isabel lim

Listen to the Singlish version of this article



“Look Mum, another Asian aisle!”

With that naive-sounding comment, I must admit that I was truly fascinated with the supermarkets here - most of them have a section dedicated to everything Asian. This plain fascination began about seventeen months ago when I first arrived in Melbourne with sixty kilograms worth of baggage and twenty-one years of memories; I was the new Singaporean in Australia.

Ever since stepping out of Melbourne Airport and into my brand new life as a university student, I have come to enjoy grocery shopping - a lot. Pathetic as it seems, Woolies - yep working the Aussie slang - is my go-to place for stress relief, time wasting, and retail therapy. Blame the CBD with Woolworths supermarkets sprawled along every street. Then again, my Woolies mania might just be one of those ‘adult’ cheap thrills that come with age. Whatever the reason, a trip down to Woolies is somehow always comforting and…I can’t believe I actually memorised the entire Woolies floor plan! I think I need professional help.

Bak Chor Mee  is Hokkien for ‘minced pork noodle’. I usually eat only the noodles with the savoury sauce and pass all the ingredients to my Dad -  hiok hiok!

Bak Chor Mee is Hokkien for ‘minced pork noodle’. I usually eat only the noodles with the savoury sauce and pass all the ingredients to my Dad - hiok hiok!

Flashback to a typical shop at Woolies: I had checked everything off my grocery list with the final item of exotic-looking dried laver in my hand. I spun around with satisfaction and choked hard on my spit when a packet of plump sausages greeted me in the face. “HOLY CR-”

Holding them up was an old man. He gave me an apologetic smile and I concluded that he had no perverted intentions; he meant me no harm. I quickly recovered from the shock and respectfully returned his smile. He opened his mouth and a stream of vaguely foreign-sounding words filled my ears. Reluctant to take out my headphone, I strained to listen better.

Hang on, his words actually sounded familiar.

“Sorry, again?” I took out my headphone with curiosity. He hesitated, scanned my appearance, then repeated himself.

“啊是的我懂中文,” I replied with confidence. It is true and I wasn’t lying. I understand Mandarin. In Singapore, taking a subject called ‘Mother Tongue’ is mandatory in order to complete secondary school education. As a Singaporean Chinese, the language for my Mother Tongue subject is automatically Mandarin, the standard Chinese language. However, I graduated seven years ago and rarely speak it. Lucky for me, the elderly man’s question was simple and decipherable. He asked me about the filling in the sausages and so I read the package: ah, cheesy hot dogs - an all-time favourite!

Chee-si,” I said with accomplishment. He simply stared. I tried again, this time with a stronger enunciation to try and make ‘cheese’ sound Chinese.

Cheeeeee-si.” He lifted his greying brows and I could see the confusion in his eyes.

Wait, is the word ‘cheese’ not part of a universal language? How then does ‘cheese’ sound in Mandarin? Ohemgee, Cheese has its own term in Mandarin? Panic swelled within me as my mind fogged up and stalled - why did I waste my memory on the Woolies floor plan?

A wrinkled index finger tapped continuously against the packet of sausages. He shook his head and repeated his question. I nodded and calmly tried again: “这个 hot dog 里面有 chee-si” - way to go communications student.

If you tried translating that abovementioned sentence (if Google even recognises it), you’ll realise how broken and basic my Chinese is. But in my defence, that was how I spoke Mandarin in Singapore - if I even had to use it. My order of “Bak Chor Mee 不要猪肝 but can 加 more chilli anot?” from a Chinese hawker still comes out perfectly. Singaporeans understood my broken Mandarin and so I got by with that pretty well.

Although I’m Chinese, English has always been my first spoken language since birth - well, Singlish to be exact. At school, at home, at anywhere that required me to speak, eighty percent of the words were in English or Singlish and the rest were in basic Mandarin. Cheese is definitely a food and word that I’m familiar with. The mission failure with the elderly man at Woolies can only be attributed to one major factor: assumption. He assumed that I was a Chinese person who spoke Chinese. I assumed that everyone knew the word ‘cheese’. Never would I have guessed that there would come a day when I had to say ‘cheese’ in Chinese. AMAZING.  

