English - Does It Belong to Us?

It's strange, this experience of being transplanted onto unfamiliar grounds.

A few months ago, I used to scoff at the some poems by certain Singaporean writers. They dispute our ownership of the English language. "English is a tongue we inherited but doesn't belong to us," they say, "it's a language that has been thrusted upon us."

How can that be? I had thought. Most of us have been reading and writing in English since we first stepped into our primary schools. It is likely that our command of English is even stronger than our understanding of our mother tongues. Besides, aren't these poets writing in English? With polysyllabic words, no less.

It's only now that I'm in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign people with a foreign heritage, that I understand the poets.

There're some British people - students, university administrators and supermarket cashiers - who would look at me in askance. There's this unsaid assumption that I'm non-English and therefore, un-conversant in English - a stereotype leveled typically at Chinese students.

Whenever they don't understand me, they instinctively deem that my English is weak. There's no specific act of discrimination, just frequent strange looks and 'could you repeat yourself, please?'s. Some would repeat themselves with exaggerated slowness.

This reminds me, quite starkly, of the idea that English is a language we inherited.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling happy and confident, I'd declare, "down with the colonial heritage! Down with the expectations that our colonial rulers had imposed upon us! Allow English to evolve, grow, like a tree spreading branches in every other way."

Sometimes, I'd think that the poets, they who keep grappling with Singapore's post-colonial heritage... I'd think that they have a point.