingual iPad app and graphic novel series about kung fu-fighting dumplings that has been featured by Time magazine, the BBC, the New York Times, Fast Company magazine (which named it one of the Top 10 Coolest Original Digital Comics of 2012) and Publishers Weekly (which awarded it an Honorable Mention in their Critics’ Poll of the Best Graphic Novels of 2012). Yen Yen is also a screenwriter and movie director whose feature film, Singapore Dreaming, won the Montblanc Screenwriting Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and the Best Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and has been sold to multiple territories worldwide, and screened at numerous festivals and venues, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Yen Yen received her Doctorate in Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, and is currently an Associate Professor at Long Island University’s College of Education and Information Sciences, where she specializes in curriculum development.


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

One comment


    In the end everyone who grows up in NY will (likely?) be fluent in English and use it to express their innermost thoughts and the subtlest nuances in their feelings. This is because of their strong national identity and culture.
    In Singapore, the bilingual policy has raised a generation cut off from the cultural roots of their grandparents who spoke dialect only. It has also resulted in the masses being bilingual but not being proficient enough to express themselves well in any language. The words and the culture just aren’t coming out when they want to say something much deeper or more complicated. Sometimes I even feel they can’t think as well because of the lack of a very strong first language. It’s good to be bilingual, but it’s even more important to attain mastery in one language. And many of us can’t make it.
    My elder son has excellent English from us, and from the media. However, we are unable to interest him in Mandarin, partly because we started getting worried too late, in primary one, by which time the new language learning interest is way on the decline. His PSLE result was 3A* but a C for Chinese which dragged him way, way down in his average because of the way the T score is calculated. Despite his obvious academic gifts, his score couldn’t get him into a top Singapore school or even a good neighborhood school. So much has changed since I was a kid barely passing my mandarin.
    For your interest, last years PSLE cohort had roughly 9% A* ,69% A, 5%B so on paper Singapore had achieved its bilingualism objectives, but whenever I ask any of my staff for a translation, they are usually not able to help. The best translator being not a Singaporean but a Malaysian girl who studied at a mandarin school till sec4 and spent her university days in Wales.
    I fear this language deficit is affecting the identity, unity and culture of Singapore adversely and potentially the happiness of our people. How do you get along with your friend or spouse if neither of your two languages do
    allow you to express yourself adequately? Life is full of miscommunication as it is.


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