“Why do you now speak Cantonese with a lousy accent?” my grandmother looked at me with disgust.
“Me?” I goggled, “Really?”
She turned her head away, and rudely pushed the air out through her nostrils to make an angry noise.
“Lousy accent,” she repeated, put her hands behind her back, and tottered away.
“Is she going to blame my mom?” I worried.
Many elderly people that I know share a natural instinct of repelling foreigners (from other cities), akin to territorial behaviors in animals. I grew up in a less developed village on the edge of Guangzhou. In my poorly-educated village, “territorial human beings” proliferated. To say anything related to foreigners, they added “lousy,” which in Cantonese itself is an extremely crude word to mean “inferior.” My mother, a strong-minded “lousy” woman, married to my father in this village. There wasn’t a day I spent with my paternal family that I didn’t perceive disrespect or even insult towards my mother.
“That stupid ‘lousy’ woman knows nothing about etiquette.” They enjoyed saying sentences like this but never seemed to realize the irony in them.
As a result, over my childhood, Cantonese, my native language, fused with territorial hatred and countryside rudeness. Later, concepts about respect and esteem became clear to me. Shame and disgust gradually spread through all those childhood memory montages with Cantonese voice-overs in my mind. I became less and less willing to speak Cantonese. Then, that was why my perfect Cantonese withered and my “lousy accent” sprouted, which was finally noticed by my grandmother.
Watching my grandmother walking away, it suddenly came to me that, other than my grandmother’s skeptical conjecture of my mom prohibiting me to speak Cantonese at home, I had one more horrible event to worry about: family reunions. If my grandmother could sense my “lousy accent,” all my aunts and uncles and cousins and some relatives I don’t even know from my paternal family were going to sense it. And those territorial animals would turn the dining room into a little interrogation cell where over one hundred hungry eyes would goggle at me and my mother, judging every detail of my pronunciation, accusing me for forgetting my roots and my mother for “lousy” parenting, and finally tearing us into little pieces with their bloody mouths.
Nervousness accumulated, and turned into anger. Anger burned, and left tiredness.
By the time we were having our reunion meal, all I could show was a blank face and silence. Silence was such as a lovely language. No one sensed any lousy accent from my silence. But they had to comment on something in their perfect Cantonese.
“Such a dull kid.”
“I know, right? Nerd.”
“If study makes your kids like him, it’s hard to say what’s the best for kids nowadays.”
I remained silent. My dear ancestors should be pleased to have such a traditional well-behaved adolescent boy among their adorable descendants.
Those annoying judgmental voices, along with the mother-shaming childhood experience and all the outrageous impolite phrases of caustic belittlement or sexual intercourse, successfully rendered Cantonese the worst language in my mind. Family reunion of every year seemed to me was no more civilized than a bonfire party in a cannibal tribe. The more I grew, the less I was able to tolerate the rudeness and prejudice in the Cantonese my relatives speak. At some point, I began to completely leave my Cantonese tongue to rot in my mouth. I ceased to speak it anywhere, not even with my father, who had a huge trouble understanding Mandarin. The tongue was then so rotted. Sometimes it felt like easier to say a complete sentence in English than in Cantonese, but I didn’t care.
I didn’t care until my grandmother, the one who angrily tottered away, gave me a reason to care. My grandmother lived next door. I spent half of my childhood with her because my parents had to work. She was the grumpiest and the most “territorial” person I’d ever seen. After she pointed out my “lousy” accent, we barely conversed.
One Friday after school, my mom took me to the hospital.
“Your grandmother. Heart attack.”
Thirty minutes later, I saw her. The grumpiest person I knew lying weakly in a hospital bed with tubes and wires all over her. Her asymmetrical eyes were peacefully open. At that moment, I could not see a rude, irritable, inappeasable, prejudiced person, but a weak old lady with whom I grew up.
She saw me.
“Have you eaten?” she asked.
“Dinner. Have you eaten? There is soup your uncle brought here. A growing adolescent shouldn’t miss dinner.”
Going back home in the car, my mom said, “She is so used to taking care of you.”
“She is, even when she is lying on a hospital bed. She has always been.” I stared out of the car window, thinking about all the years living with my grandmother as a little kid.
“I have to say… She is eighty-one years old now. I think you might want to spend more time with her, or there will only be regret once she…”
“Yeah. I know,” I cut her off.
After my grandmother left the hospital, we began to have morning tea together every weekend. She was still annoyed by my accent. I tried to correct the accent, but soon I found another problem. I’d stopped speaking the language for too long. My seven-year-old Cantonese vocabulary could not support my grown mind. My ideas overloaded my rotted tongue; it greatly affected my fluency.
My grandmother, again, sensed it. Every time I stopped to look up to the ceiling thinking of a right phrase, she sighed and said, “You’ve become a ‘lousy’ man.” Fortunately, soon she got used to it, or got bored repeating how “lousy” I was.
I spoke Cantonese with my parents more often, and conversations between me and my grandma became less and less awkward. My Cantonese proficiency gradually revived. While talking with my grandma, I was also reminded that not only by her side was the place I grew up, but in the arms of the whole Cantonese culture, a culture so colorful with dishes and flowers and spirit of diligence, a culture I had been so narrow to only focus on its defects I believed I saw.
I started trying to persuade myself that all the prejudice and rudeness I deeply loathed were not necessarily part of the included qualities of the innocent language itself. Indeed, Cantonese, as a language shared by millions of both educated and uneducated people, does not have any innate barbaric quality I ought to despise. That was what my logic constantly told myself; however, the conditioned detestation could not just easily be turned off as if it was a switch in my brain.
Another family reunion came. Again, judgments and rudeness prevailed.
They dug at each other as usual; they gossiped about an absent victim as usual; they used obscene Cantonese words as usual.
I, however, unusually, laughed. I laughed at their jokes like I was one of them.
At that point, I abandoned all the intentions to judge anybody’s language; I let myself flow on the surface on their conversation. That was the point when I could finally gain some precious superficial happiness instead of endless cynical pain; that was also the exact same point when I was close enough to see, beyond the surface of those conversations, beyond the dogma I held to criticize, a net, a net connects all the feelings and moments of our lives together, a net spreads through our family as well as millions of other families and forms the base of the whole culture. The net is Cantonese.
The net is so grand. Personal detestation only seems to be tiny and childish.
How can I say Cantonese is the worst languge after all?
P.S. Guangzhou is a modern megacity behemoth in southern China. Cantonese is the language spoken by some people in Guangdong province (of which Guangzhou is the capital) and in some other adjacent cities like Hong Kong.