This morning there’s an email in my box from Lisa in New York. “Mr. Wen wants to know when you are coming back. You have been gone for so long. And he wants you to buy a complete set of the Cantonese language teaching books that you got from Chinese University and send them to him.”
The books will cost me around $75 USD, and mailing them to New York will probably cost about the same. I’ll have to make a special trek all the way up to Shatin to buy them. But I write back to Lisa and tell her to assure our friend that I will do this as soon as possible. Because 78 year old Mr. Wen is my teacher, my very first Cantonese teacher.
Six years ago, I stumbled into a little Cantonese language school in New York’s Chinatown. It was on the fifth floor of a tenement walkup on Grand Street, just outside the subway entrance. I’d been hanging out in Chinatown video shops for quite some time, buying DVDs of obscure (to me) Hong Kong movies, and cultivating a connoisseurship of great Cantonese character actors, like the marvelous Anthony Wong Chau Saang, the star of Human Meat Pies: The Untold Story. I dug the way these guys talked, and I loved the melodic inflections of a language that sounded, to my musician ears, like a free jazz improvisation.
One day I walked out of the D train at Grand Street, looked up, and saw a banner hanging on the tenement fire escape “Chinese Language Classes“. I walked up the dark, dusty stairs, and into a tiny, shabby office space noisy with little children. I didn’t know at the time, but now I understand that this was a typical “Chinese school” for Chinese kids born in the U.S. whose parents are worried that they will never learn to read and write characters. Worried that they will become juk sing…
that is, sections of bamboo cut off from the living stalk at both ends, a deragatory slang term for overseas Chinese.
Literacy, in any culture, is a heavy-duty concern. But for Chinese, it takes on a far greater weight. Chinese characters are intertwined with, and inseparable from, Chinese history, literature, poetry, music and the visual arts. If you cannot read and write characters, you are not just illiterate; you literally have lost the keys to your culture. To yourself.
Pretty high stakes. And I think that’s one reason why Chinese pedagogy is so rigid and formal, why students are drilled to respect their teacher, and do everything he or she says without question.
I didn’t know about any of this, when I walked into the little tenement Chinese school in New York. My motivation for learning Cantonese was pretty low-brow, to say the least: I just wanted to be able to order dim sum in a restaurant, and to mouh lei tauh like Stephen Chow.
Day one, first class. I walked into the little airless tenement cubicle which, for the next two years, two afternoons a week, would be my Cantonese boot camp. Mr. Wen barely looked up from reading his copy of Wen Wei Po.
I sat down. He introduced himself, Ngoh haih Wan sin saang. In Cantonese, “sin saang” is, conveniently, an honorific for “teacher” as well as “mister.” And, confusingly, it can also mean “my husband”, which provides lots of laughs now when we go out to yam cha together and someone at the next table is curious that a blue-eyed gweipo is chattering in Cantonese with a gwong tauh elderly Chinese man. I just smile and explain to them, “Mr. Wen is my sin saang”.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. We’re back in the cubicle in New York, it’s 2001. Aside from a few expressions I’ve picked up from the movies, I don’t speak any Cantonese. But I’m an American so I have lots of ideas about how I should be learning Cantonese. I babble them all to Mr. Wen. I want to know what materials we’ll be using, whether he is from Hong Kong or Guangzhou and what accent we’ll be adopting, and…
Mr. Wen smiled. He handed me a book with a shiny gold cover, “Speak Cantonese, Vol. I“–the Yale classic primer whose roots go back to World War II, when the university was cramming U.S. soldiers in Cantonese so they could communicate with our southern Chinese allies in the field.
“Daih Yat Fo, Chapter One. Duhk syu!” he commanded.
I read the sentences and words aloud. And I continued reading aloud to my teacher for two hours twice a week for nearly two years, until we finished the entire volume. It sounds tedious and awful. I assure you it was not. Mr. Wen became my dear friend. He taught me Cantonese, and then pushed me to study and learn things I hadn’t planned on at all. But that’s another story, for another time.
Anyway, eventually I moved on from Mr. Wen’s class. I came to Hong Kong and studied at the Chinese University’s Yale In Asia Cantonese language school, the alma mater of cops, clerics, missionaries and crazy New Yorkers who want to mouh lei tauh like Stephen Chow. After one semester, I was feeling pretty good about my conversational skills. When I returned to New York, I went to visit Mr. Wen, and to my delight we almost never lapsed into English.
