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My Experience with Dialects
"Where would you go? Hujian or Funan"? This joke is a mock to the accents of Hunan Province and Fujian Province as Hunan accent pronounces the word "Fu" as "Hu" while Fujian accent pronounces the word "Fu" as "Hu"; "Wenzhou people are the most qualified candidates to be spies in China since they can communicate in Wenzhou dialect as code word." This one alludes to the fact that Wenzhou, a city locates in Zhejiang Province and known for commercial industry, possesses the most obscure and elusive dialect in China. The examples above show the distinction between Chinese dialects in a large scale that ranges across provinces. However, my childhood and past experience with language reveal that the regional difference in a smaller scale could also make a difference in dialect.
When I was a kid, my grandma brought me up in my hometown. At home, she spoke in local dialect both with other relatives and me. I remembered that the first spoken accent I got acquainted with was from my initial engagement with grandma, relatives, and neighborhood. Therefore, even now I have lost the ability to speak my oral origin and even have obstacles to listen, the cordial and nostalgic feelings offered by my hometown dialect cannot be replaced by other accents such as Cantonese. But through my first time to hometown market fair, I found that same could happen even when the tone just slightly changes.
Our house was located alone in the field. No retail stores or supermarkets were adjacently available. As a result, in order to sell the crops and buy the necessities for life, my grandma went to the market fair in town every week. Once, she brought me there as well. After arriving at the fair, she unloaded the crops from the wagon and brought them to the grain purchaser. I was attracted by a group of peers who competed for a frog by flipping the pebbles.
Dozens of minutes had passed. As the epic battle between spicy-egg-head Chong and skinny Lin ended, I realized that I might have trouble with finding my grandma in the crowd. Initially, I thought I could easily distinguish my grandma from the other people in the town because I found that only her accent and her way of speaking could give me a sense of intimacy. But it did not work after I withdrew myself from the excitement of game. As I hasted my speed of scanning around and about to cry out, my sight sticked on the familiar dotted one-piece dress: my grandma was just right next to me! She was bargaining with a man that intended for my grandma's goods in a weird tone that no longer aroused my sense of familiarity and intimacy. During the trip back home, I conveyed my confusion to her.
"Because I did not use my dialect at home to talk to that miser." My grandma paused for a moment and then explained to me with relaxing eyebrows. "You should know that in mountaineous places like here, settler's dialect can make variation sectors by sectors. It's common for people in one place to understand the accent of another place even though the distance between two places are pretty close in geography. For example, a resident in Aojiao village cannot understand the accent of Bingjiao village 5 kilometers away because a mountain range blocks the communication between them. So in the hub of communication like town fair, people conventionally speak with each other in the common dialect of Great Huxiang Area, the de facto 'official language' here."
While my childhood experience taught me that geography can cause dialect to alter between sections in a small scale, my experience later with Cantonese in Guangzhou instruct me similar phenomenon done by a different reason.
When I was 6 years old, My parents brought me to Guangzhou to attend the primary school. Though I had zero knowledge about Cantonese, I found myself could live in this new niche easily with Mandarin since teachers and companions around all spoke in standard Mandarin. I think the reason that I learned Mandarin quickly and spoke it so well was the particularity my hometown accent: instead of creating hardship, my original accent was actually an effective gateway for me to learn speaking Mandarin.
But sometimes when I chatted with some elders in the school or with taxi drivers, they would question me: "You've been Guangzhou for multiple years, so why couldn't you speak Cantonese"? I myself could not make an excuse to this question as well because I simply did not have chance to get in touch with or to practice Cantonese at all!
In one Spring Festival, my parents brought me to the flower fair in old town. When I got out of metro station, I noticed that the street and building pattern reflected a different style from that of constructions around the blocks where I live, which was a history and traditional sense in specifics. But what really impressed me was what I heard: the crowd around, both old and young, spoke in a different language that I could not understand. The sense of alienation conveyed by that weird pronunciation gave me feeling like entering into a new cultural hub as a foreigner. Why was here so different? Which version of Guangzhou it was?
Coupled with my curiosity to this issue, I did some research about history and social environment of Guangzhou. I soon found the answer. The place where I live locates in eastern Tianhe District, a piece of vast farmland decades ago. After National Games held in Guangzhou, Guangzhou Municipal Bureau decided to deploy the new economic industry to the east because unlike the huge amount old buildings to remove in other places, the vast field in the east would be a much cheaper and convenient choice for a new economic boom to take place. Therefore, Zhujiang New Town was designed and constructed. Lots of new immigrants from multiple places of the nation were attracted by the newly created business opportunities there and made settlements. As a result, the population of new town is mainly comprised of non-Cantonese speakers, which explains why I was immersed in a niche of Mandarin. On the other hand, the Liwan District, where the flower fair took place, was the traditional habitat of Guangzhou local residents for hundreds of years. The traditional Cantonese language, customs, and ways of life were well preserved there.
I manage to conclude that the distinction between language in a small scale of region can be caused by geographic and social-economic reasons from my personal engagement with them in the past. While my insight and ponder to the past are the paths for me to recognize better about myself and the outside world, my knowledge of myself and the world will conduct me to the right track so that my effort can really do good to the environment around me as well as the bigger world.