Hot seafood soup was delivered to our table. Dead shrimp and calamaris danced with bubbles. The waitress, also the owner of the Chinese restaurant, after learning about our background, sighed at me in Mandarin.
“You are a Cantonese person but you can’t speak Cantonese? What a shame! You know what: I have been here for about thirty years but I still remember Cantonese; I still speak it now.”
I was embarrassed. I felt it hard to make any response. I sat still and quietly sent rice to my mouth. A voice resounded inside my brain: Isn’t Cantonese your mother tongue? Why did you abandon it? Meanwhile, these words reminded me of a similar embarrassing situation.
My cousin came back from America during the summer holiday. My grandparents gathered my cousin’s family, my mother, my sister, and me to have a big dinner at home.
The dinner conversation began with Cantonese.
“What university are you going to?” My grandpa asks my cousin.
“A college of science and engineering. I have been there once. It’s a good college and I like the environment there…”
I enjoyed listening to their fluid speech in Cantonese, my hometown language, and picked up some delicious tomatoes. I chewed them. They tasted as sweet as my mother tongue.
“And my major is about robots, artificial intelligence.”
“Oh, that’s great! This area is promising! It is much easier to find a job, right?”
“Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I chose this major…”
I wanted to join them. However, when nearly speaking up word, I suddenly noticed that it was a Mandarin word. I attempted to replace it with a Cantonese word but my brain was blank, struggling to come up with a single word. Nothing appeared. I was out of place in this environment: everybody spoke Cantonese, except me. I desired someone to talk with me in Mandarin. But the Cantonese speeches went on.
“What about the tuition fee? Is it very expensive?”
“About four thousand dollars a year…I decided to get a student loan and then do some part-time jobs to earn it.”
Continually bombarded with the flood of Cantonese, I got impatient of being ignored by their conversation. I realized that I didn’t belong there. Again I picked up a piece of my beloved tomato but the tomato lost its sweetness. It became tasteless, even bitter. I chewed hard to make the sound from the attrition of my teeth louder and louder, trying to cover the noisy, unfriendly gossip. But, I failed. Like powerful chilling storms, strings of Cantonese words froze me into an icy stone, standing alone waiting for the last glimmer of hope. Why did my mother tongue torture me so hard? I heard some hoarse voice in the storms; what did she want to tell me?
Finally, my savior came. My aunt asked me a question, however, in Cantonese.
“Hey, how do your teachers teach you?”
I hesitated. I did not dare to disrupt the enthusiastic Cantonese speeches but I had no choice but to answer in Mandarin, a stranger, an alien in the world of Cantonese.
“Well… In science classes, the teachers explain the concepts and applications of some laws, and we practice by solving problems, while in English classes, there are many group discussions and projects. Our teachers also ask us to make presentations on some controversial topics...” I finished.
In a sudden, the room was silent. I ceased using my chopsticks. I felt scared and nervous and embarrassed. I was swallowed by the giant demagogue of silence.
“Oh, that’s similar to American schools,” my aunt replied in Cantonese, “they have a lot of presentations to do.”
Then the Cantonese conversation continued. I lowered my head to only focus on putting rice and vegetables into my mouth. Although my aunt tried to help me out, I still felt uncomfortable to dive in the Cantonese sea wearing an inappropriate Mandarin swimming suit. My family members were all kind-hearted but the difference of languages built an invisible great wall between us. The only door to go through the wall was Cantonese. I tried to crash the firm wall with my Mandarin fist but only threw myself into deeper helplessness. Just a futile attempt. How naïve I was! I pondered what placed me in such situation.