His mouth was pressed into a fine line and his wrinkled index finger returned, wagging. I could tell that he was getting annoyed. Perhaps he thought I was mocking the Chinese language. Perhaps he thought I was an arrogant Chinese youth who looked down on his inability to understand English. But in all honesty sir, with a hand upon my heart, I really understood your question and the answer was on the tip of my tongue. I simply couldn’t say ‘cheese’ in Chinese!

At that moment, I despised Cheese. I was frustrated with Cheese. He was frustrated with me. The sausages looked miserable. I wonder if he bought them. The lesson of that day: Cheese sounds nothing like ‘cheese’ in Chinese. It is rǔ lào. WOW.

I guess it’s easy to assume that most Asians here in Melbourne are Chinese people who speak Chinese but I’m different; I’m actually a banana - yellow on the outside but white on the inside.

My thoughts as I lugged a huge turquoise luggage around the hectic streets of Melbourne CBD: I’m in Australia, right? Australia as in a western country? Australia, the land down under with cute koalas, kangaroos and –

“There’re so many Asians here,” I said, “are we still in Singapore? Where are all the Ang Mohs?” My mother simply shrugged her shoulders. Ang Moh, directly translated from the Hokkien dialect, means “red hair”. It is a Singaporean slang that’s used to describe a person who looks white or of a Western descent.

This is a super  shiok  (yummy) Southeast-Asian pie that is deep-fried with a savoury chicken and potato curry filling -  you die die must try!

This is a super shiok (yummy) Southeast-Asian pie that is deep-fried with a savoury chicken and potato curry filling - you die die must try!

When my first semester of university began, a personal goal of mine was to make as many Australian friends as possible. I thought it would be easy since I am an extremely sociable person back in Singapore. I can create conversations out of any situations: Wah, you eating Curry Puff ah? Like shiok ah? The crust flaky anot? Buy from where one?

Little did I know that this small goal of mine would be almost unattainable.

For the bulk of my Media Communication classes, I was always surrounded by Asian people - international students like myself. My chance to converse with the local students were restricted. Don’t get me wrong but I’d be absolutely okay with hanging out amongst international students if not for the fact that those who flocked my table were usually Mandarin-speaking Chinese people. The conversations at my table were usually unidirectional whereby the Chinese people spoke while I listened without responding simply because I couldn’t substantially converse in Mandarin.

On the other hand, I’m usually the only Asian person in my Creative Writing classes. You might think: “there’s your chance to make some Aussie friends!” but boy are you wrong. This goal to make friends with the locals is harder than I thought. The seats next to me were often the last to be occupied. I guess the local students, too, assumed that I was a Chinese person who spoke only Chinese.

“Wow, your English is really fluent!” people would comment whenever I chimed into class discussions. A little insulted, a little defensively, I’d reply: Yeah, English is my first language. Then again, I’m accustomed to their surprise and I can’t blame the locals for assuming and articulating my racial differences because I do look visibly Chinese and definitely not white. Additionally, I speak with a different accent; one that’s a hybrid between a Singaporean and an American person.

In fear of being an outcast and having to constantly repeat myself, I put on an Aussie accent - the closest I could get at least - in my entire first year of school and at present. With the feigned accent, the locals understood me easily and some even thought I was an ABC - Australian Born Chinese. I got to partake in conversations and made some local friends but I wasn’t truly happy. Yes, I was successful in making Aussie friends but over time, these social interactions became exhausting and dreadful. Speaking in a pretend accent was draining and I felt like I couldn’t express myself satisfactorily. Singlish, for me, is the only language that allows me to deliver my emotions comfortably in conversations. Perhaps Singlish is my true mother tongue and not English nor Mandarin.

