Go big or go home.

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 spoonfence.

My massive dong.

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.Β  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!)

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44 Comments Add yours

  1. Emily says:

    Oh, this is great! Having spent the last five years in a country where I don’t really speak the language, I can totally relate. I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I sound like a two-year-old most of the time. But I admire your big dreams!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hi Emily! Which country are you in? I just scrolled back through your blog, pausing to sigh/smile/ponder your wordsmithery FREQUENTLY. Girl you can WRITE! But I can’t work out where you’re from πŸ™‚

      1. Emily says:

        Haha! Thanks!

        I’m from the USA, but we’ve been living in Japan for the past few years and before that we lived in Italy for awhile. I picked up Italian more easily (because the alphabet was familiar) but I’m totally lost in Japanese. The words just seem to melt out of my mind the minute I hear them. I think that’s why I so admire your persistence!

  2. Kerstin says:

    Learning Cantonese – wow. That is one tough language. I have been lucky enough to start learning English at a young age, but my husband did not start learning until we moved to Canada four years ago. It definitely makes it tough – the older, the tougher. My kids did not speak any English when we moved to Canada either, but they picked it up in no time.
    Looks like you’re persistent – hang in there and good luck!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      It’s almost offensive how quickly my kids are picking up both Mandarin (through school) and Tagalog (through our helper). And even Cantonese to an extent. Certainly wish I’d started as a kid – with the benefit of hindsight!

  3. TriGirl says:

    Tonal languages are so tough if you don’t grow up speaking one! (I do not speak one, but I know that they are used to mark things like grammar and meaning, as you stated). Good job and hang in there!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks TriGirl. Man, it’s much tougher than I imagined to be honest! NINE tones, imagine that – and they mostly sound the same to me πŸ˜‰ Worst of all is all the words are one syllable only. That really increases the difficulty. Also the satisfaction as I start to really get better at it though πŸ™‚ Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. Vanessa says:

    Oh you have my sympathies. Due to a sudden illness I have been trying to cover for my Quebec salesman for the past month. I do not speak French. Or barely – I can say bonjour, or salut. Much more than that and I am lost. I think I will practice that phrase “your English is much better than my French”. Google translate has been my best friend. Thankfully, most business can be looked after via email.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I hope you also chucked in a few “sacre bleu”s. Or whatev πŸ˜‰
      Yes, that “your XX is better than my XX” is a seamless transition for any awkward misunderstood conversation! And I also love Google Translate. Passionately.

  5. mondayswithmac says:

    What a great post! I love your wit.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      mondayswithmac, you mysteriously monikered missy, you are too kind! (i was tossing up between maven and mistress there, you know that right…)

  6. Well you have it rough, living in a countrty with a notoriously difficult language and people reticent to talk to white ghosts… um… foreigners, AND in which you can get by in your mother tongue. I’m just impressed you can use the phone an accost harried moms!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      You’re right, so rough, where the only imperative to really speak it is my own ego and impatience πŸ˜‰ Speaking of phones, how good is it when a telemarketer rings up: “Gong yingman! Gong yingman ah!” (“Speak English!”) Gets rid of them in a flash. Same with those people at train stations trying to get you to sign petitions.
      How’s your Swahili? I’m embarrassed if it’s not Swahili. Jambo?

  7. You are too funny! It’s hard enough to learn a language, let alone one with such difficult nuances! Good for you for getting out there (and chasing the locals to practice!)

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Michelle…I’ll hear your cheers in my ears next time I’m bowling over the oldies around town…

  8. The dog and penis jokes nearly got the best of me. The hubby is probably wondering why I kept snickering as I read your post. Hilarious. Especially when you segued to the lady beating the dog…which wasn’t so hilarious, but in the context of your joke, kind of was. Good for you for standing up for the poor poodle, by the way!

    PS – You have my undying respect for even attempting a language as difficult (as I imagine) Cantonese is!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Again with the penises. Why can’t I stop writing about them??
      If you heard me butchering Cantonese currently, I’d have your undying ridicule, I’m sure…but I plan to get very elegant at some point and put up a vlog. Ooh aah, pressure!

  9. Mayor Gia says:

    That must be so hard! Good for you for standing up for that poor little poodle.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      The hardest πŸ™‚ Cheers!

