By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
The spectre of Mandarin, the official language of mainland China, usurping Cantonese as Hong Kong’s principal language keeps rearing its ugly head.
It appeared as a menacing shadow when an article uploaded with others to the Education Bureau website in 2013 was revisited in an online forum this year. The piece, by a former mainland Chinese government official, said Cantonese was a dialect rather than a language, ergo Mandarin should be the lingua franca — an odd argument since Cantonese predates Mandarin by 1,000 or so years. A similar sentiment about giving precedence to Mandarin was expressed in another posting on the bureau’s website in 2014.
When the matter arose this year, the Hong Kong government was quick to dismiss any suggestion that it was planning to unseat Cantonese, but the after-effects of another apparent attack on the city’s identity remain.
Hong Kong’s students can be particularly sensitive to the Mandarin issue. This January, they staged a protest against Hong Kong Baptist University’s requirement that all students take a Mandarin course or pass a proficiency test before they graduate — a policy that was seen by some as a bid to please Beijing.
Hong Kongers, quite rightly, are passionately attached to their rich, sinuous language, which is always spoken at high volume. Cantonese should be defended loudly by all. My problem is that I don’t speak it.
It is a shameful confession and, like other long-stay, monolingual expats, I come out with excuses that sag with overuse.
We will talk of our evening classes in the past. I have been to two lots and failed dismally to retain the lessons.
We will moan that it is difficult — and it is. Cantonese has six different tones to help convey meaning — or nine, according to traditional Chinese linguists. Failing to reproduce the right one can cause considerable misunderstanding. For instance — and it’s a hoary old example — depending on the tone used, gau can mean “nine” or “dog”. It can also be an unflattering reference to the male appendage aimed at someone who is distinctly not in favour.
We do, of course, retain a scattering of words in our scatty brains apart from the usual courtesies of “thank you” and “good morning”, but they don’t add up to much. I know the Cantonese for “crazy, beautiful, delicious, lecherous man” and “what’s your home telephone number?” (“Home” phone? You can tell how long ago those evening classes were.) Combined they would probably result in an arrest rather than an invitation to yum cha.
Finally, we maintain we can get by using English since it is still an official language. So lame excuses all really, particularly if any of us have the temerity to defend Cantonese. Now where was that beginner’s book and CD?
Photographs: What The Fox Studio/IB Photography; Getty Images/iStockphoto; AFP/Getty Images