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The Best Tongue?
Born in Shunde, one of the most prosperous districts in China, I was proud and arrogant. I took pride in my roots shared with all indigenous Shunde citizens—we walked our own way; we dined our own way; we talked our own way. Among the myriad complicated tongues, our language stuck out like a glittering tag of superiority: a modified patois of Cantonese, in which all the originally stifled bass syllables jumped out like an elegant alto, restrained but expressive, relaxed but spirited. We the most dulcet. We the most outstanding. We the best.
However, living in Shunde, my family felt a rather strong bond with Hong Kong. Some members, like my father and grandfather, watched the Hong Kong news every day as a fixed habit. Others, including my maternal uncles and aunts, settled themselves down in Hong Kong, chasing the elder generations’ nostalgia. Everything about Hong Kong was in Cantonese, from the news reports to my Hong Kong relatives’ speeches, but in a different way—there was a nuance in tone that I, after chronic immersion in the culture, could easily recognize. My family members did often speak the Shunde tongue at home, but when with people from Hong Kong, they always regarded the Hong Kong Cantonese as “standard” and “elite” while the Shunde tongue as an undesirable accent. It was strange to me. I spoke Shunde Cantonese throughout my childhood, and I believed other family members did as well, yet they were attached to a “foreign tongue” which I only heard from TV and the relatives coming back from Hong Kong, while failing to give me a convincing explanation.
I loved Shunde, and I loved its language. The Cantonese of Hong Kong was a threat to my family’s integrity in maintaining the identity of indigenous Shunde people. In protection of this integrity, I launched my own crusade against the pretentious, transgressing Hong Kong Cantonese: I would never speak Hong Kong Cantonese if the Shunde tongue is comprehensible to others. I had never worried about communication issues since the nuances between the two tongues were too little to cause confusion. Confident, I indulged myself in the thrill of salvaging my Shunde identity, my source of pride. I understood how prosperous Hong Kong’s economy was. I understood how influential Hong Kong’s culture was. But we the most dulcet, we the most outstanding, we the best.
So when I went to Hong Kong one day to buy a new lens for my camera, I abided strictly by my code: no Hong Kong Cantonese. I remember how I spoke perfect Shunde tongue to the camera shop owner before my father stepped in unpleasantly and repeated my request in standard Hong Kong Cantonese. And out of the shop I grumbled, “You are from Shunde, but you don’t speak Shunde tongue! That’s betrayal!”
My father seemed indifferent. He only said, “This is Hong Kong so we speak standard Cantonese.”
“Why,” I protested, “do you say that’s standard Cantonese? Why can’t our tongue be standard?”
He did not reply. It seemed to me that my crusade was justified: Shunde tongue the best!
That evening, we were to have a buffet with my uncle living in Hong Kong, who I had not met before; the meal was planned particularly for a conversation between he and I, for we were both much absorbed in studying the outer space—aliens, parallel worlds, and more. My mother said I would enjoy talking to him. “He has a fantastic mind like yours,” she said. I awaited with pleasure greeting him in person with my beautiful indigenous tongue.
At the other side of the table, my uncle had a pair of clear eyes that bespoke his thoughts. After a brief introduction by my mother, an atmosphere of excitement arose between us—it was clear, from his eager eyes, that he yearned to know about me and my interests as well.
“Nein yaou mou liu guy guo ngoi xeng nyen (Have you learnt about aliens)?” He asked me, starting the conversation.
“Oi xeng yén (Aliens)?”
“Ngoi xeng nyen (Aliens),” he repeated.
“O, yaou a (Oh, of course)!”
To my surprise, his eyes came dull for a second or two. I thought I gave him a satisfactory reply: he should be glad to hear my fascination in his interest, but he did not seem to be much enthusiastic to talk about it now.
I tried to reassure him, “OI XENG YÉN! O dou tsil cup zhong yi gü dei. (ALIENS! I like them too.)”
I was perplexed. There seemed to be a long distance just across the table, between me and him, as the conversation developed; it was awkward. Several times I even wanted to bring the conversation back to life by wearing a warmq, welcoming smile, trying to show my curiosity to learn from his unique perspective, but the ending was always complete silence that made us wonder what had prevented us from developing affinity. As the dinner ended, the only exchange of words was just a slovenly farewell.
On the way back home, I asked mum whether she perceived the awkwardness.
“Sure I did,” she said, “and that was because your manners were not right.”
