Sitting in the shade of a tree, I was peering at a group of boys and girls a few meters away talking and playing games happily. Feeling my blazing gaze, one of the girls turned her head towards me. I instantly turned my eyes to the book lying on my knee and frowned, pretending to be absorbed in reading and that it was the only thing that mattered in the world.
“Please don’t look at me…Please don’t talk to me!” I was struggling and screaming to myself. I grasped the wavering book page while staring hard at the book, hoping that it could save me from the embarrassment.
“H~ey! I’m Xiaotong!” that girl came up to me and said in Cantonese, “What are you reading?”
I closed the book and showed her the cover.
“Cool! You are in our camp right? Why don’ t you play with us? It’s much more fun than reading!” she smiled as amicably and innocently as an angel, despite the fact that there was not a halo shining above her head.
Nervous and hesitant, I told her in Mandarin that I could not speak Cantonese well.
“It’s fine! I speak Mandarin too! If you have trouble with Cantonese, I can teach you!” she changed from speaking Cantonese to Mandarin, taking me into the circle surrounded by
all those native Cantonese boys and girls. They welcomed me and we played games together.
Although it was kind for her to help me, I spoke no more than three sentences in Cantonese with my peers during the following four days because every time before I spoke, I had to think about the sentence over and over in my head so that it would be pronounced perfectly without any mistakes. At that time, Xiaotong was like a straw that saved me from the impetuous rush of water. All I did was to stick with her all the time so that I did not need to speak Cantonese and lose my face.
My thoughts were pulled back to reality after hearing something weird and out of place.
“Hei(Hai), o dai(dei)…gein(geing) chang(sherng)… hul(heu) mei guo(go),” said my dad in his fitful, awkward Cantonese with a Mandarin accent, which was almost as broken and awful as the noise made when one was cutting a bedpost with a saw.
I frowned at my dad. Listening to any more of his embarrassing Cantonese would just torture my poor ears, so I covered them with both hands. He blinked his eyes and made a funny face at me, which was a trick he always did when he tried to ease his embarrassment.
The man and woman sitting at the other side of the table smiled and nodded their heads, agreeing with my dad. “Xiu muei muei, lei zhong hmu zhong yi mei go a?” they turned to me and asked in standard, melodious Cantonese that gave me a sense of relief.
“Ke neng ba,” I replied in Mandarin, finding my dad looking at me in a confused expression.
On our way home, the radio was playing Cantonese pop songs. Listening to that standard Cantonese, I asked, “Dad, why do you insist on speaking Cantonese every time you have meals with people from Hong Kong when you are not good at it?”
“Well, honey, the thing is, language is only a tool for people to communicate. Although my Cantonese is bad, they can understand me, right?” he shortly turned his head back to me, looking as if he was not joking. “Even I have the courage to speak in Cantonese, so why don’t you try when you speak so much better than me?”
I fell into silence. Indeed, I could speak Cantonese much better than my dad could. I could also speak English better than my dad. In fact, I used to be a native Cantonese, English and French speaker when I was in Montreal, Canada. After I came back to China when I was seven, however, I lost the environment of speaking French and Cantonese because of the prevalence of speaking Mandarin. Day after day, without practicing using these languages, I became less familiar with them and could no longer speak them as fluently and standardly as native speakers. Therefore, what I did was simply to refuse speaking these languages to avoid putting myself in awkward situations or being laughed at.
Two years later, however, I finally started to understand and fully appreciate what my dad said at that time through my experience in an art design camp. It was a hot afternoon. All of us in the camp were lying on the grass and chatting casually.
“What nice weather! How about playing tennis, Ally?” Emma turned to me and asked.
“But I’ve never play(ed) tennis before.”
“Come on! It’s fun! You should try it!” she stood up and got me a tennis racket.
“Wow, this… is much shorter than (that of) the badminton,” I pointed at the racket handle, feeling excited while embarrassed for missing my first serve and not knowing how to say those terms in English at that time.
“Yeah! It might take you some time to get used to the length of the tennis racket,” she got my idea and smiled kindly, serving me another ball.
Time passed quickly.
“I didn’t know that it will be that tiring to play tennis,” I broke the silence when we were picking up all the balls in the court, “Even my hand is hurt (hurts) a bit since the tennis ball is much heavier than the badminton ball… What do you call it in English?” I quickly gestured a few triangles in the air and looked at Emma helplessly with a dry smile, not knowing what to do if she did not understand me.
“You mean shuttlecock?”
“Right! Shuttlecock!” I heard a deep, relieved sigh in my heart, “The shuttlecock and the racket are more heavy (heavier) than (those of) badminton so I need more strength (to play tennis), but (it) is indeed fun!”
We smiled at each other and talked a lot on our way home, about things we enjoyed doing in our free time, schools we studied in, places we had traveled to and some differences in Chinese and American culture. Under the sunset, our shadows were stretched along the long, long road.
Gazing at Emma’s bottle-green pupils shining with passion and excitement, I suddenly realized something. Maybe language is not meant to be perfect. It is supposed to be a tool for us to get to know each other as persons, to share what we think and to learn about the history and culture in other places around the world.
There is not a law or a rule saying that only people who speak standardly have the right to speak certain languages. Although my dad speaks broken Cantonese with a Mandarin accent and I speak English with many grammar mistakes, at least people understand us. They get our ideas and are willing to listen to us and share their opinions as well. This means that we are equal in front of languages and there are no reasons for us to be afraid of speaking out nonstandard languages. As long as we can make ourselves understood, the primitive and essential purpose of languages created by our ancestors living in the caves and making tools from stones and animal bones is reached.