He Said Nigga, I Said Nei Ge

My kids loved The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That was how we got to know about the actor, Will Smith. At the time, I didn’t think he was a good actor, his expressions seemed affected, his voice too often high pitched, but maybe that was because I was little exposed to the Black American culture and failed to understand that it was how they express themselves. My kids were all very young and therefore easily influenced. I didn’t have the time to stay at home much in those days, life got in the way. It was already getting difficult to vet what they watched on TV in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was already too much kissing and the kids were giggling lots whenever they saw boobs on TV. My huge regret has been the wasted years when my focus was on building my retail business rather than building a strong bridge with my boys. After all, they were under ten years old then, and it made sense that it should have been me who influenced them rather than a black guy in Bel-Air, right? I watched a few snippets of the TV series and found it entertaining and harmless. There were no steamy sex scenes and certainly, there was no vulgarity and drug-taking scenes, well, at least not in the episodes that I watched (checked, I mean). Homosexuality hadn’t made it to mainstream media as HIV was still killing millions around the world back then, and so there were no gay bars and same-sex kissing for me to explain to the kids. Last week, I happened to find the new sitcom called Bel-Air being aired on Stan. The story is the same as its original, I think, based on a smart but loud West Philly teenage guy by the name of Will Smith, who commits a minor crime and with the help of a rich and influential uncle, was sent to live with him and his uppity family in the the wealthy surrounds of Bel Air to start a new beginning. The story-line seems the same (I am not entirely sure, as I did not totally follow the old sitcom) but the language used in the new series is atrociously ‘modern’. I mean, they used a lot of the n-word in their conversations as well as in the rap music played. I didn’t quite finish the first episode because The Mrs didn’t like the swear words and the inappropriateness of hearing the n-word. There was a scene where some white boys copied Will and used the n-word. They were quickly set upon by the ferocious teenager because they were white and therefore were not entitled to use the n-word. Yeah, go figure that. A black dude can call himself ‘nigga’ but the white dudes can’t, not even if it is used affectionately as a term of endearment and without malice. Rap music uses the n-word a lot and now that rap music has universal appeal, aren’t they exporting the n-word to all and sundry? Which begs the question. Should rap music that contain the n-word be sung only by black people? Crikey, does that mean I am deprived of my freedom to sing a song that I like? What if I like Kanye West’s songs or Lil Wayne’s? I am not allowed to sing them publicly? Stick to Barry Manilow and Perry Como in my next karaoke sessions with my friends? For many years living in Australia, I got accustomed to faceless hoons screaming “Ching Chong go home” or “Chink, open your slit eyes” as they zoomed past in their old bombs. Would I call myself a chink? No way, right? Because it is derogatory! No one in their right mind would use a racial slur on themselves…..unless the word is harmless to them. So, what does that tell us when Black Americans are happy to call themselves by the n-word?

I met The Mrs in our first year in uni, in 1978. This was in Sydney during my second year in Australia. I was already practising minimalism well before minimalism became a fad. My flat had only bare necessities – a student’s desk and chair, a hand-me-down noisy fridge that made funny noises in the middle of the night (it was a prized possession from a friend’s aunty), a small TV and a single mattress. Possessing very few things and a half-empty vinyl wardrobe that was bereft of any good clothes was not upsetting, neither was it embarrassing since that fact had not registered in my mind. The only branded clothing I had was a pirated Adidas shorts from a night market. The “knock-off” in my mind was an original; in those days, we did not have originals to compare with. I suppose I was like a ghost, moving incognito in a jacket I was so proud to wear. My first jacket (there was never a need to wear a jacket in Penang) was a threadbare, hand-me-down cotton jacket that was not quite black and not quite grey. It had a Greek symbol in white embroidery, a scientific symbol that inspired me – I forget now but maybe it was the alpha symbol. I did not make any new friends on campus in my first year. I had promised a girl in Penang I would be back for her and had set a daily reminder that I was there to study and get good marks to justify the opportunity given to me by my parents to become an educated man. I was a lanky chap who did not own a comb and therefore whose unkempt hair needed no description. Owning an equally untidy face that was riddled with exploding pimples to match did not affect my sense of self-worth. The excess excrescence of hair on the tip of my nose did not disturb my peace also. In those days, I had a misplaced belief that I came from a poor background because I had not known what real poverty really was. I think my parents did the right thing, their values of thrift and self-reliance only strengthened my self-confidence; I had already believed it was quite alright to be poor – it wasn’t so bad! The coconut-shaped hairstyle was Gerald’s creation. Gerald, a friend from the same school in Penang since 1965, was the reason why I left Adelaide for Sydney after I failed to get into Dentistry. Well… I did not fail but I failed to get in. A lifetime ago when we were in our teens, Gerald would strum his guitar as we sang The Beatles’ When I Am Sixty Four. It was beyond my imagination how we would feel like or look like when we are 64. Yesterday, Gerald turned 64. I told him I couldn’t see him knitting a sweater by the fireside or digging the weeds. I think he knitted his eyebrow instead. His father was a doctor and his mother, a headmistress – so, I easily forgave him for his poor control of the scissors. He wasn’t born to be cut someone’s hair.

