Alien Tongues, Brilliant Minds

One year ago, during one of my tutorial classes, I met a classmate from China, J, who was on exchange in Singapore then. The professor split all of us up into small groups to discuss answers for the tutorial questions. J ended up in the same discussion group as me.

As soon as we settled into our groups, J began flipping through his stack of assigned readings which were filled with boundless highlights, underlines and scribbles. He also brought along two pieces of foolscap paper, in which the answers to the tutorial questions had already been written down neatly.

Peculiarly, even though he had evidently prepared for the questions, he did not speak much during our discussion at all. When he did, he always stumbled over his words, and we always end up finishing all his sentences, or worse, making up new sentences for him.

To be very honest, in a curious way, I had felt a inexplicable sense of superiority over him there and then. That was despite the fact that I knew I had come to class half as prepared as he was. I was leading the discussion; I was expressing (his) ideas to the group confidently; I was speaking fluently in English.

After the tutorial, we chatted a little, and I found out surprisingly that he came from Fudan University, the university that I was about to go for student exchange the following semester! We exchanged contacts excitedly, and headed off to our next classes.

Fast forward one semester later, I realised that not only was I in the same university as him, we were taking the same course too. That course required us to do a group project, and J was kind enough to approach me to join his project group, considering that I did not know anyone there, and that local students tend not to group with students on exchange for fear that they will slack off.

On my way to our first meeting, I remember being rather nervous. I had done some research prior to the meeting, and I wished I would come off as helpful during the meeting – just not some slacker on exchange basically.

Upon the arrival of other group mates, J enthusiastically introduced me to them as “the new singaporean exchanger in school”. As we started our meeting, there were two things that struck me immediately. First, J was clearly the unofficial leader of the group. He shared with us the outline of the project that he had in mind, and asked for our opinions. He was SO confident, so in control, so different from the person I had known in the classroom just one semester ago.

Second, amidst streams of Chinese sociology terminologies, I was clearly … lost. Sure, J made the effort to pause time to time to explain what the terms meant to me, but I felt a little more embarrassed than comforted because I felt that I was wasting my group mates’ time. I later tried to express my project ideas to them in choppy Singaporean Chinese, and was not the least surprised that none of my ideas were adopted eventually.

I left the meeting feeling extremely shi*ty about myself.

That module was my hardest module that semester in Fudan University. I spent a lot of time in class getting awed at just how brilliant my classmates were, and getting upset at just how inferior I was to them. I spent a week ploughing through Chinese articles for our project, and only managed to churn out a page or two out of our twelve page report.

In spite of all of that, I must say that this experience was such a humbling one. The stark contrast between the sense of superiority I had felt back home and the sense of inferiority I had felt in a foreign land taught me this – to never judge the mind of a person by his or her language (or the lack thereof).

In my Cultural Anthropology class, we learnt that language is an integral part of one’s cultural capital. It signifies your class and group membership. As a result, we often mistake one’s inadequacy in language for one’s stupidity (sorry for the lack of a better word), and one’s proficiency in language for one’s brilliance.

For example, in the case of foreign workers in Singapore, many would perceive them as less educated, or worse – less than human – simply because they engage in low-paying jobs and speak a language foreign to us. But upon befriending these workers, I realised that their views are much deeper and more profound than I can ever imagine. Some would speak of politics back home in Bangladesh and others would share about their pursuit of further studies in Singapore.

So, I don’t know if intelligence can be objectively measured, but I sure do know that the perception of one’s intelligence is relative, subjective, and perhaps even constructed. You can totally be a genius in one culture, and be an absolute idiot in another.

There is a time, a place, and most importantly, a culture for everyone to shine. And none of us have the right to judge anyone (or ourselves) just when and where that may be.