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Gen Z Speaks: A language barrier separates me from my grandmother, but I love her all the same

My grandmother always holds my hand when we cross the road. It’s a habit from when I was between four and six, back when I was not yet able to go to the neighbourhood hawker centre by myself.

Ms Hana Chen, 19, is a third-year student in the diploma of communications and media management in Temasek Polytechnic. She is seen here with her grandmother.

Ms Hana Chen, 19, is a third-year student in the diploma of communications and media management in Temasek Polytechnic. She is seen here with her grandmother.

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My grandmother always holds my hand when we cross the road.

It’s a habit from when I was between four and six, back when I was not yet able to go to the neighbourhood hawker centre by myself.

At traffic lights, she’d grasp my hand tightly, and remind me that the red man meant “stop” and the green man meant “go”, that I had to look left and right, and that I wasn’t allowed to let go of her hand at all. Not until she said it was okay.

Back then, I had to reach up to hold her hand. In my memory, I always looked up at my Ah Ma.

She never loomed over me, or seemed too big or too grand, but there was always this slight sense of awe — that this elderly lady was so much older and so much wiser, and someone I could trust to lead me safely.

Growing up, I always knew that my Ah Ma loved me.

She never said it much — verbal declarations of love were never really a huge thing for her. Instead, she showed it in the little things.

In primary school, my younger brother and I were almost always at my Ah Ma’s house. She’d make us lunch after the school bus dropped us off, convinced that the portions served in the school canteen weren’t enough to sustain us.

There’s a Bible verse to describe love: “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

In Ah Ma’s case, love is also strict. It makes sure that homework is always completed before play, that toys are kept before dinner, and that children are obedient and polite.

But her love is also gentle — combing my hair after a shower to ensure that there were no split ends, feeding me snacks as I did my homework, softly patting my back until I fell asleep.

DIALECT DIFFERENCES

Sometimes, though, I wish talking to her was easier.

Ah Ma’s first language is Hokkien, and she also speaks Malay, Mandarin, and a handful of other dialects. She understands the bare bones of English — those commonly used words like “school” and “apple” and other things that get said often around her.

In contrast, English is my first language. I can hold a conversation in Mandarin, yes, tripping over my words slightly and struggling through the different tones.

I can understand bits and bobs of dialect, but I’m hopeless at navigating a conversation without the help of somebody else.

This language barrier is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in our relationship.

Gen Z Speaks writer Hana Chen is seen here in this photo taken on Nov 20, 2022.

When I was a child, conversations about watering the plants or common household chores were elementary. I’d jabber away in a mixture of Mandarin and English, and Ah Ma would simply just understand.

Life was a lot simpler, so communication was also easier.

But as I grew up, it has become difficult. Talking to my Ah Ma can turn into an extremely unsatisfying game of broken telephone, going back and forth as we try to decipher the meaning behind each other's words.

This only gets worse with more complex topics, especially social issues that youth are passionate about.

Understanding mental wellness, for example, is not as simple as using the Mandarin word or phrase for the topic.

Things get lost in translation when I explain to her about the importance of mental health, and how it permeates our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, even in a language that she knows well.

Time and time again, I run into the same issue — trying to explain why something matters to me as Ah Ma looks on in patient confusion.

It’s not that she doesn’t care, or that she’s not smart enough, because she certainly is. But I think she doesn’t understand it the same way I do because we were brought up differently.

BRIDGING A GENERATIONAL GAP

Ah Ma was born in 1941 in tumultuous times. She was the eldest daughter in a poor family that lived in a kampung and has no formal education. She became a seamstress by trade, and eventually married my Ah Gong, a construction worker who hailed from Fujian.

As my family tells me, Ah Ma grew up worried about earning money, about sending her children to school and making sure that there would be food on the table each day.

I am fascinated by the stories of her life because they tell me about Ah Ma before I was born.

She was the strict mother who pushed her children to study, the thrifty wife that ensured that her family’s needs would always be met.

To me, she has always been my sweet grandmother, and it’s so strange to imagine her going through the long, hard life she had before I came along. At times, I wonder how she sees me in return — will I always be the baby she first held years ago, no matter how much I've grown? 

I was born in 2003, just over sixty years later. I’m also the eldest daughter and my family lives in an apartment.

I've never had to even consider giving up my studies to support them, and I can study what I’m passionate about and look for a job in that field.

My concerns are more abstract, in a sense. I’m worried about small things, like which university I’ll go to, and how much schoolwork I have, and I’m worried about big things, like global warming and social media addiction and all those other issues that seem to keep popping up.

We both care about current affairs or the world around us, but I think it matters to us both in a different way.

Ah Ma’s life centred around her day-to-day struggle, and even now, she only remembers historical events in the way they relate to her life.

So, the rise and fall of the Berlin wall? To her, it is irrelevant, despite it being a major historical event. Singapore’s “Two is Enough” campaign? Well, it happened when my uncle was born, and she recalls being told off by nurses for having a third child.

I can’t blame my Ah Ma for not being interested in the issues that I feel so strongly about, in the same way that she doesn’t blame me for being able to empathise with the problems she had in her life.

MUTUAL RESPECT AND LOVE

Is it selfish, I once asked a friend, to want her to care about the same issues as I do? Should I just confine my conversations with Ah Ma to banal retellings of what I did over the week?

A part of me recoils at the thought. Ah Ma has always been the person that I’ve gone running to when in trouble, and she’s always significant in my life.

I want her to know about the things that I care about. But as I grow older, I also want to learn about her view of the world too.

It is about mutual respect, and love, and wanting to do the best thing for the other in our own way.

Ms Hana Chen is seen here with her grandmother.

Recently, I bought coffee for Ah Ma — an iced vanilla latte with oat milk. Half of those words are English gibberish to her, but she took a sip anyway.

She grimaced and said that it was too bitter and too cold and eventually she told me that I should drink more warm water instead of ‘kopi peng’ (ice coffee).

It wasn’t about getting her to like the same coffee as me. It was about letting her have a taste of something that I enjoy, and leaving it at that.

I know that she loves me, and because of this, she cares about my life and the things that I like. I will keep trying to bridge the gap with her, to ask her about her life and find our common ground.

She is now 81, while I am 19.

These days, I’m much taller than her, and a far cry from the six-year-old who she had to escort safely across the road to get to the hawker centre.

It’s a sign of the times — a natural progression over the years that shows itself in the little things.

It’s also a reminder that as a young adult, I am capable of helping her in the same way she once helped me.

Nowadays, I slow my steps to match her pace, just as she did to match mine when I was smaller. I reach out to carry her groceries, the same way she always reached out to carry my school bag in the past.

But Ah Ma still holds my hand when we cross the road.

Even now, she runs through her checklist of reminders before we cross the road: Look both ways, don’t cross before it turns green, don’t stop to pick up anything lest I get hit by a car, and don’t let go of her hand.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hana Chen, 19, is a third-year student in the diploma of communications and media management in Temasek Polytechnic.

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