I’ve reached the stage in my attempts to learn Cantonese where I have to go big or go home. Well, the good thing is I don’t ACTUALLY have to go home, enough people speak English here that I can live a pretty normal life. But I can’t tell you how galling it is not to properly speak the lingua franca of the place you live. Actually I can tell you, but only in English, because ngor geh ying-man ho gor ngor geh guondongua. That right there is the most important sentence anyone trying to master a new language can learn, by the way, or this variation of it: lei geh ying-man ho gor ngor geh guondongua (“your English is so much better than my Cantonese!”).
It’s now a year since I started proper lessons, and while I think my acquisition has been pretty speedy and my vocabulary is quite expansive relative to my time spent learning, my implementation of the correct tone continues to lack, shall we say, THE CORRECT F’ING CORRECTNESS. Nonetheless I persist. Because eventually, I have to get there. Or not, in which case I am doomed to be one of those expats who continually talks about their big penis instead of their big dog. Is that worse than being an expat who can’t speak any Chinese? I’m still on the
My massive do
Part of going big is putting aside embarrassment and just talking. This is hard when you know that although your penis is big, your tones aren’t right. Living in a country where you’re such a minority as to be referred to as “white ghost” (gweilo), your natural self-confidence can take a hit. Some days I don’t care about the stares; some days I wish someone would summon up the courage to sit next to me on the MTR.
Last year I saw a lady beating her dog outside Sai Kung McDonald’s (we’ve moved right away from the genital metaphor above by the way). I walked up to her and started yelling at her in English to stop. Everyone else was standing around slackjawed because public confrontation isn’t a thing here. To be honest it’s not usually a thing for me either but who can stand by and watch a defenceless poodle being beaten up for barking? At the end of my tirade she just stared at me mutely. I think she understood (my accompanying charade of karate-chopping a dog, with exaggerated shaking of head and discipline finger, were pretty on point) but I can’t be sure. And there were “face” issues involved, apart from possible linguistic ones. Anyway it was awkward. I was left standing there like a tool, even though she was clearly the bigger tool. That sort of stuff makes me not want to attempt Cantonese in public: I’m a big enough freak as it is. So I have to consciously push past that. No need for Australian mates to comment that I’m also a tool in Australia and maybe I shouldn’t speak there either. OI!
I can now communicate reasonably conversationally with non-English-speaking court staff, my neighbours, and other people I come into contact with each day. Just today I rang the local swimming pool and asked in Cantonese if they had found a pair of bathers that my helper’s 10-year-old daughter had misplaced last week. Little requests like this get such a more favourable response if asked in the “right” language! And my conversations with locals are getting longer and longer. As soon as I get out of my depth, I utter lei geh ying-man ho gor ngor geh guondongua (which sentence I have singularly managed to parrot tone-perfect). This shifts the conversation back into my mothertongue through the use of a subtle compliment, while preserving my self-esteem and not creating a bad memory to disincentivise future tries.
The other week in class we learned the word for “twins”. Imagine my excitement when I spied a harried mother of toddler twins walking through the shopping centre at Hang Hau! I chased her over two floors, knocking down old ladies in the pursuit, before finally managing to grab her pram and shout “Wahhh you have twins, so cute la! One of each gender?” (even though I could clearly see they were both boys – I just wanted a chance to use all my new terms.) For her, I’m sure our “conversation” was a disturbing inconvenience to her already difficult day; for me, it was a valuable cultural exchange. And that has to be the point: assimilation at the expense of dignity and respect for the local people. Or something.
(As this appears to be my quarterly progress update, I might as well recap my goals. Originally I hoped to attain conversationality, which then grew to fluency, which in turn became an overwhelming desire to be a wordsmith; now I have decided I want to become the world’s first Cantonese-English stenographer. DREAM BIG! My reputation in Hang Hau and surrounds has already plummeted irretrievably, why the hell not la!)