The Beat of a Different Drum by Simon Tong
In The Beat of a Different Drum by Simon Tong we have the theme of language, frustration, struggle, connection and escape. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed male narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Tong may be exploring the theme of language. The narrator’s first language is Cantonese and he excels in school while he is taught through Cantonese. However as soon as he is moved to a Christian Brother school in Hong Kong his grades begin to suffer because he is being taught through English. Similarly when the narrator moves to Australia he finds it difficult to understand others because of the language barrier. So innocent is the narrator when it comes to English as a language that he mixes up words. Though his friend Stewart is able to decipher what the narrator’s intentions are. However the narrator at times can be frustrated, if not angry, because of the difference between English and Cantonese.
So frustrated is the narrator that he learns whole conversations and how a conversation might go in order to fit in. Something which must be exhausting for him. If anything the narrator has to relearn the English that he knows in order to adapt to life in Australia. His parents are of little help to him as they do not appear to speak English at all. In reality the narrator is a part of a generation of Chinese people who migrated from Hong Kong to Australia in the 1980s who did not speak English. What is also interesting about the story is the fact that though the narrator struggles with English he does not give up and wants to make a connection with others. Even if he does tend to escape into books when things might get too difficult. In books life is not as painful.
There may be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The Christian Brother school in Hong Kong could represent the difficulties that the narrator is to encounter with the English language. It is after all while he is in Hong Kong speaking English that he first incurs difficulty. If anything the school could also act as foreshadowing to the difficulties that the narrator will incur when he moves to Australia. Stewart though only briefly mentioned is an important character as he acts not only as a teacher for the narrator when it comes to English but he serves to represent a new dawning for the narrator. A sign that the narrator is able to make friends with others and that he is doing better than he thinks he might be doing. The TV shows on the TV that the narrator uses to learn English may also have some symbolic importance. Tong may be using the shows to highlight the fact that the narrator has a strong desire to fit in or connect with his peers and will go to any length.
The end of the story is interesting as the narrator seems to accept that English is not as difficult as he first thought it was. Ironically by falling asleep in the shopping Mall the narrator begins to understand English and its tempo better. Where once the narrator had felt culturally and racially different to others he has adapted to the situation and difficulties he has encountered and he has adapted well. No longer does the reader feel that the whole experience for the narrator is as painful as he had once felt it to be. He has made friends with others. Though they look different to the narrator they are in reality very much like him. He is a young person who is trying to fit in with his peers. Something that everyone can identify with.