Thursday, 28 November 2019

Biculturalism in Singapore, or the Importance of being polylingual or polycultural

I just realised I have not posted in over 2 months!

Not that I have not blogged. I have. I just haven't published.

Because, reasons.

Anyway, here is something I have been working on, off and on for a while - the Importance of knowing a second language, or at least more than one language.

We start with a joke. (Actually, it's all jokes. Not good ones, though. You have been warned.)

1) Chicken. Goat. Bag.
 A Malaysian MP (or VIP) was kidnapped. The ransom was paid and the kidnappers allowed the MP to appear in a video to assure his family that he is alive and well. However, for some reason, the video had no sound, so the MP appeared in the video, and first carried a chicken. Then a goat. And then a bag.

When his family saw the video, they were overjoyed!

"He's coming back!"

Only Malaysians and Singaporeans may get this joke.

Chicken. Goat. Bag. = Ayam (Malay). Kambing (Malay). Bag (English). = "I am coming back." (English).

Sometimes the MP (or VIP) is described as an Indian. So the joke also works by making fun of the Indian accent.

Now this seems like a simple joke, but it requires you to understand English and Malay (for
"ayam" and "kambing"). And switch between these two languages to make sense of the message.

And then if you are familiar with the Indian accent, it gets you on the racial stereotype as well. Or racism if you prefer.

2) Duan Wu Jie (Dragon Boat Festival) literally translates to "Cinco de Mayo"

Duan Wu Jie = "Two Fives Festival" (literal) references the date in the Chinese calendar of the festival - the 5th day of the 5th month = "Cinco de Mayo" In Spanish/Mexican?

Here you need to understand Mandarin. Then you need to understand Spanish (or Mexican). And then then because I am telling this "joke" in English, you need to understand English. And really, this is just an observation that Duan Wu Jie means "Cinco de Mayo" = the "Fifth of May".

[Don't ask me what Cinco de Mayo is about. I'm not Mexican.]

3) Riddle: Where in the world is a Dragon's Eye the same as a Cat's Eye?
Answer: Where the Malay and Chinese language are commonly spoken.

Longans (a fruit) are the Cantonese name and means "Long Yan" (Mandarin) or "Dragon's Eye". But the fruit is called "Mata Kuching" in Malay, and that means "Cat's eye".

So, where in the world can you eat a dragon's eye and a cat's eye and still remain a vegan? In this part of the world (Singapore, Malaysia, maybe Indonesia?).

Side note: The durian variant or cultivar that many durian-lovers consider as the best is the Mao Shan Wang or "Cat Mountain King" (Literal translation). But this is almost a phonetic "translation" of Musang King, the name given to this cultivar by the discoverer of this variant in Gua Musang (Literally "Cave (of the) Civet Cat"). BUT the phonetic translation ("musang" becomes "mao shan") is remarkably "true" to the original meaning. Coincidence?

4) "Mou Tun", or what happens when an Irresistible Force Meets an Immovable Object.

You might have come across this "riddle" or "thought exercise" of "what happens when an Irresistible Force meets an Immovable Object".

If you are an exclusively Anglophone (English-speaker) and have never encountered the Chinese "mou tun" story or "parable", this riddle might... confound you.

You might have to be an Isaac Asimov to resolve that question!

Because he did.

What happened was, a woman told Asimov, that if he (were so smart, and he) could answer that "riddle" to her satisfaction, she would marry him.

And Asimov answered (I'm paraphrasing) that, an Irresistible Force is a Force that cannot be resisted. That in a universe where an Irresistible Force exists, nothing in that universe can resist that Force. An Immovable Object consequently, is an object that NO FORCE in the universe can move. Therefore in a universe where there is an Irresistible Force, there can be NO Immovable Objects. Conversely, in a universe where there is an Immovable Object, there is no such thing as an Irresistible Force. Therefore the question of "what happens when an Irresistible Force meets an Immovable Object" is a logically impossible question.

And the girl was forced to marry Asimov. :-)

(And I memorised the answer in case I ever get the same offer from a reasonably attractive girl.)

The "mou tun" story goes like this: A peddler of weapons was giving his spiel about how good his shields were. His shields, he claimed, were so well crafted, that no weapon could penetrate its protection.