Next to Pa with my favourite cotton jacket draped on my shoulder in front of the UNSW Faculty of Commerce Building

I was not stalking The Mrs. Everywhere she went, every tutorial class she attended, every lecture in any lecture hall, one would see my shadow not far behind. It just happened that way. I was only three seats away from her just a row back from where she sat and therefore knew what brand of hand cream she used as she applied it on her slender typist’s hands whilst waiting for the lecturer to turn up. During the summer vacation, she would find a job in Martin Place as a typist and earned easy money in air-conditioned comfort whilst other average overseas students slogged in Chinese restaurants or factories in Glebe and Rosebery. When she changed a tutorial class to a night-time slot, I did the same. I think she thought it was fate that we were meant to meet and fall in love. Was it luck that we met, or was it from reading John le Carre’s books that I knew the art of ‘tailing’ a subject? I contend our marriage was arranged. Stars that were arranged and aligned by the heavens brought us together. It was therefore impossible for an insignificant mere mortal like me to hold my promise to the girl in Penang. Guilt forced me to ban myself from returning to Penang. For thirty six years. It was a self-imposed exile not so much to expugn the guilt inside me but more the lack of strength to face my friends who all loved her as a dear friend and my gutless unwillingness to find out if my deceit had damaged someone’s faith in and love for other people. I feared they would all be prigs shaking their pointy fingers at me with the righteousness of priests and monks.

I summoned my courage to talk to The Mrs in a crowded bus after coming out of the examination hall at the end of the second semester. Summer had arrived early. The smell in the packed bus was revolting, stuffy and stuffed with a witch’s concoction of sweat, poison and farts. A pursy Greek guy next to me must have had garlic for lunch and the pungent smell was reeking from his armpit that was directly in front of my nose as he clung to the shiny but sticky chrome bar overhead. The white guy looked at me but I gave him a smile that did not express welcome. I was worried The Mrs would mistakenly think the odour belonged to me – a poor student like me did not have the capacity to invest in body deodorants. It was out of the question for a poor student to pay for a good smell. The garlic juice oozing out from his pores made my head spin and I became self-conscious of my bad breath. I seldom checked on my own breath but what quality of breath would you expect from someone who used half the amount of Colgate than what was necessary and who deemed mouthwash was only good for spitting out? In my head, the vapour from my open mouth was beginning to blow out an amorphous cloud of fetid gas of rotting meat that had been trapped in the gaps of my teeth. I quickly clamped my lips tightly. But, I had to talk to her. So, I asked her in an uncertain voice with hardly-parted lips to keep the amorphous breath from exiting my mouth as I spoke, “How did you go in the exam?” She said “so-so”. “And you?” she asked. I said “so-so”. That was the sum total of our first conversation; it was in Mandarin. I must have sounded convincing, even though I felt uncertain about my command of the Chinese language. Most Malaysians could speak a few Chinese dialects in those days, but if you weren’t educated in a Chinese-medium school, chances were that you couldn’t converse in Mandarin at all. So, I did well and went home happy to have finally “met” her and did not make a fool of myself in the process. She assumed from my looks that I was an Engineering student – you know the type, nerdy, skinny and bespectacled, whose facial complexion was badly in need of strong exposure to sunlight, but I told her I was in her same Accounting classes. Sigh, I did not need anyone to explain to me that she had not noticed me at all. The Mrs has not changed. How I wish she would blandish me and make me feel grand!

I learned the word “nei ge” 那个 from her, although in the early days, she pronounced it as “na ge”. Before we met, I had not used those two words. To me, they were too imprecise, as vague as the words Aussies loved to use, such as thingy, thingamajig or that thing. Hey, what’s that thingy in your briefcase? or did you bring that thingamijig with you to the beach or that thing will kill you if you keep thinking about it. “nei ge” 那个 is also a word filler, you know, um, er, when you need time to form the next sentence. The Mrs, on the other hand, loved to say nei ge 那个. As a young man, I was interested in her periods for one reason and one reason only – to check on her ‘availability’. I never kept count or checked on her ‘days’ even though her standard excuse to refuse my sexual advancements was always the same. “I have that thing arriving,” she would say “Wo lai nei ge” 我 來 那个. Occasionally, I would be lucky and she would say 我 们 可以 做 那个, “Wǒ men kěyǐ zuò  nei ge”, we can do that thingy. In the sitcom Bel-Air, they too frequently use the word that means thingy. Whatever, whoever or whichever occasion that they cannot give a specific name to, they call it ‘jawn’. I turned off the TV, with a sense of wonderment. No matter if a person is in China or in Philadelphia or Australia, we all have the same vernacular predisposition. Pass me the thingy! Where is that thingamijig? Wow, isn’t that just jawn?! 我 们 做 那个! Let’s do that thing!

7 thoughts on “He Said Nigga, I Said Nei Ge

  1. A Cheang:
    Bloggerman, sorry for my delayed response to your blog. I have been rather busy.
    Anyway, another excellent piece of work. Learnt something new from you especially on the various ways you can use the multi-purpose word “Nei Ge”.
    I suppose any mention of sex or the female ovulation cycle in front of young children is taboo. Spouses therefore have to talk in codes when referring to these sensitive topics.
    The nei ge word is also used in distancing language e.g. when Bill Clinton was interviewed by journalists when the news of his affair with Monica Lewinsky first broke out, he had said, “I did not have sex with *that* woman!” instead of simply referring her as Ms Lewinsky. Psychologists quickly picked this up as a lie because he used distancing language.
    Nei Ge in the context that you have blogged is language distancing from a taboo topic.

    Like

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