What is Singlish? Well, it’s basically a combination of the words, ‘Singaporean’ and ‘English’. A key feature of Singaporean English is how sentences and words are shortened, yet they still retain the meaning of the desired expression. Below are three examples of commonly used Singlish sentences in contrast with Queen’s English:

1.    Casual small talk

Question: How was your weekend?

Queen’s English: Nothing special happened over the weekend but it was okay, thanks for asking. What about you?

Singlish: Okay lo. You eh?

2.  Disagreeing or denying an accusation

Question: So, I heard that you’re obsessed with Bobby’s blonde beard and secretly took a photo of it?

Queen’s English: Are you crazy? That's not true, I don’t know what you’re talking about! Who told you this rubbish?

Singlish: Siao, where got? Who say one!

3.  Expressing dissatisfaction

Queen’s English: You are so annoying. Could you please keep it down?

Singlish: Tsk. Quiet can?

So, you can see how Singlish is short and simple yet it accomplishes the expression of the intended message. It is, therefore, a dynamic conversational language that’s predominantly spoken by Singaporeans. Another trait of Singlish is speed as most Singaporeans often condense their words and speak really quickly.

“Don't want” becomes “dowan”

“Like that” becomes “liddat”

“Let me” becomes “lemme”

Consequently, with such speed in speech, Singaporeans often slack on their enunciation and words are left incomplete through dropping either the word’s final letters/syllables or simply not pronouncing the ‘th’ sound:

Act becomes “ac”

Thanks becomes “tanks”

Don’t becomes “dun”

With regards to grammar, Singlish is often a direct translation of the Mandarin dialect. For example, when asking about the time, we usually say “what is the time now?” in Queen’s English. But in Singlish, we say “now what time?” which is the direct translation of “现在几点?” in Mandarin - this is a grammatically correct sentence structure in Mandarin.

Call us lazy but I’d argue that Singaporeans are simply being practical. How so? Through increasing the efficiency of communication. With shortened words and sentences, Singlish accurately delivers the intended message in a shorter amount of time and we all know that time is money. That being said, I have never tried speaking to an Australian person in Singlish just because I’ve witnessed it before and it wasn’t a great outcome.

My Singaporean friends and I were at a local cafe for brunch. It was the winter break from university and they flew over for a visit.

“Eh, lemme try leh,” said one of them. It was his first time in a Western country and he was really fascinated with the Australian accent. To him, the Aussie accent sounded really proper and posh. Wondering if the locals would understand his Singaporean accent, he wanted to try speaking to an Australian. I, too, was intrigued and so I excitedly waved a waitress over to take our orders.

With a hopeful and friendly smile, he placed his order: “Hi, can I have one of dis but dowan de veggie? Tanks!”

“Err, what?” the waitress replied with a tinge of annoyance in her voice. My friend, feeling embarrassed now, repeated himself nonetheless but she simply cut him off with a scowl on her face and shook her head. I’m pretty sure that I don't need to be an expert in reading facial expressions to know that she was somewhat disgusted by this foreign-sounding language. Unwilling to let my friend be humiliated further, I butted in and placed our orders in ‘proper’ English. For the next twelve days of my friends’ visit, I played the middleman in any and every social situation.

Since then, I became extremely wary of speaking English with a Singaporean accent in Australia and as classes and conversations go by, I have unknowingly developed a defence mechanism. Afraid of being mocked and too tired to fake an accent, I keep quiet and speak only if necessary. I became the ‘quiet Asian girl’ in classes and local students probably assumed that I couldn't speak English. I would try to prove such stereotypes wrong but I truly cannot be bothered because most of them would go back to speaking with fellow Australians anyway.

My ‘Net Communications’ lecturer once told us a series of jokes. The local students burst into fits of laughter and started sharing their similar experiences in the same Australian context. I sat there simply, feeling lost. That was the most awkward moment in my university life. Everyone in the lecture theatre was laughing and conversing while I felt like an alien who landed on the wrong planet. Guess I failed to grasp the ‘networking’ aspect of that communications subject.

