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African TikToker who speaks Mandarin is a Singaporean at heart

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Videos of Alvin Philemon code-switching between Singlish, Mandarin and an African accent have Singaporeans wondering more about him.

Conversing in Singlish comes instinctively to Singaporeans. It's an extension of our identity; we exchange 'lah's' and 'leh's' naturally in our everyday conversations, not batting an eye over it.

But what happens when an African speaks fluent Singlish? They become Internet famous.

I assume that's how many of us first got to know about Alvin Philemon, a 21-year-old African whose TikTok video of himself effortlessly code-switching between Singlish, Mandarin and an exaggerated African accent went viral online. 

Alvin reposted the video on Twitter, where it amassed almost half a million views and 23,000 retweets to date.

Since his comical skits blew up on social media, Alvin, also known as alvin.phil on TikTok, has left many Chinese Singaporeans floored by his proficiency in Mandarin.

Amidst the slew of praises he has received for his articulate pronunciation, many were also curious to know more about him.

Youth.SG interviewed Alvin in his home in Hougang last week to find out more about his life as an African in Singapore – and the story behind his TikTok videos.

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Alvin (second from right) and his sisters have grown closer to each other after they started making TikTok videos together.
PHOTO CREDIT: ALVIN PHILEMON

The youngest of three siblings, Alvin was born and raised in Singapore after his parents migrated 26 years ago from Tanzania.

The Singapore permanent resident attended both primary and secondary school here with his two older sisters. This meant taking up a second language, which started Alvin's 10-year journey of learning Mandarin. 

Apart from his sisters, Alvin was the only African student in his school. These circumstances left him with some entertaining stories – and very confused educators.

''Teachers would always think I was sitting in the wrong mother tongue class. They'd ask me, 'Are you exempted?' when they saw me with the Chinese students.

''There were even times where I walked into the Chinese examination room and was told, 'Sorry, the Tamil students aren't here' and I'm like, 'I'm taking Chinese!'

''It's amusing to see people shocked each time,'' he recalled.

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Alvin (back row, second from right) opted for the Chinese Language 'B' Syllabus (CLB) in secondary school as the normal syllabus was too advanced for him.
PHOTO CREDIT: ALVIN PHILEMON

Alvin also has to deal with ridiculous questions Singaporeans ask about Africa. For example, most are unaware that Africa is a continent, not a country.

''When I tell them I'm African, they ask me if I live in a mud hut or if I see animals outside my house in Tanzania.

''They think that Africa is in the stone age, but we have the Internet and WiFi!'' he quipped.

I expected Alvin to be a tad bit exasperated at such assumptions, especially since he admitted to making a ''script of standard responses'' for the usual questions he gets.

But Alvin surprised me with his optimistic response.

''I don't feel tired of answering their questions. I think it's a good thing that they want to know more about me since there aren't many Africans in Singapore,'' he said.

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Alvin's parents are proud that he can speak Mandarin and mention it to almost every single cab driver they meet.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/EDWIN CHAN

In fact, educating others about Africa and his day-to-day experiences as an African in Singapore were Alvin's main motivation for his TikTok content.

''Africans in Singapore are rare enough. Finding out about their experiences here is difficult unless you know them personally. Making TikTok videos is my way of educating people,'' he shared.

Ironically, Alvin's success at assimilating into local culture has resulted in one of his biggest challenges: an identity crisis.

''Sometimes I feel so much part of Singapore. I kind of forget I'm actually African. It's so inclusive in that way. I have to remember in some situations that even though I'm speaking Mandarin, I'm not a Chinese person,'' he admits.

The 21-year-old is currently serving his national service in the Singapore army, and finds it a 'fun' experience because of his platoon mates.

''I never felt any different from them. They included me in everything,'' he said.

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His fellow recruits often referenced the movie Black Panther during his Basic Military Training (BMT), and kept saying, ''Wakanda Forever!''
PHOTO CREDIT: ALVIN PHILEMON 

I was also surprised to discover that he's 'a 100 per cent' more proficient in Mandarin than his native tongue, Swahili. This compromises a big part of his African identity, as he struggles to communicate with his relatives back in Tanzania.

But this isn't a large concern for Alvin or his parents, who make an effort to inject as many African influences into their daily lives as possible, from home decorations to traditional costumes.

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''There are random African stuff lying around in our home to remind me [of my identity],'' he said.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/ALIYAH KHAN

The rising TikTok star has certainly made an impact with his culture-centric and humorous content. Sometimes, he even gets noticed on the streets.

''I'd be on my way home and I'd get comments on my TikTok by people saying they've seen me on the bus or MRT.

''That's when I realise people actually recognise me when I'm out in public. It doesn't register when I see 1,000 or 2,000 likes online,'' he said.

Despite the sudden surge of people taking an interest in him and their amusement at his incredible Singlish, Alvin tells me that he's always been ''a Singaporean at heart''. He even has plans to attain Singapore citizenship and settle down here in the future.

His reason for this was simple.

''The best part about Singapore is how inclusive it is. I've never felt out of place.'' 

BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/ALIYAH KHAN

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