“You seem proud and unapproachable. You did not speak standard Cantonese at all—Don’t argue! Everybody knows you can speak that, but you didn’t.”
I could not help insisting my point. “That does not matter! He can understand me anyway!” I said.
“Yes, he can. But it still matters. You were trying to be friendly to him so that he would like to talk to you, but everybody feels the best when they are talking to people that speak just like them. It makes them feel comfortable. Even a slight shift in tone can make them feel strange. Didn’t you feel that?”
I tried to picture the scene that I responded to uncle’s repressed, didactic speech with the peculiarly twisted and jumping tongue of Shunde, one that was unfamiliar with many “standard” Cantonese speakers, while attempting to show how I shared his spirits, attempting to earn his faith. And I gave in. My efforts, even to myself, became ridiculous—the difference in tongue made everything so strange that a confident communication was admittedly impossible. After all, the two tongues could not mix; they just asserted blatantly to both of us that we were not alike.
For some time I contemplated on my acts. Had I made a mistake speaking the Shunde tongue to a Hong Kong Cantonese speaker? I was afraid that I would lose more than my uncle’s passion on talking with me about his interest, for I had many other relatives living in Hong Kong and I expected to build future partnerships and friendships with other standard Cantonese speakers as well. I dared not imagine that, within the confines of the parochial accent, how many precious opportunities would I forgo?
Months later, one of my aunts came to Shunde from Hong Kong for a visit. She only spoke Hong Kong Cantonese, unaware of the inherent uppish tone within. It sometimes annoyed me. In my impression, she was seldom an easy-going woman—previously I never talked much to her, as I did to others failing to appreciate my beautiful Shunde tongue, and thus she also excluded me from the adult’s heated conversation while chatting excitedly with my mum, who in this case yielded to the dull, immodest Hong Kong tongue.
A meal with my aunt started with the same ritual: chat between adults. I listened, listened, and listened, making some monotonous noise sipping my tea.
Suddenly my aunt asked my mum in flawless Hong Kong tongue, “Nein go tsei yi ga haei bin dou doc xu? Zhong haei Shun Dec? (Where is your son studying now? Still in Shunde?)”
My mum turned to me. “Deng koi zi gay gong la (Let him tell you himself),” mum said.
I was surprised. Just as I was about to open my mouth and uttered my elegant Shunde-tongued vocabulary, the awkward conversation with my uncle popped up.
“O, ngo yi ga haei gong zaou doc xu a (Oh, now I study in Guangzhou),” I replied. The heavy nasal sound on the word “ngo” (“I”) and the general repressed tone sounded familiar. It was the Hong Kong Cantonese coming out from my mouth.
I attempted to correct my tongue before anyone perceived. Those words were already out however, and after reaching for the words like catching drifting butterflies in vain, I blushed like a misbehaved kid. At the time I might have unconsciously worn an astonished expression on my face. But so had my aunt; more surprisingly, I saw a spark of joyful light in her eyes.
Before silence befell, my aunt had already grabbed the initiative in starting the conversation. She asked me all kinds of things: interests, school life, friends, aspirations…Like two old confidants meeting each other for the first time after years of separation, we exchanged our zeal and insights. Gradually I found out that my aunt from Hong Kong was not the lukewarm woman I thought to be. She was warm, friendly, and talkative. I never did delve into her truthful, amiable character before. Neither did I realize that I had trespassed on my speaking code further and further.
At the end of our chat, my aunt said to me, smiling:
“Your Cantonese is quite standard.”
“Is it?” Surprised again, I said.
“Yeah. You don’t have that obvious accent.”
“Oh, really? Thanks,” I replied. I was clueless, but suddenly I felt proud for speaking that perfect Hong Kong tongue.
Indeed, the reality has assured me that the Hong Kong Cantonese, among others, can be as beautiful and useful as my indigenous Shunde tongue. The former would not deprive me of my identity; rather, it presents me a new perspective from which the previous negative impressions about things may just disappear, and now I am more than grateful for its refinement on my personal relationship forever.
I still preserve my pride in the indigenous identity my Shunde tongue has rendered me. In my mind, it was never an accent but a mother language that distinguishes me from others, accentuating my unique identity among the millions of Cantonese speakers. It was dulcet and outstanding, but not the best—none of our tongues is the best. So choose the right tongue: depending on the occasion, every tongue can be beautiful.