So, to laugh or not to laugh? That was my big question at that moment because five minutes had passed since the jokes began and although people were still merrily talking about it, I would look like a fool if I only joined in then. Then again, I did not want to come off as unfriendly with my flat and unamused expression so I pondered hard, hesitated, then shrugged off my unintentional cold vibes with a forced smile. Did I regret this life decision? Well, a local student asked if I was constipated so...you tell me. Don’t get me wrong - the locals are majorly friendly and it’s a nice characteristic that I truly appreciate.

To those who converse in dominantly Queen’s English, or ‘proper’ English, Singlish is usually deemed as ‘bad’ English. Interestingly, this is an ideology that has been debated and explored by linguists in many academic studies. Singlish, in my opinion, is a language that’s like a bowl of Rojak - one of Singapore’s more popular local dishes.

In colloquial Malay, Rojak means an ‘eclectic mix’. It is a salad with a Singaporean twist comprising of mixed fruits, vegetables, and fried dough fritters that are then tossed in a sweet dark sauce which coats and binds the diverse flavours. The end product is a delicious mix of sweet and savoury with a variety of textures.

Speaking of which, Killiney Kopitiam is the only place in Melbourne so far where I can get this Singapore dish at a reasonable price. ‘Kopitiam’ is a traditional Southeast Asia coffee shop whereby ‘Kopi’ means ‘coffee’ in Malay and ‘Tiam’ means ‘shop’ in Hakka or Hokkien dialects. Priced at AUD8.80 for a small plate, I must add that I really am appreciative of the cost of food back home.

A generous portion of  Rojak  like this, usually costs between $3 to $5 in Singapore – it’s  cheap cheap belli good!

A generous portion of Rojak like this, usually costs between $3 to $5 in Singapore – it’s cheap cheap belli good!

Back to Rojak, the various mother tongues and dialects in Singapore are represented by the assorted fruits and vegetable mix while Queen’s English represents the sweet dark sauce as its base - what a delicious metaphor for Singlish!

To sum everything up and paint a clearer picture of my struggle, I’m a Singaporean Chinese who understands and speaks basic Chinese but can’t hold a substantial conversation in Mandarin with the Chinese people here in Australia. Then again, the locals cannot understand my English unless I ditched Singlish, alongside my Singaporean accent, and spoke with an Aussie-ish accent. So basically, both the Chinese people and Australians here assume that I’m a Chinese person who speaks only Chinese! This falsity of an assumption poses many difficulties for me in social situations.  

Simply put, I’m a communications student who’s trapped in the web of communication and struggles to find a bunch of ‘banana people’ to speak comfortably with - I’m a Chinese person who’s not exactly Chinese, a white person that’s not really white; I’m just same same but different - la!

“Ooh, you’re from Singapore? I know how to speak Singlish leh,” said Alex, a local whom I befriended at a vegan event. He apparently obtained his degree in Singapore and had stayed there for slightly over a year; long enough to pick Singlish up and recognise a few commonly used Singlish words: La, Leh, Lor, Sia, Aiyah, and Sian - my personal favourite!

“But why don’t you speak Singlish?” he asked, “I really love hearing Singaporeans converse in it!”

And then I realise the beauty of language. It is the many differences that make this world interestingly diverse. Every language is like music; they each carry a different tone and has its own distinctive sound. Unfortunately, the majority of society has a mindset that their local tongue is always superior and others are simply ‘foreign’. Even so, I’m really in awe of the language and accent diversity in this world and am starting to embrace my culturally different communication practice here in Melbourne.

Whilst Alex and I were talking, a random local approached and joined our conversation.

Stranger: So, you both from here?

Alex: I am. She’s Singaporean.

Stranger: Cool. How do you find Australia?

Me: Australia’s amazing although the weather here is really unpredictable unlike in Singapore; It’s always hot and humid there.

Stranger: Really? I’ve never been there. Which part of China is Singapore in?

Wow. Amazing.


Isabel is Singaporean Chinese who doesn't speak Chinese. She is a small ripe banana.