“Can you do me a favor,” he asked me as I was about to leave. “My older sister lives in Hong Kong. She doesn’t speak any English. I would like to give her $100 for her birthday. But I don’t want to put it in the mail.”
Say no more, Mr. Wen. When I returned to Hong Kong for my next semester of class, I had his red envelope, and his sister’s address and phone in hand.
She lives in Cheung Sha Wan, in a small flat on the fourth floor of a tong lau. Like her brother, she migrated to Hong Kong from a village in Guangzhou. Actually, she migrated twice. The first time was before World War II, when the Wens all came to Hong Kong and settled in Kennedy Town. But when the Japanese invaded the city, the Wen family fled and walked back across the border to Guangzhou.
After 1949, Ga Je Wen married a Hong Kong fellow named Wong and was able to get out of China. Mr. Wen, who by then was a translator and teacher in the English department at Canton’s Zhongshan University, stayed behind after the revolution. That’s why his family name, 溫 is transliterated into English as the Mandarin “Wen” instead of the Cantonese Wan.
A typical Hong Kong family story. Upheavals, migration, separation, war, revolution, and language changes.
Ga Je Wen eagerly opened her door and her outer gate when I knocked. “I know who you are!” she said to me. I sat down, and she brought me a glass of water (hot water, even though that day’s temperature was around 32 degrees Centigrade and there was no a/c in her flat. Which gives you an idea of how very Chinese she is).
I sipped politely, and we began to chat. That is, she began to chat, as I sank further and further into despair. Because I couldn’t understand anything she was saying. Nothing. Maybe two words out of every fifty.
Strangely, she seemed to understand me just fine. I presented her gift, and after about a half hour made some excuses and headed back to the MTR, utterly dejected. I’d now been studying Cantonese for how long? And I couldn’t even make polite conversation with my beloved teacher’s sister.
Afterwards, I talked about what happened with my friend Joyce, who, besides having the double-fluency that comes with being a Canada-born-Connecticut-educated Hong Konger, is my greatest supporter in my long march to Cantonese proficiency. J
oyce is also one of the most thoughtful people on the planet. When I told her how stupid I was feeling, how worthless my language skills were after all this study, she worked overtime to come up with an explanation that would make me feel better. “Well, she is an old woman. Maybe her accent is just old-fashioned. Was she missing a lot of teeth?”
Some months later, I returned to New York. Mr. Wen and I met for yam cha at his favorite place, an enormous, loud and busy jau ga on Elizabeth Street called Jing Fong. We chatted about this and that, and I gradually worked the conversation around to the subject of his sister.
“She seems quite well and healthy, and I enjoyed meeting her,” I said, then lowered my head a bit shamefully and added, “But I had a bit of trouble understanding her Cantonese.”
I figured Mr. Wen would look at me sternly, seriously and say something like, “Well, you must study harder.”
But that’s not what he did at all. His reaction, in fact, shocked me. He laughed. And when he finally stopped laughing he said this:
“You did not understand my sister because my sister does not speak Cantonese.”
Wait a minute, I said to Mr. Wen. How can that be? She definitely wasn’t speaking Mandarin. I know the sound of Toisan-wah (Toisan-ese, the Western Guangzhou dialect spoken by many Chinese immigrants to New York), and she wasn’t speaking that. And not Hakka, and not Fukienese either.
“My sister was speaking the language of our village,” Mr. Wen said. “I learned “real” Cantonese when they sent me to school in Guangzhou. She never went to school.”
And thus, in an instant, my understanding of the Cantonese language transformed. It was not the language of my old Yale University book, not even the language I’d picked up in the streets of Hong Kong. Cantonese was a shape-shifter of a tongue, that changed not only over time and through generations, but (like Italian) from village to village.
Or as Leung Kwok Hung put it to me one night over dinner, “Cantonese is like a moving target.”
That is why, I think, some elderly Cantonese speakers don’t refer to the language by its official name. It is, instead, “this language we speak at home,” or “this language that you and I are now speaking.” (c.f., see this post from the comments to “Ngoi Gwok Yan”).
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to hit the moving target. And sometimes I think that the longer you study Cantonese, the faster the target seems to move.