A Cantonese Root in an International World

March 21, 2017
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When wind swept across the towns, the blue sky above embraced hundreds of pigeons who left pieces of their white feathers on the Isle of Wight flying. I went to the island five years ago, which lied comfortably beside England. Though a place with joy, to me it was filled with embarrassment.

The first day of class on this island, the English teacher asked me to describe my best friend. Overcoming my nerves, I stood up and answered confidently, “I am Helen!” The unexpected laughter in the whole class crashed my confidence immediately. I did not understand why they laughed because I never got wrong on introducing my name. “Well, now everyone in class knows you are Helen, but why not describe your best friend to us? You can follow examples on the blackboard.” The teacher smiled, hoping to comfort me. I stood there awkwardly, feeling like a pig ready to be slaughtered. Everyone stared at me and the mockery in their eyes pushed me into a disheartening abyss, stabbing me in the heart with their sharpest dagger. “I...cannot...watch...see blackboard. My eyes... no... o wu de*.” I couldn’t help adding Cantonese words because of my poor English. I sat down with embarrassment. The chair was so uncomfortable as if it ridiculously grew thorns to hurt my butt. I was a “dead pig”—a 12-year-old girl who could not speak in complete English sentences.

After experiencing such an embarrassment during the summer camp, I made up my mind to be an “international” person who could talk in fluent English and feel proud in front of others. I though it be a good sign, devoting myself to an internationalized world. The more I spoke English, the less I practiced Cantonese. I even needed English to help me express Cantonese words that I couldn’t pronounce. I gradually realized the underlying mentality that embarrassed me. People have been enthusiastic about internationalizing things since the beginning of the 21st century, such as international foods and international schools. The word “international” seems to convey a sense of superiority as it prevails. For example, imported foods in the supermarket are often thought to be “organic” and “green”; kids in the international schools are assumed to be more “erudite”. As internationalization goes on, even language, which symbolizes an intimacy of a certain region, is forced into assimilation, promoting the practice of a global language—English. Under this social background, my parents, like others, want me to become an “international” girl, thus sending me to foreign language classes. Hearing me babbling out English words, they always display proud expressions. However, two years later, an unexpected experience in America triggered my thinking: should it the ability to speak an international language that makes one proud?


That night, I was at Times Square, New York, shopping with my friends when the rain suddenly poured down. My friends and I were separated by the swarming crowd. I decided to find a restroom to dry myself up first. Feeling helpless and anxious, I put shopping bags on top of my head, hopping to keep my hair dry at least. The rain ignored me, capriciously dropped through my shopping bags, and sneaked in my hair. Coldness seeped into my shoes as I trodden on puddles. Finally, there was an available restroom in a hotel several blocks away. Unfortunately, after walking out the hotel, I did not remember the way back to the main avenue. The concrete “monsters” kept me trapped, despite my effort to follow the signposts. I squatted down, leaving myself on the empty dark street with several worn-out paper bags.

Being able to speak the international language seemed useless as there was no one to ask. There were no “international people” telling me how to get back. The street lights twinkled and dimmed unexpectedly like the opening scene of a horror movie. My heart was filled with desperation. Abruptly, a sound of collision caught my attention. A few men dressed like gangsters wandered in the street, hitting walls and lamps with beer bottles in hands. I covered my ears, fearing the sound would pierce at any time. The voice got closer and closer. I hid behind a dumpster and closed my eyes, trembling like a vulnerable prey in front of its predator. The footsteps strangely stopped. There was only the sound of raindrops.

“Bang, bang!” a large sound of collision soon broke the peace. Peeking through the dumpster, I saw a drunk man being beaten by the gangsters, only a few meters beside me. I held my breath, leaned against the wall, and moved meticulously to another street. Suddenly, a hand lied on my shoulder. I turned anxiously, imaging hundreds of bloody scenes within a few seconds—it was a Asian face with a kind smile, fortunately. “Lei xi wu xi dong si lou a ? *” The lady spoke in a familiar language—not English, not Mandarin, but Cantonese! I stood there like a block of wood, doubting what I just heard. After a short pause, I replied awkwardly in Cantonese, “How do you know I am from Canton?” The lady pointed my backpack which indicated my city. I let down my guard, feeling safe like a lost puppy being rescued. She handed me an umbrella and directed me back patiently, “Zuo juan zai yi zhi hang guo liang tiao gai ni jiu ke yi jian dao la*.” I hugged her with gratitude and said, “Wu guai sai*.” The language that was once ignored by me echoed continuously in my head, like a lullaby comforting a scared child. The rains continued, but the sunshine brought by the lady warmed up my body. Speaking Cantonese was not inferior, because it was also an “international” language which saved me from a predicament in America.


* “o wu de” means “I can’t” in Cantonese.
* 1“Are you lost?”
* 2 “Turn left and go straight ahead, after two blocks you can see the Fifth Avenue.” * 3 “Thank you!”

In retrospect, I realize that it is silly to think English, the international language, superior than others. It is for the convenience in foreign countries, but not for the ridiculous pride. Language, the source of cultural intimacy, is a signpost that guides me to destination. Language, an identity of an individual, should not be in a hierarchical structure. Language, a root in everyone’s heart, should be carefully protected. I proudly nurture my Cantonese root, making it stay firm in such an international world.

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