Ni baba mama hao ma?

‘How are your parents?’ the teacher asked Mr PC, who shot me a wry look, and I know he was suppressing the urge to tell her that one of them was no longer alive, but instead he said: ‘They are fine, thank you.’

‘Are your parents busy?’ she persisted.

‘Yes,’ he lied, ‘they are both very busy.’

‘Are YOUR parents busy?’ she asked me…

…and I looked at her and then at my husband, and it was as if all the words had exploded into the air around us because they were Mandarin words, slanted whooshes and terse ‘s’ sounds, coming out of our pencils with crossed lines and little hats and tiny boxes like miraculous mahjong chips, and all of them now falling slowly around my husband’s head as he sat waiting expectantly for me to reply.

‘Could you just go over it again?’ I asked in English.

I think that out of all the new outfits I have been pulling on in the great changing room that is Singapore, Mandarin might be one of those reserved for the dressing up box.

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