Then he demonstrated the power of the bows and arrows he was selling. These arrows, he said, were so sharp and so strong, that it could penetrate anything. Nothing, he claimed, could stop his spears.

So naturally, the "audience" asked, "what happens if you shot your arrow against your shield?"

(In some version, it was shield and spear. But I was given to understand that "tun" means shield, and "mao" means arrow. So I am going with that. But with the caveat that my mandarin isn't that great.)

I read a lot of science fiction in my youth and Asimov was one of the better writers, and I found his solution to the Irresistible Force/Immovable Object riddle to be elegant in its simplicity and logic.

So years later, in my class on Philosophy 101, I applied Asimov's approach to answering the final paper's question: "What is the Problem of Evil for the Theist?"

The "Problem of Evil" (briefly) is the about reconciling the existence of Evil in the world, with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent god. Basically if God is All-knowing, All-powerful, and All-loving, then he would know if evil is about to occur, he would be able to prevent evil, and he would want to because he loves everyone.

And yet, there is evil in this world. However you define it.

Therefore the existence of Evil in this world is a problem for believing in an "Omni-three" God (Omniscient-Omnipotent-Omnibenevolent).

And yet people do (believe in such a god).

So, this final paper's question was, "What is the Problem of Evil FOR THE THEIST?" I noted that the question was in two parts. It was not simply, "what is the Problem of Evil" which would mean a regurgitation of the class on the Problem of Evil. There was the second part: "for the Theist".

It was a 4-page essay. I remember telling "jokes" for 3 of those pages. As a build-up to my answer.

And my answer in the last half page was (I'm paraphrasing. It was 30 years ago!) - the existence of evil is incongruent with the existence of an "Omni-three God". However, this in not a problem for the atheist who does not believe in God. Therefore the existence of Evil is simply a given. Not a problem. For the ATHEIST.

The existence of Evil should however present a logical problem for the theist, the believer, the faithful, because his belief in an Omni-three god should logically preclude the existence of evil in the world. That Evil exist in the world should logically and reasonably cast doubt on (if not outright preclude) the existence of an omni-three god.

Thus the Problem of Evil should present a conundrum for the theist.

Except it does not.

Because while the Atheist has logic and reason to help him make sense of the world, the Atheist uses logic, reason AND FAITH to make sense of the world. Thus, presented with the incongruence of the existence of Evil and belief in an Omni-three God, the Theist falls back on FAITH to resolve that incongruence.

And therefore he has no problem.

I realised even then the influence of Asimov's reasoning and argument (on Irresistible forces and Immovable Objects) in my paper. But I had to adapt his reasoning a little.

Asimov's answer was to point out the logical incongruence of a universe that has an Irresistible Force and an Immovable Object.

My answer was a little different. I simply pointed out that the Theist and the Atheist lived in different Universes. That the Atheist lived in a logical world that does not have an Omni-three god, and so there is no incongruence with the existence of Evil. That the Theist may live in a logically incongruent world, but that's alright because he has an additional element of Faith to help him cope with that incongruence.

Back to the question of Irresistible Forces and Immovable Object and impenetrable shields, and unstoppable arrows.

The point is, if you were a Chinese speaker and you heard this mao tun story in your youth, you would have understood that it was logically impossible for the peddler to have a shield than cannot be penetrated, as well as arrows that could penetrate anything. And that he was engaged in hyperbole.

That is, he was simply being a salesman.

And if you then encountered the Irresistible Force meets Immovable Object (IFMIM) riddle, and you were able to apply your understanding across cultures, you would find that IFMIM riddle to be childish.


Because like many logical riddles or problems, the IFMIM riddle subverts your logic by being both specific and general in its terms.

An "irresistible force" is not named, but simply given the characteristic of being "irresistible".

Similarly, the "immovable object" is not named, but simply characterised as "immovable".

You could therefore specify a force that might be irresistible, and an object that might be immovable, and then send the possibly irresistible force to meet the possibly immovable object. But whatever the result, you would either conclude that one was not truly immovable or the other was not truly irresistible, and conclude that your thought experiment was flawed because the wrong subjects were being tested.

And you would be wrong because you are not defining your terms correctly.

Or not realising that you are engaged in a logically flawed and incongruent thought experiment.

It may help if you understood mou tun.

1 comment:

kehyi said...

mao 矛 means spear, not arrow (which would be jian 箭) ...