Tue 9 Jan 2007
The Cantonese have an idiom 入鄉隨俗 jap6 hoeng1 ceoi4 zuk6. Living in Hong Kong, I expect people to speak to me in Cantonese. When you are in Australia, I’m happy to speak to you in English. I came to Hong Kong with the mission to improve my Cantonese, everyday I wake up hoping that tomorrow I will speak that slightly bit better. When others don’t agree with my dreams of advanced fluency, we have a big problem. It costed me thousands of dollars to leave my comfortable life-style in Sydney to embark on my Cantonese dream.
I speak to my wife in (only) Cantonese and I live with my parents-in-law who only speak Cantonese. I only watch Cantonese TV and only speak English when I teach English to the locals at an English language school. Teaching English now means I cannot use 100% of every waking hour speaking Cantonese. So every minute in which I can speak Cantonese is valuable to me.
I go to McDonalds and do the talking (Cantonese), while I’m talking to the girl she looks at my wife and ignores me. If I’m talking to you, why would you look at my wife? Of course I understand what you are saying. Suddenly my blood pressure rises and I blast out in less than polite Cantonese.
The receptionists at my school keep arguing with me that they should have the right to speak English to me as I’m an English teacher. Every day I say the same thing over and over which still doesn’t sink into their brains 入鄉隨俗 jap6 hoeng1 ceoi4 zuk6. What makes me angry is when one of them purposely pretended not to understand any of my Cantonese when spoken to. I am paid to speak English and I don’t see any benefits by speaking English to the locals when I’m not teaching. Just to make me angry, some purposely speak even faster to me in Cantonese and then say in English “see you couldn’t understand me, I have to speak English”. These are the same receptionists who speak Cantonese to me when they are in desperate need of teachers, but speak English when they think I can be taken advantage of by teaching them free-of-charge. These receptionists have made fun of my Cantonese simply thinking no one could possibly want to learn Cantonese and be honestly serious about it! I have spent nearly 2000 hours learning Cantonese and was ridiculed and made fun of my accent or when I say something and my tones are wrong. They think that I shouldn’t be making mistakes at all after 1 year of study. These are not the sort of mistakes that one could mistake for a swear word or dirty word, but rather simple verb mistakes or incorrect grammar. In fact, I get lectured that Chinese is so easy because there is no grammar.
I teach English, I’m very tolerant of Hong Kong people consistently making errors, having incorrect intonation and poor vocabulary. I never make fun of my students speaking English. I asked some of my students if they would feel upset if I laughed at their English, and of course everyone said they would. Though these student’s couldn’t understand why I would be upset about people flattering or laughing at my Cantonese.
I once was lectured by an Indian who spoke fluent Cantonese on my pronunciation of a word 傳教士 cyun4 gaau3 si6 (Missionary). I was told not to speak unless I was sure on the tones. I might as well never speak because I’m bound to make mistakes.
Yes, you may think I’m rude. Simply being polite or kindly asking someone to stop speaking English does not get you anywhere. The people I have spoken to think its a joke that someone would learn Cantonese and will always revert to English if you give them the opportunity. When I see a migrant in Australia, I tailor my voice so they can understand both in speed and vocabulary. Isn’t it quite normal to speak slowly to a learner? However, Hong Kong people that I’ve met speak to me at full speed with advanced vocabulary all the time- I must constantly remind them I’m not native every 30 seconds.
I know my Cantonese is far from perfect, but I hope this time next year I will have reached some level where I can comfortably say I am proud of my achievement.