I was born and always lived in Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a young but prosperous city in a stage of rapid development. It is young because it has few native citizens, and most of present citizens came from across the country 35 years ago, when “the Chinese economic reform and open up” began. The children of those young people who left their hometown to Shenzhen, us, then have two hometowns. One is the hometown where our parents come from, the other is Shenzhen, the city we were born and live in.
“Where is your hometown?” It’s pretty common for people living in this immigrant city to ask their new friends where they come from---just like the British ask their friends, “How’s the weather today?” After this question, there is usually another question, specific to teenagers who were born in Shenzhen, “Can you speak your hometowns dialect?” Trust me, 60% teenagers will answer with a shy smile, “No, I can’t.” Indeed, for young people who were born in an immigrant city, being unable to speak their hometown dialects is not shameful at all.
These two questions of hometowns and dialects are not only greetings in daily life, but also a Game that children never get bored of. Several children usually sit around and discuss their hometown that they have few knowledge about. Children who cannot speak their hometown dialects will admiringly ask children who can to “perform” their dialects. After these children “perform” their hometown dialects, other children will even let them teach some short and simple sentences. Being able to speak their own dialects is worth showing off.
I’m one of those children who sit around, unable to speak my hometown dialect. To save face, each time when I answer, “No, I can’t speak the Hunan (my hometown) dialect,” I will quickly add that “But I can understand it.” My parents always communicate with each other in Hunan dialect, so gradually I can understand it. But they never teach or even say the Hunan dialect to my younger brother or me, so I don’t know how to speak it.
Dialects for us are secret languages. They are just like the dwarf language in The Lord of the Ring --- only your kin can understand you. And it’s super cool to say a language that your friends can’t understand when you make a phone call with your family. So on a sunny day, I, a ten-year-old girl, made a formal and serious announcement to my parents. I firmly said with pride, “I’m going to learn the Hunan dialect.”
Then my parents laughed. I knew they were not mocking, but simply laughed as if they heard a joke, which made me more nervous because I didn’t know what was so funny.
“Why are you laughing?” I felt uncomfortable and awkward.
“Why do you want to learn the Hunan dialect?” My dad looked confused.
“Hunan dialect is so rustic and scrannel that only bumpkins say it.” My mum added.
“Hunan dialect is also useless. Everybody says Mandarin now.” My dad concluded.
There was nothing I could say. I knew I didn’t do anything wrong---I even haven’t done anything. I still felt ashamed because I wanted to do something good but I found “the something” was bad. And it became more shameful and awkward than I directly do something wrong.
This situation was like when you present the most valuable gift to someone, you think he/she will be moved. But the person laughs, not mocks, he just laughs and tells you that he has thousands of such gifts and the gift is not valuable and not useful. He doesn’t look down at or mock you. He merely laughs for your innocence and childishness. He will still take the gift, not because he likes it, but because you are pathetic.
But I didn’t want to be seen as pathetic, to save face, I took back the gift to let myself not seem so shameful and awkward. My hometown’s dialect is the gift---I think I learn the dialect and the Hunan culture is a gift to my parents. But they told me that the Hunan dialect and culture is useless and rustic. So I no longer mentioned that I want to learn Hunan dialect anymore.
I gave up.
Several years later I finally understand some more important things behind the conversation. Hunan dialect is not only a dialect, but it’s also the representation of Hunan culture. But such culture will gradually disappear due to urbanization. People who come to big city from countryside usually don’t teach their children dialect, and then thousands of dialects lose their successors. More surprisingly, they even feel shameful for their dialect, for their villages, for their “rustic” culture. They rack their brains to get rid of the identity of farmers. “Helping” their children to avoid the dialects is the first step.
If I want to give this essay a happy ending, I would say that after I realize the importance of protecting Hunan culture, I begin to learn my dialect by myself and I finally succeed. However, reality is cruel. Every year I go back to Hunan only once a year, in Spring Festival. Even though I want to learn the dialect, in such a short week I can only learn some simple sentences and when next year I go back to hometown, I have totally forgot them.
Yeah, it’s impossible for me to learn the dialect.
But I can still do something, to save the culture.
Language is an important part of a culture, but it’s not all. There are still many characteristics in Hunan culture that I can preserve and inherit. Hunan is famous for spicy food, and Hunan cuisine is the eight major components of Chinese cuisine. We usually say “He who doesn’t eat spicy food is not Hunan people”. However, because climate in Shenzhen is not suitable for eating spicy food, my family haven’t ate it since a long time except me. Maybe I can preserve the tradition of spicy food, learn how to cook Hunan cuisine and share with my Shenzhen friends, even foreign friends.
Dialect is an essential part of our hometown’s culture, so we should not dislike and avoid it because its pronunciation is not graceful. Nobody should be ashamed of his or her dialect but be proud of it. In addition, although dialect is important, we don’t need to be ashamed of being unable to speak it, because there are still many ways to protect and inherit our culture.