Friday, October 30, 2009

You mama glue stick, piano fire gumbutt?

           I was talking to a secondary school teacher the other day, when I mentioned that I was trying to learn Cantonese.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.  “It’s a very hard language.  Nine tones.  And here”—he gestured just above his adam’s apple—“it’s all here.  Very hard.”

Hong Kongers like to talk about how difficult their language is—so hard, in fact, that literacy in primary school kids learning guangdongua lags a year-and-a-half behind native speakers of other languages.

Folks who tell me Cantonese is a difficult language to learn, though, overlook one simple fact: 

I’ve been to Iceland.


Ten years ago, when my wife and I first visited our former neighbors from Ohio in Reykjavik, I was standing in the kitchen with Ingo discussing plans for the weekend. 

“We could go to—“ and then he sneezed.


“Excuse me?”

“No big deal.  So you were saying?”

“Well,” he said, “there are lots of options, but lots of people like—“ and then he sneezed again. 

“Maybe we should just have a quiet weekend at home,” I suggested.

Ingo frowned.  “Really?”

I didn’t figure it out until a few hours later when his then-wife (they’ve since divorced, proving that all men, or at least Ingo, are idiots) asked if we had warm sweaters. 

“Because—“ and then she sneezed “can get cold at night. 

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “What can?”

She sneezed again.

“Excuse me?”

She frowned, then sneezed a third time. 

I stared at her.  “Snaefells-what?”

“Snaefellsnes,” she said.

“You’re kidding, right?  That’s not really the name of a real place, where, like people really live and stuff?”

But apparently it was.  And that wasn’t the only Icelandic word that sounded like a bodily function gone wrong.  We were in that country for almost two weeks, and I never did learn how to say anything, not even my own name.  Every time I’d ask someone the name of something, it’d end up in a fight, insults being tossed around like so many rusty snaefellsneses, whatever the hell they are.

“So how do you say this?” I’d say holding up a long, brown, donut-like thing.

“Kleinur,” a young woman with curly hair would say.

“Kleinur,” I would repeat.

She would shake her head.  “No, no.”  Then she’d say it slower, making sure I heard it.  “Klei-nur.”

I’d follow her lead:  “Klei-nur.” 

Then she’d give me a look like she thought maybe all the wires were there, but a few had been crossed.  “Kleinur.”

Listening carefully, I would think I heard a slight hitch right in the middle of the word, like she’d just swallowed a gnat maybe.  And I would try to imitate it.  “Kleinur.”

Her face would turn red.  “Stop making fun of me.”

“I’m not making fun of you,” I’d say.  “Or your stupid language.”


By comparison, Cantonese is downright easy.  Sure, as my friend mentioned earlier, it has nine tones, twice the number of the much easier Putonghua (and that’s saying something).  There are three pitches—low, medium, and high.  Some words are spoken using one or the other of these tone at a level pitch.  Others are spoken starting at one of these pitches and going down, or going up.  And still other words are spoken starting at one of these tones, going up, then going down, then dropping out of high school to hang out with the wrong crowd at the corner drugstore, then going up again. 

You think I’m kidding.  I wish I were. 

The thing is, the tone is very very very important.  The same word—say, “mm”—can mean two different things, depending on how you say it.  Spoken with a level tone, it means “five.”  Spoken with a falling tone, it means “not.” 

And that’s a relatively inane example.  As one colleague likes to point out, there are some words in Cantonese that, when spoken with one tone, refers to the most charming person you’ve ever met.  And when spoken in another tone refers to something you do to a sheep’s carcass early in the slaughter process. 

There’s another example I could use involving dogs, the number nine, and slang for anatomical bits and pieces, but not only would Fulbright jerk my funding so quick I’d look like Brett Favre with a Wisconsin advertiser, my wife would make me sleep under the couch for a week.  That’s right:  under. 

Then there’s the fact that a lot of Cantonese sounds aren’t sounds that suburban white folk from the upper Midwest normally make, sounds that come from the lower front of your throat, where your tongue connects to your neck and popcorn kernels sometimes get stuck.  There is, for instance, “ngoi,” the all purpose phrase that means, depending on the situation, “Excuse me,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “Your mom just got eaten by a giant hamster.” 

In Swahili, arguably one of the easiest languages in the world, “ngoi” would be pronounced “nnnngoi,” with a clean N sound, tip of the tongue just over the teeth.  In Cantonese, on the other hand, it’s pronounced more like the last part of “SingiNG” (or, more accurately, “GaggiNG”), the throat clenching so that the back of your mouth comes down to meet the root of your tongue. This not a part of the tongue, I’ll point out, that’s meant to be used.  If it were, then it wouldn’t require massage therapy afterwards.   And this sound is at the beginning of a word.  Of many words, in fact.  That anyone in this nation is capable of speaking more than 4 words a minute is incredible. 

I could go on:  the Ts that sound neither quite like Ts nor quite like Ds; the Gs that sound almost like Ks; the ZHs that sound like Js.  But I’ve made myself clear.

