Before I left the states, whenever I talked to people about my then-future job, one of the most common questions I got was, “Do you speak any Chinese?” It’s a very logical question (with an emphatic "no" as an answer), as communication is usually conducted through speaking. Believe it or not. Well, as I’ve mentioned a couple times in earlier posts, there’s no need at all to speak Chinese, or more specifically, Cantonese, to get by here; it’s a totally bilingual city. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to discover that I really like trying to learn the language. It’s very rewarding and impresses the hell out of the people here who are very happy to teach me anything I ask. And so, learning Cantonese has become one of my main hobbies these days.
In case you are wondering what exactly is the difference between Cantonese and Chinese, it’s that Cantonese is dialect of Chinese spoken in the southern part of the country. Mandarin is the dominant dialect of Chinese, but even Mandarin is spoken differently in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Comprable to cities like Atlanta and Boston in the sort of regional differences. Cantonese is the second-most widely spoken dialect out of dozens behind Mandarin. Cantonese and Mandarin are similar in some ways but the pronunciation is so different that someone who only knows one is not able to instantly understand the other. Fortunately, Chinese characters are the same for all dialects, though there are traditional and simplified. It’s one character per word, and I’m not even attempting that side of the language. Learning the sounds is hard enough.
Cantonese has seven or nine tones, depending on whom you ask. The tones are the ways to say a syllable. For example, high, low, middle, rising, falling and a few subtle ones in between. This is a real pain for a native English speaker like myself, where a word is always the same no matter how you say it. For example, the word "lo-tsi" means "teacher" in Cantonese. The "tsi" sound is a flat, higher pitch. But if you say it with a rising tone, it means shit. I wish I could record it for you, and I probably can somehow, but I’m too lazy. Just understand that if you try to learn “I would like to order the tofu please” from a guidebook and use the phrase at a restaurant without ever hearing a native speaker say it, the waiter will not understand you and probably ask you to point to it on the menu or say it in English. In fact, there are actually lots of restaurants here where the staff doesn’t speak Cantonese. Like for example, Ruby Tuesday.
I keep telling myself that being a musician with well above average ears and mimicking skills is a big asset in my attempts to pick up this language. It also helps to work with twenty people who speak English and Cantonese (and Mandarin, though I haven’t started on that one yet). I know only a handful of phrases and can count to ten so I am not nearly at the point where I can start a conversation with someone I’ve never met before. My coworkers say the best way to learn is to get a Hong Kong girlfriend. Perhaps I’ll put up a classified ad: “Looking for attractive HK female for the purpose of teaching me Cantonese. Will be repaid with long walks on the beach and top notch American humor and charm.” Maybe it’s worth a try?