By Jamie Ee Wen Wei
These days, Ms Amber Yu wins praises from customers at the cafe she works at for her bubbly small talk with them.
It is a far cry from 1-1/2 years ago when the Fujian native first came to Singapore to find work here.
Although she had learnt basic English in high school, it was so poor even numbers tripped her up.
'Once, another staff member told me to take an order to table 12. It took me some time to figure out if she meant '12' or '13'. I felt so miserable,' she recalled in Mandarin.
Another time, she was chided by a customer when she could not catch her order.
'I said, 'Sorry, I'm from China. I can't understand you'. She was annoyed and said, 'How come you China people can't speak English?''
Ms Yu, 21, took these setbacks positively. She enrolled in a three-month English training course paid for by her company. She has even picked up a Singaporean accent.
'Now, some customers ask me if I'm a Filipina. I ask them, 'Do I look like one?'' she said with a laugh.
Service staff from China have been the target of complaints since rules were relaxed to allow them to work in the industry two years ago.
As of December last year, some 508,000 foreigners worked in the two-million-strong service sector.
It is not known how many are from China. But readers have written to The Straits Times Forum page, pointing out the China service staff's poor English and the misunderstandings, delays and frayed tempers that resulted.
So strong is the frustration that more than 10,000 people joined an online group called 'I am Singaporean and tired of service staff who can speak only Mandarin' on popular social networking site Facebook.
It was started last August by undergraduate Kavita Devi Thamilselvam, 23.
The sentiment, from people The Sunday Times spoke to, was that service staff must have a working grasp of English as it is the lingua franca of multiracial Singapore.
After all, non-Chinese here mostly do not speak Mandarin.
Ms Salfariza Nazarudin, 28, an administrator, said shopping is becoming a frustrating affair for her. Case in point: She was at a supermarket last year when she approached a China service staff member to help her look for whipped cream.
'He gave me a blank look, then mumbled in Mandarin... In the end, he asked a colleague to help me,' she said.
Ms Sophia Siew, 25, who is currently unemployed, had a similar encounter at a shoe shop.
She said: 'I have no issues about foreigners coming here to seek a better life, but it makes no sense that service staff can't speak English. This becomes a hindrance.'
The 15 China service staff whom The Sunday Times spoke to were aware of such a sentiment. They agreed that service staff here should know how to speak English, but asked to be cut some slack.
Most said they do try to use English at work even though their command of the language is shaky.
Chengdu native Jin Xiao, who works as a service coordinator at an air-conditioning firm, said in Mandarin: 'Knowing how to speak English is necessary here. Many people here can speak Mandarin but we need to speak English if we want to raise service standards.'
The 26-year-old is a finance graduate and studied in an English-language institute in China for two years. Still, she could not get used to the accent here initially.
'The way Singaporeans speak English...there's a Hokkien accent here. It's very different from the English pronunciations that we were taught,' Ms Jin, who has been here for five months, said in Mandarin. She is doing a telephone conversation course at the Institute of Technical Education's Bishan campus.
She still occasionally finds it hard to find the right English words to express herself.
'I then ask the customer if it's okay for me to use Mandarin. Most of the time, they are fine with that,' she said.
All the service staff interviewed said they had learnt basic English in school in China. Most have at least secondary-level education. A few have university degrees.
But all said their foundation is weak because they started to learn English, which in any case was not their core language, only from secondary school onwards.
Some also pointed out that they learnt American English back home, and said that the sentence structure of Singapore English is unfamiliar to them.
Sichuan native Belle Hwang, a 21-year-old sales promoter at a pharmacy, said in Mandarin: 'In China, the stress is mainly on written, not spoken, English. So even though we do well in tests, we cannot understand or speak English as well as Singaporeans.'
Fellow Sichuan native Vicky Liao, 23, a service coordinator, said China nationals are sometimes embarrassed to speak English because of their poor pronunciation. She said customers have complained that they are unable to understand her accent.
To improve their language proficiency, some said they would read books or watch English-language television shows with Chinese subtitles.
Others like Ms Hwang carry an electronic dictionary with them to translate words and phrases from English to Mandarin.
'I must keep learning because customers will ask questions not related to my work, and if I have to make them repeat themselves, they may get annoyed,' she said.
For some, however, work simply takes up too much of their time and learning English has to take a back seat.
Jiangsu native Bao Jiakui, 40, who works at a dessert kiosk in Bishan, said she does not even have enough time to rest after her 12-hour shift.
'I want to learn but who will give me the time to do that?' Sighing, she added: 'I should have put in more effort to learn English in school.'
But some felt the language issue is not as big as it has been made out to be.
Sales assistant Qiao Ying, 30, who mans a jewellery pushcart in Bugis Junction, said more than 90 per cent of her customers would converse with her in Mandarin.
She has to speak English only when serving non-Chinese customers or foreigners.
'Chinese Singaporeans will naturally speak to me in Mandarin. They can probably tell that I'm from China. If it's a Malay or Indian customer, I just let them choose the jewellery on their own.'
She added that Singapore is not a conducive environment for China nationals to learn English as 'many people speak Mandarin too'.
Indeed, outside of work, many China nationals can get by with using Mandarin in the heartland.
Most felt saddened by the brickbats they received from critical locals, and some said they sense that Singaporeans do not welcome them.
Ms Wang Cuixia, 30, who works in a snack kiosk in Bugis Junction, said she has met Singaporeans who would glare at her when she bumped into them on an MRT train. 'They will give me a look even though I've said sorry to them.'
Given time, the China nationals say they can lick the language problem.
Ms Qiao added: 'You can speak English and we can speak Mandarin. Rather than criticise us, why don't we learn from each other?'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.