  10. Happy to get my English words correct, sometimes even with the correct tone. Unlikely to succeed similarly in another language.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Scott, your surmise probably applies to most Westerners attempting this foolish endeavour and we’d be wise to listen to you πŸ˜‰

  11. raisingivy says:

    Love it, especially you racing over to bombard that poor mother of twins with your hard-earned vocabulary. I’m trying to learn Russian and it’s no cakewalk, either; plus I’m learning it with my ten-year-old, which constantly makes me aware of how fast my ol’ brain is crumbling. Great post!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      RUSSIAN! How fascinating. That’s on my list. Another secret dream: learn at least three UN languages so I can work there one day (Russian, Chinese, Spanish, English, French, Russian).
      And I well understand your pain about learning with your kid/s. My 5-year-old canes me at Chinese acquisition without even trying. The 3-year-old is not far behind. Sad 😦

  12. Delilah says:

    Wow, that’s a tough language to learn. My husband is Filipino and I learned the basics of Tegalog years ago just so I’d know what my mother in law was saying about me behind my back. Haha!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Oh yeah? How interesting! Sometimes I wish my husband was a Hongkonger so I could learn more quickly. But not really because I love him heaps more than I love learning Cantonese πŸ˜‰ Interesting about Tagalog, we have a Fils. helper so my kids are also learning that! I have a few words (not sure if it’s Tagalog or my helper’s particular dialect). Skirt – “puldar”; naughty – “passaway”; armpit (my favourite) – “killy killy”!! Not sure if that’ll help with the mother-in-law πŸ˜‰

  13. lei geh guangdong wah dou gei ho

    Great post though. Greetings from Malaysia!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Haha, Jamie, no way!! Thank you! Are you a HKer/Guangdonger originally? Or is Canto spoken heaps in Malaysia and I’m just not aware?

  14. I give you a lot of credit just for trying. It sounds like you are doing a great job. Keep it up.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Dude, cheers. I’m trying! Appreciate the encouragement.

  15. Hahahaha!! You’re hilarious.

    I rarely speak my mother tongue these days (Cantonese!) as I have no one to converse with. Let’s talk, Jade, let’s talk.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Alison, I’m so excited! To think I never realised Malays spoke Canto until this post! Yes, let’s talk, ho ah ho ah ho ah!
      Are you sure you’re not having twins, by the way?? You could be the next person I accost with my bumbling exhortations of “Ho dak yi!” COME ON BABY!

      1. Well, technically I’m Malaysian Chinese πŸ™‚ You can still say “Ho dak yi” to my singular child (and god no, no twins)!

  16. Dream Big – I love that. I use it all the time myself. Good for you in your persistence. I lived in Costa Rica for 3 years and traveled there for many years before that. The country is host to a huge ex-pat community. Surprisingly very few of the ex-pats deem it necessary to learn Spanish – a much easier language to learn than Cantonese. I studied diligently and sounded like a 2 yr old in the process. But it was worth the effort. Nice post. I enjoyed it.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Wow, really? Most expats here don’t bother. I understand in a way, it’s a FIENDISH language. But also – I don’t understand. We’re living in their country! Thanks for your lovely comment πŸ™‚

  17. So what is it you do in the court system over there? This was too funny. At least you are TRYING to learn their language. That bothers me when people are citizens of the U.S. and can’t even speak the language. Ha! Good for you! And best of luck with your dreaming. πŸ˜‰

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I’m a court reporter – the lady who sits next to the judge with the funny little machine writing down what everyone says. Luckily the court I work in – the High Court – still conducts its proceedings in English.
      I understand it’s bothersome when people are citizens of one country and don’t speak the language. It bothered me at home in Australia too. But I have a different attitude since coming here. The very people who complain about this “problem” in their home countries (UK, US and Australia mainly), when they live here, they don’t bother to socialise with locals, would never live in “local” areas, and don’t learn the language – exactly what they complain about at home! It’s interesting to get that perspective.
      Thanks for your lovely comment πŸ™‚

      1. I know exactly what a court reporter is! I am an assistant clerk. πŸ™‚ That is so cool! How did you end up working over there? That’s awesome. And yes, I am certain that gave you a WHOLE new perspective of things!

  18. I’ve experienced the isolation of second/third language issues. People really do treat you like a dolt when you speak with a six-year-old’s vocabulary. I’m so impressed that you’re learning it with all else that you have juggling!

    Keep it up!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      It varies here from people completely ignoring me if I try to speak in Cantonese, to over-complimenting me to a ridiculously effusive and unrealistic degree. Ah well. It might take years but I reckon I’ll get there! Thanks for the lovely encouragement πŸ™‚

  19. I like a girl with big goals. GO FOR IT! Once you have taken your dignity out of the mix, things may not be easier, but you’ll care less. Good luck and love your sense of humor and ease of self. You will certainly succeed with a plucky attitude like yours! Erin

    1. jadeluxe says:

      BIG, UNREALISTIC GOALS! I get there in the end πŸ˜‰ And yes, everything is easier without dignity, absolutely!! Thanks Erin x

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