I was born in Guangzhou. I used to speak Cantonese in kindergarten. Things changed, however, after I went to the primary school. I am one of the victims of the government policy that ordered all the teachers and students to communicate only in Mandarin at school. Everywhere around the school, the slogans “learn mandarin well” became a ubiquitous part of landscapes. The slogans are like wild monster, snatching my mother tongue and smashing it ruthlessly into nihility. Influenced deeply by the school’s Mandarin environment, unwittingly, I brought home such a Mandarin environment as well. For all those years, I neglected my fading Cantonese, the most valuable treasure I once had. Now I could only understand others’ Cantonese, but I lost the power of my own Cantonese expressions. I had never noticed so truly that Cantonese had gone so far from me and nearly disappeared, until that embarrassing dinner. I had been away from the home for too long.
Shouldn’t I do something to head back home with Cantonese, the only path? True, Cantonese has gone tangibly from me due to the compulsory mandarin requirement at school. But for me, Cantonese will never completely disappear because of the tight emotional bonds between us. My embarrassment at the two dinners made me realize that at the deepest corner of my mind, the remaining dust of Cantonese can always be raised by the gusty wind, throbbing in the light of sunshine and attempting to grasp my attention, arousing my deep nostalgia for my mother language.
I determined to pick up Cantonese again with my mother’s help.
I begged her during a dinner, “Mum, lately I feel guilty of forgetting Cantonese. And now, I cannot wait to learn back Cantonese!! I have made up my mind already. Can you please teach me?”
“Ha, really? That’s awesome! I have always hoped you could learn Cantonese again,” my mother smiled, “So…How do we start?”
“Let’s start from the simple words about food,” I pointed to the golden silk shining on the plate, “What about potatoes? How do you say ‘potatoes’ in Cantonese?”
“Potatoes is called ‘shvzei.’”
“shuzei?” Oh, the pronunciation was lovely, though a bit weird to me.
“Hahaha, it’s not like that. It is ‘shv,’‘zei.’”
“Okay, let me try again. ‘shv,’ ‘zei.’”
“Great, let’s continue,’ I picked up a piece of brightly red tomato, “Can you say ‘tomatoes’ in Cantonese?”
“It sounds awkward! Try again. ‘Fan,’ ‘kei.’”
“Haha! ‘fan,’ ‘kei.’” I couldn’t help repeating the word, “Hum…‘Fan kei.’” Maybe, this beautiful word was what caused me to love the tomatoes so much.
In a mix of laughter and fragrance of rice and dishes, we finished the dinner. Listening carefully to the words that popped out of my mouth, I was obsessed with the charms of Cantonese. I found out that I was just a lost girl who needed some guidance to the right way. And I had found my mentors, the “professional” teacher, my mother and the spiritual compass, my unbreakable connections with Cantonese.
After a year or so, I am now able to speak much of Cantonese in daily use.
“Qu o zou wan gei dian yong a (How’s your holiday in Australia)?” my grandpa asked me.
“Gei hou a, you hoi ti yao you hou duo hoi xin sei (It’s good. We could watch the sea and eat much seafood),” I responded.
“Hou a, hui sen zou hou a (It’s good to see you guys so happy).”
“Zong you hou duo dong me, hou la a, dai shv tong mai yi di hoi ou (There are also many animals like koala, kangaroo, and seagulls).
“Deng zen (wait),” my grandpa suddenly noticed something changed, “lei dian gai kui si gong gong zou wa gei (Why do you begin to speak Cantonese)? O un xin xin fa yin (I just realized it).”
“Haha, o xiong tong lei dei yi qi gong gong zou hua a (I want to chat with you in Cantonese).”
I was glad that my grandpa didn’t notice my change at first, which means I succeeded in blending into the Cantonese conversation naturally. I was no longer a loner in the Cantonese world. I belonged here, in destiny.
Infected by the enjoyable Cantonese conversation, I recalled the harmony at home during my childhood. All the family members spoke in Cantonese, the language we know since we began muttering “Baba” “Mama,” the language that makes me feel at home, the language I should remember forever and ever. It is my deepest root connected to my hometown, the place where I was born, grew up, and belong to; even the wildest policy could not hinder my protection of my precious mother tongue. I will never bury my Cantonese under the bottom of the abyss and allow it to lose sight in my mind, for it has already been an indispensable part of my soul.