The colour of language


Everyone I’ve met in Kolkata’s Old Chinatown tells me, “Wait, you don’t speak Cantonese? But you’re from Malaysia! Aren’t most of the Chinese there Cantonese?” 

I’ve found myself in the funny, somewhat Kafkaesque, situation of not being able to communicate with some of the older-generation Chinese here who don’t speak Mandarin nor English. Almost all Chinese here, however, speak fluent Hindi, even to each other in all-Chinese social settings; they tend only to use Chinese dialects at home with family. So, while speaking to the 70-year-old John Wu here at one of the remaining Chinese social clubs, I asked a local blogger, Rangan Datta, to translate for me.

I’ve got a 30-minute audio recording of John Wu talking, and admittedly I don’t know the language, but his speech sounds like music to me.


As with any contentious period of history, you get people want to keep talking about it, and people who think the past is best left in the past. The former camp thinks you should talk about it so future generations don’t make the same mistakes, while the latter camp thinks talking about it only resurrects old feuds and bitter memories. I think they’re both right. History can be wielded as a deterrent, or a weapon.

I spoke to some of the Chinese in Kolkata about the 1962 border war between India and China, which was responsible for an exodus from their community with only about 2,000 of their numbers left now when there was once more than 50,000. One man, who was about eight years old when the war broke out and was sent along with his family to a camp in Rajasthan, was reticent about the subject, and said something in Hindi, which he later translated: “If you’re swimming in the river, you don’t disturb the crocodile.“

So, don’t stir up a hornet’s nest. 

Or, as my parents might say in my father’s foochow dialect (for example, to my 18-year-old cousin John, when he went off to America for university):

"Oi, don’t go sticking a worm up your arsehole.” 

Yes, that’s apparently actually a saying.


While interviewing Chinese-Indians in the city’s old Chinatown:

1. “When they want to freak around, they will go out with their friends. There’s nothing for them to do here,” says one uncle about his 20-something daughter. “Freak around”. I love that!

Another uncle puts it this way: “They like to chill their life, you know? That’s what they call it. Chill their life.” Definitely add the chuckle you’re imagining.

2. A mixed Indian-Chinese man tells me about his home life: “We are more Chinese than Indian at home. Chinese, Chinese, maximum Chinese. Whatever food we cook here, all maximum Chinese!” Seems to be used as a substitute for “most”/“mostly” quite a bit.

3. “My daddy expired.” As in, passed away. Mostly, I hear this from the older generation.

4. “When I passed out of school…” As in, graduate.