From as far back as I can recall, before I could speak or understand the dialect, my childhood was one filled with the sounds and syntax of Teochew. My lullaby was a pentatonic Teochew tune sang by my maternal grandmother which my parents eventually continued using on all their four children. During the early years of childhood I learnt to communicate in English first and then Mandarin. But there was always this third “language” I constantly heard in the backgrounds of my home environment that I knew not, understood not. Almost mystical, the mysterious sounds and phrases were melodious to my little ears. I think it was at age five that I concluded that this was a tongue only the adults in my family used to communicate with one another. It was also a “secret code” that my parents switched to using in their conversations when they did not want my sister and I to understand what they were talking about.
Fortunately or unfortunately during the formative years of a child, language is easily acquired even if not taught. With the exposure I was receiving, it was not too long before I could make out more or less, bits and pieces of the mystery. Alas meaning was put to the “melody” and that was when my knowledge of being a Teochew first came alive for me.
Being the eldest grandchild to my paternal grandparents, I had the privilege of being the centre of their world and attention for a period of time. It was perhaps also because of the time spent with my Gonggong that I from a young age remember being told of a place called Swatow. The story unfolded further and I learnt later how my paternal grandfather had made the trip from Swatow to Singapore at age seven with a family friend. Gonggong never shared much about his growing up in Singapore, but I remember his love for his motherland. When I was eight, Gonggong suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side. He lost his ability to speak coherently but not the ability to understand. I remember one day my father asking him where home was for him and with painstaking effort Gonggong had like a child learning to speak, mumbled – Swatow.
In the above photo, my grandfather (in striped shirt and grey pants) visiting his ancestral home in Swatow together with my grandmother (in the background by the doorway entrance) when he was still well. There remain relatives in Swatow whom I have up to this day not met.
Things were not the same after my grandfather’s stroke. One indelible change was never hearing again his deep, warm voice speaking the Teochew dialect the way he used to. Perhaps it was a child’s way of preserving the memories and image of my grandfather but till this day, if I close my eyes and try hard enough, there remains one last Teochew phrase where I can “hear” my grandfather. A phrase Teochews worldwide are familiar with – gaginang.
To me back then, building my own understanding of the world, gaginang meant you could speak the same melodic notes like my grandparents. As I grew a little older, I understood it meant we shared the same dialect group. Today as a global citizen of the world and a Singaporean working abroad, it means something more. Gaginang, or 自己人, suggests that our roots can be traced back to Teochew 潮州. It proposes a plethora of stories of our courageous forefathers – regardless of our nationality. It gives possibility that perhaps our forefathers could have known one another even if we were just meeting for the first time. And for this generation, even if all we manage to stutter comprehensibly is an inconsiderable amount of Teochew, it is heartwarming to me still when I meet and greet “one of my own” in our dialect especially when I least expect and out of Singapore.
It causes the horizons of “family” to be expanded and widened beyond something biological as three little words do their magic of revealing the invisible threads that weave portions of our past together. It brings comfort in knowing that as sojourners on earth, wherever our paths may bring us, there will be always be that one phrase that I remember my Gonggong saying that binds the Teochew family together – gaginang .
My grandfather celebrating his 86th birthday in September 2015 with his children.
About the author:
Elizabeth Koh is a Singaporean who works as an Early Childhood Educator. She currently teaches and resides in Shanghai where she continues to meet fellow gaginang from all over the world.
Elizabeth can be contacted at liz.ksm @ g mail.com. She makes sense of her world through photographs and musings which can be seen via her Instagram account @elizabethksm.
This article by Elizabeth Koh, a gaginang from Singapore, is the first of four selected entries from our My Teochew Family Story Sharing selected for publication this November. Elizabeth won for herself a full-set of the Scenes of Teochew-3D postcards.
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