And so 1 month into working in my company, I am starting to get accustomed to the company’s policies, idiosyncrasies, working cultures, my friendly colleagues and superiors, and all in all, my job. I have learnt how to greet people properly, how to pick up a phone in the right way (refer to the previous blog entry on politeness), and how my company and its component section function.

After having established a rather healthy working relationship with my colleagues, I grandiosely take my next step on to the ladder of hierarchy. Generally, you would be greeted by a mountain of work piled up on your desk every morning, scrutinizing glares by your superiors and soaring expectations weighing heavily on your shoulders, crushing you to the ground. Fortunately, my company takes a more positive and friendly approach.

My section director called me over to his desk in the morning and asked me to decipher an email written in Chinese between our company, our supplier and clients from China. My boss knows minimal Chinese, but not sufficient to understand fully the contents of the mail. And since I arrived on my first day at work 1 month ago declaring I could speak Chinese (which of course I do!), my boss decided put some good faith in the “Chinese native” in me.

To my not-so-pleasant surprise, I found the email and its contents familiar yet strangely unfamiliar, as if something was confined in a brain cell in distant memory of which I was desperately trying to recall. I could read the email and its characters in general, but when it came to the most crucial words of the sentences (which happened to be somewhat technical jargons), I found myself haplessly trying to guess its pronunciation, let alone its meaning.

Well, in Singapore, we do learn a lot of useful Chinese words and phrases in class, but most of which remain in the classroom, the textbooks and exam papers. Once we step out of the classroom, our knowledge of Chinese stays at its bare minimum. I am glad I speak Chinese at home, because it helped me maintain my competence (or incompetence) of the language till now. But ironically it was after I came to Japan that I realize how my grasp of the language remains at casual conversations, and how we got so used to substituting English words in our Chinese conversations that we still do not know their Chinese equivalents.

Which Singaporean has actually written a formal letter/ email in Chinese in a practical situation? The only formal things I remember writing in Chinese were to my Chinese teachers, which later came back doodled in red ink. I was left dumbfounded when I realized the Chinese entry for the word “mattress” or “sponge” did not exist in my memory, till I searched on the internet and went “OH YEAH THAT’S IT!”

Thankfully, my superior did not realize my  incompetence in the language and throw me back to my desk, and I was able to translate the email into something that actually made sense.

The format of the email, and the way it was written, were something new, although I vaguely recall learning how to write formal/ informal letters in Chinese about a decade ago. I never had the slightest thought that I would be able to put those Chinese lessons into practical use 10 years down the road. I  started becoming adsorbed in deep thought, as Secondary school memories started to flood my head.

Oh yes, there is a polite way of addressing a second-person (you) as compared to how we would talk to our friends in a friendly conversation. But wait, I doubt many Singaporeans would have actually used the polite “you” in a real situation, unless we actually deal with customers from China or Taiwan. Perhaps coming to Japan and working here drowned me in the politeness and all the hype about it, that I neglected the fact that there actually is a polite way doing things in other languages and cultures too, although to different extents. Japanese politeness extends to all aspects- vocabulary, grammar, tone and pitch of speaking, gestures, postures, eye contact, the geometry of bowing and anything you can think of, whereas in Chinese or English, perhaps only in the vocabulary we use.

And so 25 years after I spouted my first word in Chinese, I finally read, wrote and engaged in a formal conversation in the language. It is a cozy yet weird feeling, writing in a language that I spent all my life speaking, yet still feel so foreign. My boss then instructed me to carry on the conversation on his behalf, and left me beaming happily, knowing that this would be a great chance for me to prove myself at work, and more importantly, re-master a language that I was born to speak.