A Perspicacious Student

"Actually, I think there's no point in learning English well." My student - he was from China - suddenly remarked.

"Why?" I was understandably anxious. After all, I was his English tutor.

"My dad doesn't need to speak English perfectly and he still runs a successful business. He tells me that as long as I get a diploma from Singapore, he'd allow me to intern in his company." My student added, "this would help me to learn and grow."

Hmm, a 富二代. I tried not to grimace.

"Anyway, I might not even want to take over his company. I just want to learn, to acquire life skills. All this writing and reading, they're not important. So many people have good command of languages but that doesn't mean that they're successful or happy. My friend was sick and hospitalised here for one week. I had to keep travelling to the hospital to take care of him and arrange his living conditions. I think that I learnt a lot last week."

"It must be difficult to be sick in a foreign country. How's your friend?"

"He's feeling a lot better."

"Hmm, I think that it's better for you to learn English properly," I tried again, "what if you've to write reports in English?"

"That's assuming that I'd work in a place that require English reports. Actually, I find it quite sad that Singaporeans belittle the Chinese language. No, not you, your Chinese is not bad. But a lot of my classmates, they can't speak Chinese at all. They tell me that Chinese is not important."

"But Chinese is important!"

"Yes, Chinese is important, but not in Singapore. You can't deny that. Look at all the government jobs. And bankers and lawyers. They all don't have to speak Chinese. Rich people in Singapore speak English. All my classmates who speak good English are from well-to-do families. My poorer friends are from Chinese-speaking families."

"How do you know that they're poor?"

"They have no money at all. I've to treat them to lunch sometimes."

"How about government assistance?"

"Yes, they have government assistance. But it's not enough. Their school fees are subsidised but they don't have lunch allowances. Besides, the four students who are admitted directly to the poly courses, they have a common point. They all failed Chinese and did well for English."

"But that doesn't mean that you have to fail Chinese to do well in English! I know of many Chinese students who did well for both languages."

"But I'm not one of them. Those people are scholars. They're sent to top schools, like Hwa Chong or Raffles. I'm from a neighbourhood school, not as smart as them."

"If you're diligent, you'd be able to pick up English over time. It's a subject that requires continuous effort, not just piecemeal attempts."

"Hai, I can only hope that I do well in the next CA (Continuous Assessment). It's frustrating to keep trying without being rewarded."

Is he asking me to reward him? What could I give as a reward? I pondered and said, "ask your dad to buy you something if you do well for your exams? Maybe give you an angpow?"

"I don't need the money. My dad has and he'd give it to me if I ask." His tone was mildly impatient. "It's so easy to lose faith, to stop trying when I keep encountering setbacks."

"Learning a language is difficult. Sometimes, even though when it feels as though you're not learning, your brain's taking time to integrate all the information. Strive on!" I drew a little diagram and tried to explain some neuroscience. "By the way, which part of China are you from?"

"Near Beijing."


"Tianjin. Actually, it has an industrial park that is supported by Singapore. My dad's company is in that industrial park."

"It must be relatively easier to work with Singaporeans. They don't cheat that much."

"NO, my dad gets taken advantage of by Singaporeans all the time. It's business."

Fusing Light (2013)
Everything is business, even this afternoon session when we sit around and discuss comprehension exercises. Sigh.

Even though I'm the tutor, I'm learning lots from my student. Maybe I should be the one paying tuition fees instead.


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