The scene outside my Cantonese lesson tonight:
No, it’s not an allusion to what went on in the lesson, particularly regarding any form of locking horns with my teacher, or bumping heads with my classmate, or not knowing how to push through a big hairy metaphorical impasse. Or anything to do with bullshit. It’s just two local bulls engaging in a bit of a donnybrook – a pretty standard evening in Sha Kok Mei and the surrounding villages.
My burning desire to attain Cantonese fluency is actually progressing nothing at all like these two lumbering idiots, who no doubt lurched slowly at each other for about four hours before eventually taking a big joint steaming piss, sitting down on the concrete and falling asleep, blocking the village carpark for the rest of the night. Certainly I am lurching around with a burgeoning pile of flashcards as long as my arm, a couple of index books, heaps of audio files, and a blooming confidence to speak Canto on the street – but I’m not doing a big steaming piss in public carparks before doing so, nor am I falling asleep on public roads to the chagrin of car-driving locals.
Now I guess the bull metaphor has been pushed to its absolute limit, and possibly a shade beyond. I think it was the steaming piss thing, but it’s hard to be sure.
Honestly, I am surprised and thrilled by how my Cantonese is going. My plan (as outlined here) to memorise stacks of new vocab every day hasn’t been strictly followed, due to not having time to compile the resources. But I have consolidated the distinctly uninstinctive sentence structure like a mofo, and that’s given me heaps of confidence to tackle more real-life speaking. This is not a language where you can kind of just have a shot at haltingly reading something out of a guide book. For a start, there’s the tones. Also, I can’t read the characters. It’s not like learning a language with the Latin alphabet (or any other constituent alphabet), where once you’ve learned some basic principles you can have a crack at nearly anything you see. This is a constant battle through symbols, sounds that aren’t natural, and thinking of endless mnemonic devices for very similar one-syllable words. It’s confronting and it sometimes literally hurts my brain. I’m finding it very easy to lose confidence if I think of it in those terms. So instead, I’ve been working on making sure when I do speak up, it’s in a proper sentence instead of a random string of words reaching tenuously for sense. And if I can get that right, then it stands to reason I’ll be able to just gradually slot in extra vocab as I pick it up. This will hopefully make me a more natural speaker as my vocabulary expands.
For a few months recently I experienced frustration at turning up to my lesson each week to find we were going to spend another hour rearranging word cards into the correct sentence order, and playing call and response. I wanted to move on to the next lesson, the next lesson, the next lesson. I now fully appreciate the wisdom of my teacher in doing it this way, and I wish I could express to her how exhilarating it is to be able to construct sentences on my own instead of rote-repeating phrases from a worksheet. This feels like real acquisition and I feel like I am genuinely getting somewhere with this thing.
When we were in Australia recently, I had cause to be in the Catholic heartland of Bonwick Street, Fawkner, in a packed fish-and-chip shop on a Friday night. I saw two signs on the wall that I pinged for Hong Kong styles, and I thought the proprietors looked very Hongkonger, but I didn’t have the confidence to say anything in Canto – until one of the guys dropped his tongs into the deepfryer and let out a muted “Aiyaaaah!”. With their nationality irrefutably confirmed, I made myself go up to the counter and ask if they spoke Cantonese; where they were from in Hong Kong, and where I live; and that I would like…and then I was fucked, because to be honest I haven’t learned the words for “grilled flake”, “potato cake”, “chips” OR “and heaps of vinegar” yet. But I was able to use mostly proper sentences, punctuated with pointing, and blushing as the two older Hongkongers behind the counter opened up a scattershot conversation and the crowds of hungry Aussies getting their Friday night barramundi on stared at me with the sort of slack-jawed incredulity I usually face here, frankly.
It was a bloody golden moment in my short journey to Canto fluency, I tell you what, and the highlight of my trip.
Like I said, I haven’t been vocab-building nearly as much as I hoped to, but I also think my initial plan was unrealistic, factoring in, you know, my love and kids and work, sleeping, reading books, etc. So I’ve been doing a more sensible amount. I have a tower of flashcards that I go through morning and night, putting the ones I know automatically in one pile (and eventually the bin), and the other ones in the hesitation pile which diminishes each time (though frustratingly never disappears).
There’s a great site, Hacking Chinese, which I’ve been reading like a fiend. The guy who wrote it has put such a phenomenal amount of work into it, pulling together such varied information in such an absorbing manner that I actually resent him a little bit for monopolising my flashcard time. The article he wrote last week about being funny/smart in Chinese particularly resonated. I can’t remember the circumstance now but some situation arose recently where I was able to respond appropriately in Cantonese. I have a native teacher and she is teaching me “street Canto” (I know it’s considered a “street” dialect anyway) so I know quite a few phrases that don’t make sense linguistically or even sensically, but are socially contextual. When I use one, it prompts the other person to sprout off into an animated conversation. This makes me sad. The fact is that any “cleverness” I have in Cantonese is still memorised. It will be a long time – years? if ever? – before I can play on words in a language that’s not my mothertongue. I know that living here I do have a chance, at least, to eventually understand and recognise the cultural context enough to be in a position to speak with locals somewhat naturally. But will I ever have enough understanding to mess around with their words? Will I ever be able to make jokes beyond the level of an 8-year-old, or be engaging in conversation? Will I always come off as a complete bozo while attempting to do so?
I know I overreach myself! First I just wanted conversationality, then fluency, and now I want to be a wordsmith. In Cantonese.
I continue to watch gweilos speaking Cantonese on YouTube while mired in raging jealousy.
I still believe I can do this thing.