A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfil itself.

–  Malcom X, American human rights activist

On my way home after my breakfast in a food court in Tabuan Laru, I saw two small children carrying plastic bags of items, probably food and clothes, to a car parked by the roadside.

“Oh, these kids and their parents are going back to their kampung which must be quite near Kuching,” I said to myself.

“Blessed are these kids. They will grow up loving their father tongue or mother tongue, their paternal and maternal grandparents, their relatives and their culture.”

If I live and work in Sibu, that is what I will do as well — go back every weekend to the village in Kanowit where my maternal grandparents used to live.

Although both my maternal grandparents have passed on, I still have my aunt, cousins and relatives in the village. I have not seen them for years and I am sure they miss me as much as I miss them here.

To go back to Kanowit, about one hour’s car drive from Sibu, I need to bring lots of money with me.

In a small town like Kanowit, men and women who work in big towns or cities are expected to treat relatives they meet in the coffeeshops to free food and drinks, particularly when they have not been home for ages. It is pure courtesy to do so. If you fail to do so, you will shame your grandparents.

Thanks to better road links and better standard of living, many rural-urban migrants are taking opportunities to renew ties with their parents and relatives in the villages. They do these particularly during the weekends when their children are not schooling and during the big festivals.

During the movement control order, inter-district travels were banned. With the Covid-19 pandemic under control, many families are visiting their paternal or maternal villages again.

I think it is good for children to keep in touch with relatives in their paternal or maternal villages. Besides understanding their father or mother’s culture, they also get to master their father or mother tongue.

Some offspring of mixed or inter-marriages speak neither their father or mother tongue. Who’s to blame for this unfortunate thing?

For example, their father may be a Hainanese and their mother a Hakka. The kids may end up speaking neither Hainanese nor Hakka. Instead, they may only speak Mandarin at home with their parents.

My best friend believes children should be taught both dialects or at least the father tongue.

“These parents should not speak Mandarin to their children at home because they may learn that in school.

“They should teach them their own dialects. At least, when the children grow up, they will have some privacy when they talk to each other.

“Next time, with the current emphasis on English and Mandarin, many people all over the world, especially those in China, will be well versed in these two languages. Some people around you may not understand you if you choose to converse in your local dialects.”

We in Sarawak are so lucky because we can speak so many languages and dialects. We may not be very proficient in some but we understand them and can converse comfortably in some.

I don’t speak my father tongue, Hainanese. Instead, I speak English and some Mandarin and I passed my Bahasa Malaysia with translation in my secondary school.  

My father was a first-generation Chinese immigrant from Hainan Island, China and I have been to the island twice to meet my uncle and relatives there.

One of my regrets in life is not mastering my father tongue. Nevertheless, I value the Hainanese culture. That was why I was very glad when the Kuching Hainan Association invited me back as an ordinary member of its women’s section recently.

I am also glad that there are free Hainanese language lessons on YouTube; these allow me to refresh memories of my conversations with my late father.

I was disappointed that at a recent meeting of the main section of the Kuching Hainan Association at its premises, most of the proceedings and talks were in Mandarin, not Hainanese. Is speaking in Mandarin a current trend at all meetings of clan associations? Does this mean many Sarawakians cannot speak their father or mother’s dialect?

When I was young, I used to receive yearly incentives from the Kheng Chew association, the Hainan association, in Sibu for doing well in my studies.

During these moments, my father would be as proud as a peacock because I was making the Liong family and ancestors proud.

Even though he is gone, I still remember my late father’s words, “Daughter, remember you are a Hainanese. Be proud you are one.”

Yes, dad, I remember and I am proud I am a Hainanese and your daughter. May you rest in peace.