Photo: James Ho
I understand Cantonese nearly fluently. I grew up hearing my parents and family speak Cantonese, and would respond in Chinese mixed with English — “Chinglish.” Cantonese is the language of my childhood, the language of my first memories. It is the “mother tongue” that still strikes at something deep within my bones.
Over time, as I grew up and became more and more staunchly American, my speaking Cantonese faded nearly entirely away. My parents would speak to me in Cantonese, and I would respond in English.
While I can now hear and understand the tones, words, structure, even some slang of Cantonese almost as well as I understand English, finding the words and construction in my own head and forcing them out of my mouth is another matter altogether.
The sweet, long-suffering security guard in my building has become my unwitting Cantonese practicing partner. Exceptionally kind and patient, Mr. Yue speaks zero English and is therefore subject to all my attempts at making small talk. Half the time, a look of at best confusion, at worst HORROR, crosses his face when I attempt to ask him what he did for the long holiday or tell him about what I did that day.
Mr. Yue will ask me something like, “Did you visit the restaurant across the street? It’s so good! It’s my favorite!”
I’ll smile real big, fully aware that “my American is showing,” and respond a little too enthusiastically.
“Yes!! IT’S SO GOOD. Tastes REALLY GOOD. I LIKE IT!! You are smart…EATING! Where else do you eat when you are hungry/sick to your stomach?” (I recently realized I was confusing/mispronouncing “hungry” and “sick to your stomach” — poor, sweet Mr. Yue)
I’ll admit it: my Cantonese is BAD.
If a native Cantonese speaker asks me a question, one of two things will happen:
1. I will know exactly how I’m supposed to respond in a sort of instinctual way, but I cannot quite pull all the words out of my memory. I’ll be able to pull a noun, a verb, maybe an appropriate modifier, but the proper order and intonation just won’t solidify. I end up offering an answer that contains the some of the right words, but probably in the wrong order, and most likely a weird verb choice.
2. I will know what to say, in the right order, with the correct verb/subject agreement, but my Cantonese accent will be so wonky (Cantonese is a language based in tones — the wrong tone can mean the difference between asking for a “size large” or a “large horse”) that the Cantonese speaker I’m speaking to will not understand me.
Okay, I’ll admit, sometimes my Cantonese speaking powers come through for me, but it requires much more concentration and control of my mouth and ear than I’d ever imagined necessary.
I find myself in the surprising situation of living in a country where the language and culture are familiar, but instead of feeling at ease I feel immense pressure to JUST GET IT RIGHT. I am experiencing a timidity and self consciousness in Hong Kong that I have never felt before — abroad or in the US. Daily life is an exercise in, “What Will Freak Louise Out Today?”
I suppose my problem is that I know better in Hong Kong — I can’t not know better.
I know when a street vendor selling me something fried on a stick is muttering about my crappy Cantonese under her breath. I know when the man at the home goods store is talking about me to his co-worker — how I’m one of “those” Chinese Americans who can’t speak Cantonese. I know when I’m at my favorite vegetarian dim sum shop and I can’t make my mouth do what I want it to do and I accidentally order “death” instead of four of something.
I almost always know the error in a situation, but I a good portion of the time I’m unable to fix it. This unnerves me in a way I was unprepared for.
I naively thought that blowing the dust off of my Cantonese would be easier. I find myself becoming impatient and easily frustrated with myself. I berate myself with thoughts of, “I should know better! Why can’t I remember faster and better?!” At times I’ve found myself paralyzed with uncertainty to a point where instead of taking a stab at a word or a phrase, I just avoid the situation entirely.
There’s a little diner in my neighborhood that I love. But because of a single humiliating incident when, in a fit of nerves, all my Cantonese flew up out of my head when pressured to HURRY UP AND ORDER, I have not returned.
THIS WON’T DO.
And while I’m lucky that nearly all of Hong Kong speaks somewhere between passable and fluent English, a big part of coming here was to improve my Cantonese. I’ve always lived in this gray area of being almost-bilingual-but-not-quite, and I hoped that this would be my chance to complete my linguistic puzzle.
I just didn’t expect to be my own greatest obstacle.
But if the past couple years of moving around the world to new countries and new cultures has taught me anything about myself, it’s that while I hate being afraid, I am drawn to what frightens me.
Hong Kong is no exception.
I’ll be honest, I don’t have a neat, “inspirational” way to wrap this up. I want to say that I’ve found a way to overcome my nerves and fears and frustrations, but that would be a lie. Even as I type this, my stomach is a little twisted up for the task of talking to my Cantonese-speaking building manager later tonight about my broken toilet.
But I will say that by forcing myself out the door into the everyday, making myself do the scary things that add up to a living a LIFE in this big, loud, pushy city, my fears are slowly becoming my engine as opposed to my obstacle.
Confronting how little I remember of Cantonese may be the most frightening thing I’ve had to do in a long time. However, if taking this journey to rediscover a long-lost piece of myself must be fraught with fear and anxiety, I embrace it. I know my “mother tongue” is still lurking within the dusty corners of my mind, I just have to have the guts to find it.