I have an estranged relationship with the Chinese language. While my first words were in Cantonese, preschool sped up the inevitable. By the time my parents enrolled me in Chinese language classes in at age five, English had usurped the title of my native tongue and I could feel a mutual grudge building.
I grew up in Markham, a Toronto suburb with a high population of immigrants from Hong Kong. You may know us for Pacific Mall, bootleg DVDs and raids by the RCMP on Pacific Mall to crack down on bootleg DVDs. Like any typical suburban youth, I harboured a certain disdain for my hometown and, in my case, by extension, the Chinese culture there.
When I told my friends I was going to learn Mandarin, I was met with the same reaction: “But don’t you already speak Chinese?” Toronto loves to pride itself on its multiculturalism. It’s our default catchphrase when explaining the city. So I was surprised to find out they didn’t know the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese and then once again at how difficult it was to explain it myself.
I’m Chinese but I’m no sinologist, but here is my rough explanation. The language spoken by the majority of Chinese people is Mandarin, which when literally translated means national spoken language. Regions have their own local dialect but everyone is taught to speak Mandarin at school. Cantonese is the language spoken in southern China’s Guangdong province and, mostly notably, in Hong Kong. Written Chinese is the same regardless which variety you speak–sort of. In mainland China they switched over from tradtional characters, which is still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, to simplified characters, which have fewer strokes and easier to write.
As a Cantonese speaker, I can’t understand when people speak Mandarin. There is a lot of crossover in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but the pronunciation is often completely different. When I started to learn reading and writing in Chinese school, I felt there was almost no connection to the way I talked. As a Cantonese speaker, the best way I can think to describe the difference is that Mandarin feelings like speaking the way I’d write a formal essay. Having learned a little bit of Mandarin, Cantonese, especially the Hong Kong kind I grew up with, now feels like talking entirely in street slang. The language you learn in school is always very formal and correct but still I’d be impressed if local Mandarin could touch the dirty depths of Cantonese.
Learning Mandarin has unearthed a Cantonese cultural identity I didn’t know I had. Everyday in class I have a “eureka!” moment when my teacher says a new word and I can match it with its Cantonese cousin. However, sometimes comparing the languages sometimes gives rise to “that’s not the way we do it” type sentiments. Half the time I can translate things directly from Cantonese to Mandarin and impress my teacher and the other half, she laughs at the things I come up with. Then there are times when I’m trying to think of a Mandarin word while I’m talking and the French one accidentally slips out.
The way foreigners instinctively stick together here (I am no exception) gives me new appreciation for how difficult the immigrant experience is. Suddenly the smallest errands become epic journeys that require seeking help from online forums or your friendly neighbourhood English-speaking Taiwanese.
Being here has made me realize I feel most like myself in English. Not being able to communicate verbally robs me of a big part of my personality. I realize now this played a big part in why, at a young age, I already felt turned off by Chinese culture. Now I wonder who I would be if I surrounded myself completely with non-English speakers. Often I feel like I could never be fluent or as comfortable in another language as I am with English. The biggest obstacle might not be a matter of practice or time, but just a matter of letting go.