‘Add Oil’ Is Now English
To those in charge of the Speak Good English campaign, “add oil” being added as an official term in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a nightmare come true.
Used to express encouragement or support for someone else, the direct translation of the Mandarin phrase 加油 (jia you) is one of the most commonly used Singlish/Chinglish phrases.
Having a tough day at work? Add oil. Dealing with relationship problems? Add oil. Cai png aunty gave you less liao for lunch? You f**king guessed it, add oil and try again tomorrow.
As much as possible, I try to stay away from people who sprinkle “add oil” in their everyday speech. It’s not so much that I dislike the term, but rather, “add oil” is one of the hallmark characteristics of a group of people I try to avoid—the “Jiayou Chinese”.
Who are the Jiayou Chinese
Jiayou Chinese are those who predominantly speak Mandarin when joking and gossiping with friends. They dress in shorts and flip-flops on their off days and wear the OL white blouse pencil skirt combo to work.
In school, Jiayou Chinese are usually those who ask humanities students like me to “pls lah bro can proofread my essay”. If you go to pulau NTU aka NUSrejects.com, you’ll easily spot Jiayou Chinese making their way to their engineering lectures in North Spine.
These are the kids English speakers in NUS FASS and NTU WKW love to make fun of. It’s not so much that their liberal use of ‘add oil’ that annoys us, but rather, they represent everything the education system has taught Singaporean Chinese to dislike: Mandarin speakers.
Elitism is embedded in the language we use
Since colonialism happened a hot minute ago, locals who favoured English were conferred economic advantages over non-English speakers and were often the social elite. The Received Pronunciation they obtained in school became a mark that they came from money.
The Chinese-educated were lumped with the working class and branded ‘low SES’. Fast-forward several generations, the stereotype that Mandarin-speakers are ‘uncouth’ and exhibit behaviours which offend those with social status climbing sensibilities persists.
It’s why some found S Hook Jiejie Lerine Yeo to be endearing and repulsive in equal measure.
The young Jiayou Chinese are seen as individuals who will morph into that auntie who will fight you for a seat on the MRT, humblebrag about their child, and embarrassingly comment “SO EXPENSIVE AH” when ordering from waiters.
Singapore government favours English-speakers
Despite the growing importance of Mandarin, the reality is many Singaporean Millennials can’t speak and don’t feel the need to Chinese beyond their hawker centre ordering capabilities.
Though Tamil, Mandarin, and Malay are official languages, English is regarded as the de facto language. As the language of instruction and administration, English has long been promoted as an important language for international trade.
While the Speak Good English movement aggressively encouraged the use of standardised English, censorship laws discouraged and removed the use of Singlish and dialect from the airwaves. The final nail in the coffin was when the decidedly lame 华语COOL campaign was forced upon school children to pick up Mandarin again.
Those who have been trying to suppress natural linguistic development in Singapore’s top offices have done a great job at encouraging language snobbery.
And it’s for the same reason why students from a certain elite boys’ school are proud of their consistent C5 O-Level Chinese grade.
Being Proud Of The Singaporean Chinese Identity
Today, the shift towards using English is even more prominent. Just listen to how those who are in the gifted and IP streams speak. Or eavesdrop on a bunch of 7-year-old Gen Zs screaming about Fortnite, Minecraft, and iPads in ‘proper English’, removed of “lah”s and “lor”s.
When I was younger, I picked up Chinese first and even scored 100 on my report card in Primary 1. But when my parents decided to speak English at home, I learnt to English more and Chinese less.
And as much as I’m proud of my Singaporean English accent and enjoy using Singlish, I think there’s a long way to go when we discuss the linguistic part of our Chinese identity. Adding a few Singlish/Chinglish phrases to the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t enough.
Maybe if we afford more status to non-English languages, I’ll finally stop cringing when a well-meaning Jiayou Chinese tells me to “add oil”.
If you think my Chinese privilege is showing through, or have something to say, drop us an email at [email protected]
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