Recently, I attended an extremely meaningful intergenerational community event.
It was a heavenly setup right from the start. After five straight days of blazing hot weather, the unrelenting sun finally gave way to a beautiful afternoon. In fact, the sky held a soft blue glow, with a constant stream of refreshing breeze whistling through our hair. At a kindergarten, twenty bubbly and active children were beaming with joy and enthusiasm, ready to charm visiting seniors from a nearby nursing home.
Now, do you believe in love at first sight?
An unbeliever myself, I found myself witnessing this mystical power in action when the seniors’ faces instantaneously lit up, just as these adorable children greeted them cheerfully with small bouquets of flowers. A spark was ignited. Love was clearly in the air and both the children and seniors were longing to talk to one another
The emcee was a lovely Filipino teacher with positive and energetic vibes. In clear and fluent English, she assigned each child to a senior citizen, giving them the golden opportunity to interact and get to know their dates better.
At this moment, all stars were aligned and pointed towards a perfect rendezvous, except for one major problem.
The children were giggling and chattering in English.
As for the seniors, they spoke and understood only Hokkien.
Can you imagine what happened next?
At one corner, there were awkward silences when a senior asked,
“Li gio sih mih mia?” (“你叫什么名字?”; “What is your name?“)
“I don’t know what’s she saying, can someone help me please?” An exasperated young girl signaled for help. Every minute that she was left alone with the senior felt like eternity.
On the other side, another senior was actively trying to educate a child, by counting numbers in Hokkien.
“Yit, li, sa, si…” (“一、二、三、四”; “One, two, three, four”)
The perplexed child resigned to shrugging her shoulders. “What did she say?” She mumbled to herself.
It was a painful sight to watch, akin to blind dates that went horribly wrong – too many awkward silences, zero chemistry and nervous laughter. I almost pulled my hair out. By the 10th minute, all of us knew in our hearts that the relationships would not work out. This was fate without destiny and they would go on their separate ways sooner or later. Unsurprisingly, the children eventually slipped away while the seniors withdrew into themselves.
Now, why didn’t anyone help? You may ask.
To provide a further context, there were 3 local teachers helping to facilitate the event. One of them spoke Hokkien proficiently. In fact, I secretly awarded her with the “Heroine of the Day” as she rescued some relationships by translating and facilitating the conversations as much as she could. The remaining 2 teachers made faltering attempts to hold conversations in a combination of Mandarin, English and Singlish. While certain words and phrases were understood by the seniors, a deeper and genuine connection was clearly missing.
On the other side, the nurses accompanying senior citizens were of foreign nationality – an Indian, a Burmese and a Filipino. Despite having worked and lived in Singapore for an average of 2 years, Hokkien was still an unfamiliar language to them. Consequently, they took on a passive role, attending to the senior citizens only when they had to be wheeled away.
I went home that day with a heavy heart, as though I was still caught up in the plot of a tragic romantic movie. I had prayed tirelessly for a good ending, but hope was never in sight. From the initial delirious jubilance when the seniors and children first met, to the unfolding of communication breakdowns, to them falling disastrously apart. The intergenerational event would have been much more purposeful, if the younger generations could speak Hokkien and connect with the seniors through a common language. It was also the first time that I felt that Hokkien has become a dying language.
What about you? Have you ever experienced a similar situation where you find yourselves better off speaking a dialect?
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