Wednesday, September 04, 2013

My mother's milk is expensive (Melakan Portuguese dilemma) -- Part 1

I spend an entire lazy afternoon in Kampung Portugis speaking in papiaçam -- the Creole Portuguese of Macau/Melaka -- with Noel Felix. With us is one of the few Portuguese-speaking young scholars of Malaysia. (She's not of Portuguese origin.)

Felix can speak for hours on end in front of his Carlsberg. As I heard him out, I realised the many complex paradoxes of being Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. For that's what Felix considers the Melakan Portuguese to be, besides being Portuguese-speaking Malaysian. They are not a Creole community; they are Portuguese and speak Portuguese, though of course he is aware that they are not European Portuguese, nor is the language the same as that of Portugal.

Felix says he speaks old Portuguese, not Creole. He has been to Portugal once. He has a daughter who once lived in Brazil and now speaks to him in Brazilian Portuguese. He does not mind. He finds Brazilian Portuguese and Melakan Portuguese to be very close. Or, at any rate, closer than either of them is to Portugal's Portuguese. (I have difficulty with this in its spoken forms. I would often ask friends in Macau to repeat what they had just said to me, sometimes twice, only to realise that I was unable to make it out. It would have been embarrassing to ask them to say it in English, of course.

In Melaka, I have difficulty following local Portuguese, but if I'm persistent and my interlocutor patient -- and Felix is patient -- then we manage to communicate. (I must confess, however, that I'm more a listener than a talker). In another context and in another time, he might be considered a language nationalist of some sort. However, in the modest environment of the kampung in Melaka, he is someone who does not want his traditions to disappear, perhaps because he grew up with them. He says his mother's milk is expensive. He imbibed the language from her.

He does not want to give his language up nor does he take easily to the fact that his community is clearly losing it -- young people in particular can understand it though they do not speak it as fluently as their parents. They prefer to talk in English and Malay. In fact Felix interrupts our conversation for about an hour to go and teach a Portuguese class to some of the kampung's young people. Voluntary work.

The lady who runs the restaurant where we are sitting and talking puts his beer bottle into the refrigerator. At one point, he was in doubt if he should take it along with him.

Perhaps everything is changing, and too fast. Noel is very religious, like all community elders I have spoken to so far. He goes off into a long tirade about morals and religion at the slightest provocation. I wonder how appealing that is for the younger generation.

The Portuguese community has always been an open group: the descendants of the Dutch in Melaka speak Portuguese too and are often counted as members of the community. (I don't believe anybody speaks Dutch in Melaka any more.) Noel still inveighs against the label Eurasian every now and then, his point being that it does not root people in any country, but is vague and general. It was a designation used by the British colonials, that was accepted by the community before it refashioned itself as Portuguese. Noel must have been a teenager when the identity shift took place. I am not aware of anyone in Melaka who calls himself or herself Eurasian, and there is certainly no visible community that claims that identity now.

The point Noel hammers home again and again is that the community is Portuguese, and Lusophone (i.e. Portuguese-speaking).