Heart and Soul: My Peranakan Education

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Seven decades ago, a schoolteacher and his wife decided to adopt a girl. They already had six sons. And so I became their daughter.

When I was five, they adopted another little girl. We were very loved by our parents. To this day, I remember fondly that not a hair on our head was touched as the boys got their fair share of punishment when they did something stupid.

Dad was a Peranakan, Mum a Hokkien, but we never learned Chinese.

Dad was a teacher. We lived in the government quarters behind the school where daddy taught. It was a large house with a large garden. We all spoke English and Peranakan at home. At that time, it made no difference not to speak Chinese dialects because in the convent where I was studying, everyone spoke English. As far as I can remember, no one spoke their Chinese dialects. But I digress.

How was my Peranakan education?

For starters, our food was loaded with chili. Every dish was spicy and if it wasn’t there would be a bottle of belacan sambal or chill cut. Our food was more Malay-influenced than Chinese, so I grew up eating different types of curry, coconut-based dishes, chicken and fish sambal, assam shrimp, and petai (or stinky beans). ) was a hot favorite.

At a young age, we swallowed our food with spices. And most of the time, we used our fingers to eat. Our food was better eaten this way than when we were using cutlery.

Linguistically, we have adopted many Malay words. However the bathroom or bilik mandi was then called kamar mandi, the crabs were linger, do not ketam, and the windows were jendela, do not tingkap.

We tended to use the word celaka very freely, as in “You celaka, I told you not to buy this for me but, thank you, I like it. There was no malice in the use of this word, but in Bahasa Melayu it is not.

Word kehquoi, also used freely, meant a smart passer or pants but often in a pleasant and friendly tone. Such words are foreign to many but were used daily by my family members.

In a Peranakan family, the matriarch ran the house: my mother, a housewife, received the month’s salary that my father brought back.

She then distributed the money according to the needs of the family, such as the maid’s and gardener’s wages, children’s school expenses, groceries, etc.

Some money would be given to daddy for his personal use. You see, dad loved to play the game like betting on horse races. The money was therefore more secure in Mum’s hands. And with Dad’s salary as a teacher, my parents watched their children pursue higher education through scholarships.

We led a simple life. Because there were so many of us, a durian treat was like this … Mum would buy two durians, remove the seeds, buy coconut milk, put it in a container, put the durians in it and each person had two seeds of durian in a bowl of coconut milk. We loved this dessert.

Every month, when dad got his paycheck, he and mom gave me and my sister a treat. By this time, the boys had left home to continue their education. Wearing our Sunday clothes, we were going to see a movie. Children at that time were not very intelligent; I remember asking my parents several times if the movie had started because there had been a lot of trailers before.

After the movie, we adjourned for beef noodles and a soy drink. It was the highlight of our monthly outing. Cheap and good, no frills.

The discipline, à la Peranakan, was also unique. Yes, the cane was used for boys when needed, but the matriarch would tell us if we swear or use foul language that she would take a chili pepper and rub it on our lips. The thought of our lips burning with smeared chili pepper was definitely a deterrent from using inappropriate language.

Also, if we responded while being reprimanded, that would be our punishment. To tell the truth, I do not remember that such a punishment was ever inflicted.

When we were reprimanded, we had to look guilty with half-closed eyes to look repentant. Woe to us if we turn around in defiance or protest.

I still hear mom say in Peranakan jargon: “I’m going Korean (pluck out) your eyes with a fork and a spoon. And with that, we would be shot whether we were guilty or not. Such a sweet innocence in our youth, in the 1960s! It never occurred to us that our mom would never do such an unforgivable act.

Mom forced us to pick the abundant supply of belimbing from our tree and also some curry leaves. She would bring them to the market and exchange them for vegetables at her usual greengrocer.

So I grew up in a home where speaking a Chinese dialect was foreign. Years later, when we were adults and still couldn’t speak Chinese dialects, we were known as “OCBC” (orang Cina bukan Cina/ Chinese but not Chinese).

Today, many Peranakans manage to speak a Chinese dialect out of necessity. Many, like me, have chosen a dialect in order to communicate with the in-laws. Those who still cannot speak a Chinese dialect will always have strange looks from Chinese who cannot understand why this Chinese does not speak Chinese!

Many have not heard of Peranakan except in the context of Nyonya cuisine. And when by chance we bump into another Peranakan, we get into Peranakan lingo and relive our years of yesteryear.

And so until I marry a Cina gerk (term used to describe typical Chinese on a chilli-free diet or in general anyone who is not Peranakan; not a derogatory term), I was a true blue Peranakan. But marriage has mixed up our lives, we have a give and take policy, a juxtaposition of both typical Chinese culture and Peranakan.

I am now proficient in Hokkien, my husband learned to eat chili and so did my children. Our food is a mixture of Peranakan and typical Chinese dishes, popular with everyone.

Looking back, there are fond memories of my childhood in a Peranakan family.


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About Linda Jennings

Linda Jennings

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