“Hey, your Mandarin sounds funny. You know, with the smell of twentieth century Beijing.” For a long time, I was ashamed of my Beijing accent.
Born in a small lane in Beijing, I was fortunate to have the feeling of holding myself aloof from the world due to its remote location, and joyful memories about the beautiful sceneries: affable shopkeepers dozing in their antique shops, old people playing diabolo in the early mornings, and the sunlight stippling those willow trees. I moved to Guangzhou with my parents and attended middle school, with fluent Beijing accent. Students around me spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese.
It was a afternoon, palm trees stirring in the soft breeze, warm sunlight shinning on the sardine-like buses. Children rushed out of the school discussing where to have fun, with the accent I did not have or the dialect I did not understand.
(Italicized words are all in Cantonese)
“Diu! There is lots of homework today. Teacher litiao pogaila!”(Bad words towards teacher)
“Jiuhailo, why not go to have high tea? We can relax and play computer games there.”
“Haiwo, faidila(Be quick). Let’s go.”
“Guys, can I join you? Maybe we can have fun together.” I tried to assimilate into the new environment, speaking the best mandarin I could. Not anyone of them replied.
“Ga maiwo la!(Can I join you?)” I tried harder, with unskilled Cantonese.
One of them turned back, staring at me with uncertainty. I was happy, thinking that I might be admitted to their group, but he suddenly laughed, “You know what? That’s funny, like a clown, really funny.”
“Oh, come on. Let’s be quick, just leave this Beijing countryman alone!” another student said with impatience, seemingly in bad mood because of me.
“Fine,” I was falsely jovial, with booming, mirthless laugh. It was hot summer. The plaintive droning of cicadas sounded melancholy, with dappled shadow of trees. I was a clown, playing funny tricks that make people laugh. Tears and the hot air blurred my vision. It became clear that I would always be sneered at in the future if I keep speaking Beijing accent, and would never be a member of them unless I could speak Cantonese.
I began to learn Cantonese, sparing efforts. I listened to local radio channels, famous songs sang by famous stars in HongKong, China, and watched videos that teach people how to speak Cantonese, but there was only little progress. I knew some words that are used in daily communications but the dialects they used while chatting. However, I could not stop, since endless scenes of being mocked at and pushed aside reminded me that I was a “outsider”. I longed for being treated equally as a gongzou(Guangzhou) person but as a Beijing countryman. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, the blood and smell of Beijing could not fade away from my body.
This winter, I went back to the place where I was born with my parents. The small lane seemed affable to me: the man selling little “candy people” made by pure sugar at the corner of the lane, few old men playing Chinese chess together and swirling walnuts in their hands, and a middle-aged person performing a sensational acrobatic KungFu with the audience shouting in Beijing accent. I deeply loved this place, and wanted to stay here forever. However, the feeling was contradictory: I hated this place. Numerous scenes that were similar to that miserable afternoon shed some light on my disgust. “Hey, little mice. Come here.” I heard someone calling my nickname. I turned back with surprise and discovered that he was the shopkeeper of the teahouse I loved most.
“I heard your mum saying that you are learning Cantonese.”
“Eh… Yeah. It is really difficult.”
“Why did you do that? Spending your time learning a new language does not make sense!”
“Well, that’s a long story. I have to. Classmates laughed at me since I came from this small lane”
“This small lane envisioned the rise and fall of dynasties. It is the repository of childhoods and dreams of generations of Beijing people. It is our place. They would not understand.” He took a sip of his favorite tea and responded with patience.
“Try to feel that.” He put his hands behind his back and tottered away.
The afternoon sun bickered through the leaves of willow trees, casting a long mottled shadow. Those birds and cicadas seemed not want to disturb this quietness. Everything was still familiar. The lane, far away from the city center, had a sense of isolation and poetry. When I looked around, those scenarios of my experience in this place, and attachments, emerged naturally in my mind. I recalled that one evening I broke my hand and could only sit on the ground shouting for help. The old neighbor carried me on his back and walked to the nearest hospital that was kilometers away. Memory struck me. Suddenly, the mist cleared away, and the stars were out. I used to think that I was inferior since I could not speak Cantonese and was always mocked at, but I came to realize that I had been using this Beijing accent since I was born. To me, not only did the lane mean the place I was born, but it also meant the memory that only belongs to me, its fascination, and its unique culture. The lane is a large museum, and the collections here are not antiques, but civilizations, memories, and stories that I did not find in Guangzhou. The strong flavor of rural life and humanities that are hidden behind this accent could never be replaced by Cantonese.
If someone were to say the sentence to me again: “Hey, your Mandarin sounds funny. You know, with the smell of twentieth century Beijing”, I would answer without hesitation, “Yeahr ah (“Yeah” in Beijing accent)! Twentieth century Beijing, I am proud of that!”
We all have our places in the world. Mine is that small lane.