Dongguan Dialect or Cantonese?

March 25, 2017
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We walked in the Venetian shopping mall in Macau, laughing out loud. For me, it seemed that I was interested in our conversation, but in fact, as a person from Dongguan, I was upset about using Mandarin to communicate with my sister instead of dialect of Dongguan. It is not because I was ashamed about speaking Mandarin but that I was ashamed about forgetting my dialect. Studying in Guangzhou for twelve years, I treat the city as my second hometown, just like the people who migrate and settle in Guangzhou. In the past decade, I supported myself in Guangzhou and created my own social circle very well. However, I am quite embarrassed and sad about forgetting a dialect, and until someday, I realize that I should pick up the lost language.

Before I was six, I went to kindergarten in my hometown Dongguan, a city in Guangdong. I spoke the dialect of Dongguan to everyone. Later, I was sent to a boarding school in Guangzhou which allows students to go home only once a week. I started to spend most of my time at school in Guangzhou. With my strong determination to fit in to a new environment, I forced myself to learn Cantonese, the dialect in Guangzhou. At the beginning, I spoke Cantonese with my friends and classmates in Guangzhou while speaking the dialect of Dongguan with my family. Slowly, I started to bring Cantonese home and spoke to everyone in both Dongguan dialect and Cantonese in one sentence. Sometimes, I even spoke in Dongguan dialect pronunciation but Cantonese intonation, and vice versa. I realized that the way I spoke was strange, so I simply spoke less. Relatives said that I became quiet, but only myself knew that I was not willing to show my poor Dongguan dialect. Admittedly, I could speak in Cantonese, which every Cantonese can understand, but it would make every relative feel distant.

During the Spring Festival this year, my elder sister and two elder brothers took me to the family reunion dinner at an elder brother’s home. On our way, they chatted in Dongguan dialect.

     “??????” (Where is the porridge town?)
     “?????” (It moved to a place far away from here.)
     “???????????????????????????” (Well, the restaurants become shopping malls, and my friends become bosses, earning a lot of money.)
     “??????????????” (Forget it. Working for government is the most stable job.)

Embarrassed about my non-standard dialect, I just listened quietly and didn’t want to share my thoughts, only grinning symbolically when I felt something funny, as if struggling to claim my pimping presence.

Ironically, I taught my classmates the pronunciation of numbers in Dongguan dialect with a showy posture. Every time I talked about Dongguan dialect, my classmates would say: “No way! I didn’t know Dongguan has dialect. Is it similar to Cantonese?” I will proudly explain to them in this way: “Of course not! They are so different. Dongguan dialect sounds flatter while Cantonese sounds more decent in articulation. Let’s say, in Cantonese, the number three pronounce as ‘/San/’ in first tone, but it pronounces as ‘/San/’ in third tone in Dongguan dialect. For number eight, it pronounces as ‘/Ba/’ in fourth tone in Cantoness, but in Dongguan dialect, it pronounces as /Be:/ in second tone.”  Then everyone will chortle and repeat with me. However, I did not dare to say numbers in Dongguan dialect when I played number game with my brother in the reunion dinner. In one round, my brother said: “?(/Be:/ in second tone)??(/San:/in third tone).” (Eight threes.) What he said was standard Dongguan dialect, but I responded: “?(/Ba/ in fourth tone)??(/Sei/).” (Eight fours.) What I said was standard Cantonese. It was not that I could not speak in Dongguan dialect, but that I would not speak as natively as him did.

After the dinner, I left my brother’s home. Undesignedly, I heard a song named Song for Dongguan City from Xu Zhenzhen, a famous Dongguan local rapper. When I heard the two sentences to express the same meaning in Dongguan dialect and Cantonese,

     “??(Pronounce as ‘Zei Mo,’ Dongguan dialect)!” (A term in Majhong that means the winner wins by his own draw.)
     “???????(Pronounce as ‘Zi Mo,’ Cantonese)?”(No, it pronounces as ‘Zi Mo’.)

I felt the same feeling as Xu Zhenzhen—the feeling of distance between myself and Dongguan. Listening to the dulcet Dongguan dialect in the song, I was ashamed of not being able to express the same amount of love to Dongguan as Xu Zhenzhen did by using pure Dongguan dialect. I often heard from people that they described their ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends as “the most familiar strangers”; now Dongguan also became my most familiar stranger, except that it is more like my disengaged mother that I split up voluntarily instead of my ex-boyfriend. Once I laughed at the self-contradiction of this sentence, but now I felt how exact it is. Coming back home, I decided to pick up my dialect again, because I realized how ashamed and upset forgetting it has brought me.

I finally see that people should not forget their dialect, which is unique and the most accurate expression of a culture in an area. Like the spinal cord made up of item by item of nerve bunches the whole human body, a dialect made up of words and phrases acts as the main clue of the unique culture of this area. The truth is, in China, forgetting dialect is common, because there are more people migrate to southern China from northern China now for the prosperous economics in south, and their next generation will live in places that are different from their ancestors’ hometown. I hope that I can stand up from the border of the cliff of the culture in Dongguan and re-recognize this culture, retrieve my childhood, my mother. I hope that I will use Mandarin less with my family in the future, that I will no longer feel embarrassed about the conversation in Dongguan dialect among my brothers and sisters,  and that I will not use smiles to conceal my ideas. I hope that people who forget their dialect will pick up their dialect and re-recognize their culture and their hometown.

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