By Aqilah Allaudeen, Medill, Immigrant Connect
The smell of disinfectant fills the room. The magnolia colored walls seem to add to the already grim mood of the oncology ward at Singapore General Hospital. The beeps of machines and intermittent coughs from patients are all that can be heard over the thunder and pouring rain outside. There are no children playing and no sounds of laughter. Many of the patients lie in bed alone with no family or friends in sight.
It’s Aug. 2, 2016, in an island country in Southeast Asia that has transformed in a single generation from a third world fishing village to a first world nation known for its cleanliness and safety.
Grandma lays in her bed in a room she shares with five others as she waits for her doctor to spell out her diagnosis and treatment plan. She shifts uncomfortably in her flimsy green hospital gown as she mutters under her breath. Grandma hates hospitals, and wants nothing more than to be back in the comfort of her own home.
She tells me she would much rather be cooking her family a feast filled with sinful delights like fish biryani, samosas, and puttu. Even while lying in a hospital bed, my grandma asks me what I want her to cook for me next. Food has always been her way of showing her love for me.
Doctor Chen is the doctor for Habiba Syed Ahman, the patient name attached to my grandma. He’s a senior physician at Singapore General and has an air of confidence to him, which seems to complement his years of experience. As he shares grandma’s diagnosis in English with my mother, my uncle, my grandmother and me, the mood in the room subdues.
Doctors had informed my grandma that the growth in her mouth was cancerous, but they weren’t certain of the severity of her diagnosis before this. Doctor Chen tells us that my 68-year-old maternal grandma has squamous cell carcinoma – stage three mouth cancer – and requires surgery and multiple sessions of radiation and chemotherapy to curb its spread. It’s definitely going to be an uphill battle for her and the entire family.
As the doctor continues to explain the diagnosis to grandma, my mother and uncle, I notice the look of cluelessness and fear emerge on my grandma’s face. Dr. Chen tries to throw reassuring glances in her direction, but the furrow between my grandma’s eyebrows deepens.
I lean over and try to explain the situation to my grandma as well as I can in Tamil, although my command of the language is conversational at best, and dwindling. After trying and failing to translate words like “cancer,” “chemotherapy” and “radiation” to Tamil, I give up and decide to wait for my mother and uncle to do the explaining.
Some 60 years ago, grandma had immigrated to Singapore from Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state in India, but never mastered the English language. Even today, she only converses in Tamil and Malay. When she first moved to Singapore with her family, she was in search of a better life.
Both of her parents got low-paying jobs as day laborers, while she stayed at home to take care of her younger siblings instead of going to school. She lived in a housing community with many other immigrants from India, and got by with speaking in Tamil.
English wasn’t the predominant spoken language – especially not among the uneducated, like my grandma. Chinese, Malays and Indians made up the bulk of the population, with members of each demographic group speaking their own language. However, with Malay being the national language, many Singaporeans from my grandma’s generation could at least converse in Malay.
My grandma married and over the next couple of decades, she picked up Malay. As Singapore continued to develop rapidly, English became the most commonly spoken language. And that’s where grandma fell hopelessly behind.
I grew up in Singapore and have always been fluent in English. I was also fluent in Tamil when I was in grade school. As our education put us through a steady stream of language classes, I kept up my Tamil and it came in handy talking with my grandma. Once I graduated, my Tamil suffered. As for Malay, counting to twenty remains a challenge.
For most people, the evolution of Singapore is invisible, lost in the glistening buildings and booming economy.
To appreciate its evolution, one need only have been in the oncology ward, seeing my grandma lost in the presumption that English is known by all, and me realizing that my Tamil, once second nature, was lost in my investment in the future.