Home > Resources > Personal Reflections > Ms Tan Leng Tuan, Assistant News Editor, Lianhe Zaobao
By Ms Tan Leng Tuan, Assistant News Editor, Lianhe Zaobao
People generally have two reactions to my name when I introduce myself. The first reaction goes something like this: "Neng Duan ... the name sounds masculine, did your parents wish for a son?" The other reaction is usually "Chen Neng Duan... you have a very unique name. You must be a foreigner!"
I am a third-generation Singaporean who is born and raised in Singapore. My paternal great-grandfather was from Anxi in Fujian, but my grandfather was born in Singapore. I come from an ordinary family. My parents were not particularly scholarly - they did not go to university but because they studied in ‘kampung’ schools, they can be described as "Chinese-educated". As to the mystery of my name, it was given by a fortune-teller in the hope that I become ‘capable’ and ‘virtuous’
My mother is considered the "Prime Minister" in our family. She takes care of everything for us, including how my brother and I were to be educated.
My mother is an alumni of Dunman High School and she was accepted into Singapore Polytechnic to study civil engineering. By today's standards, it seems nothing extraordinary to go to polytechnic from secondary school. But in those days, it was a tremendous pedagogical upheaval for Chinese-educated students to deal with an overnight shift of the teaching medium from Chinese to English.
When my mother was studying in polytechnic, English-educated students often scoffed at my mother for being a "Chinese helicopter". To deal with school, she had to put in an enormous amount of effort to pick up English at the age of 17. Fortunately, graduates from Chinese schools were usually strong in Maths and Science and my mother eventually graduated from polytechnic. My mother’s personal experience of being disadvantaged by her unfamiliarity with a different language shaped her conviction of the need to expose her children to two languages from young.
Before I went to Kindergarten, my brother and I had two sets of "homework" everyday. One was to read a "Ladybird" storybook, and the other was to practise writing different Chinese characters. My mother was very strict with handwriting practice. If she was not satisfied with our writing, she would erase all the characters we had written and demand that we write it over and over again until we met her expectations.
My mother's intentions escaped me when I was young. I diligently went through my writing practice only because I found it boring to write the same characters again and again, and did not want to go through the tedium of re-writing. On hindsight, I think my mother had hoped that we would build more than a casual familiarity with both the English and Chinese language from young. I now know that these two "friends" were equal in importance, and had to be treated with respect and diligence. As long as we are sincere in learning, there is nothing too difficult to learn.
In primary school, I usually topped the class in Chinese, but the same could not be said for my English. My enunciation was poor and my vocabulary weak; and filling in the blanks in cloze passages was my particular nemesis during exams. But even so, I did not dislike English. On the contrary, I only read English novels. This could be due to my habit of reading a ‘Ladybird’ a day, which was cultivated from young. ‘Nancy Drew’, ‘The Three Investigators’ and ‘Sweet Valley High’ were just some of my favourite series. Till I was 11, I did not read a single novel in Chinese. Even my first contact with the Chinese classics, ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’ and ‘Dream of the Red Mansion’ were translated English versions.
When I was 12, my aunt bought me my first Chinese novel written by local writer You Jin. I remember it was a collection of short stories called ‘The Lion on Fire’. This initial exposure to Chinese short stories inspired me to write and made me fall in love with Chinese literature. Most of my friends hated Chinese essay-writing but I had a lot of fun writing them. I found it liberating to express one's thoughts and feelings in a language that was closest to your heart.
It was only upon entering secondary school that I realised that there were so many others who were better than me, even in my best subject, Chinese. But I truly enjoyed my secondary school days because of my amazing teachers. I was especially inspired by my language teachers to truly embrace the subjects we were taught. Most Secondary 1 students thought English Literature to be the most "scary" subject but our teacher managed to transform it into one of our favourite subjects. This was also why I chose to continue learning English literature in Secondary Three, even though most people dropped it since it was deemed "harder to score" compared to other subjects. I was glad my mother did not challenge my decision then.
My Chinese improved significantly in secondary school, as our teachers tried to practise differentiated learning for students with varying abilities. We all had to do the same homework but students with a stronger grasp of the subject had the opportunities to further develop their talents. Through interesting homework like projects, essays, and book reports, our teachers tried their best to instill in us a love for the language. And because I had a wide range of interests at that time, I read widely too. In addition to Shakespeare and contemporary English novels, I read Ba Jin, Lao She, Charlie Yong and Ni Kuan's works in my spare time.
A friend once commented that I'm a person of "moderation". It is perhaps due to this attitude that I've deliberately kept a balance in my education choices. After studying in a school which most viewed as extremely "ang moh" for 4 years, I chose to go to a junior college that offered the Chinese Language Elective Programme. After completing the “A” levels, I went to England and China respectively to further my studies. It was also due to this sense of "balance" that I wandered through both eastern and western cultures.
Most people find it strange that I choose to work for the Chinese press instead of the English papers after knowing my educational background. I suppose human beings can never be truly "balanced", and at this stage in life, I have chosen to "stick" closer to my Chinese heritage. I choose this, not because it will be better for my future, nor because it's easier to work for the Chinese papers (in fact, working as a Chinese journalist in Singapore is harder as we have to be good in both languages instead of one), but only because the Chinese language still occupies a special place in my heart.
I am of the view that one can have more than one "mother tongue". Both English and Chinese are my mother tongues because they are equally important to me even though I prefer Chinese. Both languages have inspired me to be more curious, and had made learning so much more fun. I feel extremely fortunate to be Singaporean; especially a Singaporean born in the 80s because the opportunity to learn two languages has helped forged my sense of cultural identity. This has in turn made me become more confident.
I do sincerely hope that people do not fear learning two languages. If you treat this learning process as an adventure instead of an ordeal, it'll not only make the journey more interesting and you'll also be able to react positively to occasional setbacks and difficulties along the way.
上小学的时候，我的华文成绩在班上顶呱呱，但英文还是很差。不仅发音不标准，认识的词汇也不够多，考试的时候就常栽在“close passage”（填空）的环节。不过，可能是从小养成的习惯，我并不讨厌英文，而且只看英文课外书。Nancy Drew, Three Investigators, Sweet Valley High等是我最喜欢的书籍。直到小五，我从不看课本以外的华文书，连第一次看《水浒传》和《红楼梦》都是看英文翻译版。