To you, at least

It doesn’t help that Ellen is a genius with languages.  This is a woman who learned German before she knew English, who actually acquired enough skill in high school French to get around the country, who can still remember Kiswahili phrases she hasn’t used in 20 years.   When I hear “Kleinur,” Ellen hears something else, some tick of the throat, maybe, or a nasal inflection that my unrefined neurons don’t even register.  Much like a dog that just can’t hear the whistle. 

This, of course, makes for some frustrating moments while living together in a foreign land.  A few weeks ago, the Fulbright organization put together a big retreat out in the country.  One evening dinner consisted of a bunch of tired academics sitting around fire pits grilling their own food on long sticks.  Because, of course, this sort of thing requires patience, common sense, and a basic knowledge of how physics works—three things most academics lack—our host institution was wise enough to provide a number of extra staff to make sure enough food got cooked so that the faculty didn’t go home hungry. 

At one point, Ellen and I ended up over at the same pit the staff were using to cook their own meals.  Within minutes, Ellen had engaged the women in a conversation about children, their jobs, and astrophysics.  I sat there quietly, trying to keep up, nodding every so often to make it seem as though I understood what was going on.  But alas, I was clueless.  Eventually, I got up and wandered over to the table where the ungrilled meat was waiting to be skewered and held over an open flame.  One of the women was there cleaning up, so I spent about twenty minutes choosing my words, then said, “Please, may I have another piece of Chicken?”

The woman looked at me and frowned.  I frowned back.  I knew these words.  I was sure I did. I tried again.  “Please?  More Chicken?”

She smiled at me, a little nervously, then glanced at some of her coworkers.  One of them came over and leaned an ear in.  I took a deep breath and gestured broadly, as though I were swimming through thick, dull air.  “Me?”  I pointed at my mouth.  “Chicken?”

The two women looked at each other.  The first one said something to the other, who responded, and then they bantered back and forth for a few moments.  Finally, the second woman, who clearly understood some English, turned to me and said, “That is very kind of you, but she’s already married.  And besides, her mother already has a piano.”


Part of the problem with trying to learn a new language, of course, is that you have to have people listen to you.  And, not surprisingly, most people aren’t really in the mood to listen to their mother tongue be slaughtered.  I’ll be at our favorite dried goods shop, for instance, ordering almonds and dried papaya.  “Yut,” I’ll say, pointing at the nuts.  The clerk will nod, grab a bag, and start to fill it up to equal one pound.  Then I’ll point at the dried fruit and repeat the same word:  “Yut.”  One.  Again, she’ll nod, reach for a bag and give me what I want.

Emboldened, I’ll do the math in my head:  one pound of almonds costs HK$62; a pound of papaya costs 36 HK.  That’s 98.  Okay.  So nine is “Gow” (not dog, or . . . well, you know) and ten is “Sup,” so 90 is “Gow sup.”  Okay.  Good.

But what’s eight?   Tsat?  No, that’s 7.  Sup?  No, ten, you idiot. 

Meanwhile, the clerk will have handed the two bags to the owner of the shop, who stands behind the scales and weighs everything.  She’s beautiful, this woman, in her mid-to-late fifties, with her hair pulled back from her Princess Grace forehead. You can just tell she takes no crap, from anyone.  Because when you look like Princess Grace and own your own nut shop, you pretty much get to call the shots.

Anyhow, Princess Grace will be weighing the two bags of goods and just starting to reach for her calculator and I’ll be thinking, “Crap, crap, crap!  What’s eight?”  And she’ll be plugging the numbers in, and I won’t want her to show me the numbers on that calculator, because that’s like being a kid who’s ten and having someone ask you “What did Santa bring you for Christmas this year?” and you just want to slap the fat old bat because everyone knows that Santa doesn’t exist (sorry, Chris), and besides, what you wanted was X-Box, and what you got was *&%$#! Scrabble. 

Anyhow, she’s punching the numbers, and you’re panicking because you know this! and for god’s sake, you did seven years of grad school and you survived your oral defense and revisions and being treated like a doormat, and you know this, and she’s checking the numbers to make sure they’re right, and you shout:


At which point, every Asian in the vicinity—in other words, everybody, periodturns and looks at the crazy white boy.

The crazy white boy who just trimmed eight Hong Kong dollars off the price of a bag of nuts.

And doesn’t the princess know it. 

She frowns. 

She raises that regal forehead another four inches into the air, glancing at you down her very elegant nose.  How dare you try to bargain with her?  How dare you try to cheat her out of what is justly hers?  Do you not know who she is?  She is the queen—yes, that’s right—the queen of dried goods! 

And you’re thinking, among other things: 

1)   Gosh she’s pretty. 

2)   Bot.  Eight is Bot.

3)   I want my mommy.

4)   Gosh she’s pretty.

            And all you can say is, “Gow sup bot,” but it’s too late.  Because there’s that calculator staring you in the face:  98.


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