Performing Language | Teen Ink

Performing Language

April 5, 2016
By KristinWu BRONZE, Guangzhou, Other
KristinWu BRONZE, Guangzhou, Other
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

“Ya, yi, sangm, sei, mooh, low, ca, bah, gle, sah… ”

I still recalled those days when I was a little kid. Every afternoon I would sit under the big old aspen tree in the neighborhood with my grandmother. Around me a few old women and men sat in a circle, enjoying my special linguistic “performance”. To not to disappoint them, I would humbly perform a few words or phrases in my limited and nonstandard Cantonese learned in Guangzhou. Then the elders would clap and laugh happily, yelling “Say it again! Say it again!” or “Anything else?” like kindergarten kids.

This scene recurred every summer holiday when I went back to my mother’s hometown in northern China before.
The neighborhood my grandparents lived in was a rather small and old one in the suburb of the provincial capital. As most of the younger generations left home to seek for better opportunities, old people, especially those who above sixty years old, composed the main population of the community. One biggest hobby of the old people’s was to get together everyday after lunch, which seemed to be a perfect time to enjoy the sunshine and play mahjong.
Although in the deepest part of my heart I always felt that I was a pure northerner, the experience of being born in Guangzhou and living there ever since more or less endowed me with the ability to understand and speak a certain extent of Cantonese. It was not unexpected, therefore, that over time I became a star at this daily assembly, known as “The southern kid from Guangzhou.”

The elderly in the neighborhood often exhibited a kind of unexplainable excitement about my annual performances. To be honest, sometimes I got curious about where their incessant enthusiasm towards Cantonese came from, which would definitely not be diminished by the fact that, of the one hundred times I said something in this language, fifty of them were simply counting one to ten, and maybe for another thirty times I just repeated the pronunciation of my name in Cantonese. Though hard for me to admit, their interest in Cantonese actually exceeded that in me as a cute little girl personally. For instance, I remembered one time, my flight arrived at the airport at about twelve o’clock at noon. When I passed the location of the elder’s assembly, they noticed me and asked me if I had mastered any new phrases in Cantonese. Carrying a heavy backpack, I spent one hour, which I am sure would be longer if my grandmother didn’t remind me that I hadn’t have lunch, standing and showing how to pronounce “I am from Guangzhou” in Cantonese. After I finally arrived home, my shoulders and back were extremely sore.

I must confess that, at first, my eagerness to be approved by others was greatly satisfied since the reactions I received the most from my audience were awes and compliments about my “extraordinary ability.” As I grew up, however, a sense of self-consciousness gradually grew stronger and stronger in me. Being surrounded and watched and commented on was no longer an honor for me; instead, I could not stand this kind of performance anymore, feeling myself like a monkey in a circus act trying hard to please the audience. I even began to despise the old people’s ignorance and shallowness, and all the compliments sounded like humiliation to me.


At the summer holiday of age eleven, I made up my mind to firmly refuse any invitation of performing Cantonese. I thought the elderly would be greatly offended and would never talk to me again, but I was ready to accept any possible outcome as long as I could make some changes to the situation. To my surprise, the old were not irritated at all and even laughed when I made a serious announcement about never speaking Cantonese again, yet they did no longer ask me to perform Cantonese ever after.

It seemed that nothing had changed except the disappearance of Cantonese during my visits after this event. The elderly, as usual, continued to call me “the girl from the south;” they remained friendly and warm-hearted towards me, never trying to hold back their praising about how many centimeters I had grown taller in one year. I was so satisfied with myself—it must be my decisive courage and boldness that brought about the change! I was awesome!
As time went by, I entered high school. One summer holiday, I went back to my hometown again, but this time was different since I was with my mother. As usual, we received warm welcomes and greetings when we passed by the assembly. My mother noticed that for the first time she saw I was not asked to say hello in Cantonese. After we entered my grandparents’ home, my mother asked me: “Why weren’t you asked to speak Cantonese? That’s pretty strange.”

“It is because I asked them not to. I am so tired of performing like a circus animal.” I answered in a proud manner.
My mother looked surprised: “Circus animal? How could you say that? The elderly wanted to hear Cantonese simply because they’ve never encountered it before. They never regarded your Cantonese performance as merely an entertainment. You’d better reconsider your attitude.”

My mother walked away and left me in shock. I had never thought about any possible reason of the elderly’s love for Cantonese other than purely for fun. I had never thought that Cantonese, as my mother implied, meant more than an unfamiliar language to the elderly.

With my mother’s remind, I found that the old men and women in the neighborhood, born in the 1930s and 1940s, represented a stereotype of their generation in China. Due to constraint in financial conditions and transportation at the time when they were still young and strong, this generation probably never had the chance of leaving the city they lived for the whole lives. For them, I might be their only connection to the southern part of China, which had very different culture and customs from what they had experienced in the north. By asking me to repeat the same phrases in Cantonese, the elderly somehow remedied their pity for not being able to explore the world a little bit. I realized that for both the elderly and me, Cantonese became more than a language—it represents a different world that the older generations wanted to experience.

I have made up my mind to learn some new Cantonese sayings so that when I come back to Shanxi this summer holiday, I would be able to perform an improved version of my “special linguistic” show.

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