Monthly Archives: September 2010

Charming in Chinese: My First Speech in Cantonese and My Accent

I’ve been quite bad about blogging, been so busy with getting used to the idea of working full-time again after a a two-year break and studying for these two exams after never believing I’d never take another law exam again in my life!  And one more thing I’ve had to work on — my first speech in Cantonese!!

A few weeks ago at an alumni event in Shenzhen, I got to talking to a a native HK alum about a variety of things, but particularly about the Cantonese language.  Although my first words uttered were likely in Cantonese it is far from being my native language.  I don’t count or dream in it, and I usually hate speaking in it because it is just nowhere near the same in terms of my English fluency, so I feel I cannot be anywhere near as expressive or articulate when I use Cantonese (or any Chinese for that matter).

I noticed when I first got here how locals could suss out my foreign accent when I spoke Cantonese, but were oddly always guessing that I was from Singapore.  Now no offense S’poreans, but I just am not a fan of the way you speak English!  So to hear that my Cantonese indicated Singaporean seemed like an insult to me!

One day, curious of this repeat observation, I asked the cab driver who made the same mistaken assumption why.  Initially I thought it was because I just looked obviously non-HK, and that Singaporeans made up a great percentage of the non-locals who could speak Cantonese, but he actually informed me that I had a peculiar accent — that my Cantonese was much “lighter” than the way the locals spoke.

Now that was an explanation I could associate with!  I’ve started to find myself despising the local Cantonese, and understanding why foreigners find it so ugly. Hong Kongers actually speak Cantonese quite heavily and forcefully, and at the same time a bit lazily, as in, they omit a lot of sounds that ought to come at the front or end of words (imagine someone saying a word like “chocolate” and not pronouncing the “t” at the end or slurring a word like “nuance” — totally random examples, btw).  Often times I have to shut off my television when I have it on just for background noise because the language just starts to grate at my ears — or perhaps more because soap operas are almost always on and there is just too much over-emotional blather from screaming to sobbing.  It’s not just television though, as I often find myself giving nasty stares to couples in cafes when they are talking way too loud (or maybe it’s just the loudness).

The reality is, Cantonese is an amazing language.  It is actually more similar to the ancient or older Chinese used in the times of the Tang dynasty, and so when you read poetry from that era (or other eras), it rhymes or sounds better when read in Cantonese versus Mandarin.  Also, given that Sun Yat-Sen, who was once given the opportunity to become China’s leader, was Cantonese (seems there is some debate that he may have been Hakka), the country well could have made Cantonese the national language (Mandarin became the official language sometime around 1909 or 1911 — again differing citations).

In any case, this is not a post about the history of Cantonese, or a Mandarin vs. Cantonese debate — but rather my exultation of the language.  Cantonese is a bit more complex, with 9 tones (some say 7 — argh, why are there so many inconsistencies when it comes to the Chinese language!?), so it can sound especially melodic, and the language in itself is just so colorful, with more slangs, puns, idioms, and internal variations.  Word usage is somewhat different in Cantonese, for those of you who are Mandarin studiers, and is in itself quite different region to region too.  Hence, it seems strange that I should have such a disdain for Hong Kong Cantonese.

So if my accent is so “light,” as I was told, and HKers’ are so “heavy,” what is the “real” Cantonese accent like?  Well, indeed, it is in fact something in between, if you want to presume that Guangzhou is the place of the “standard” Cantonese accent!  Further, it would explain why I am so unaccustomed to the HK style, since both my parents came from regions much closer to GZ, if anything, plus my father’s mother (albeit a loud talker!) and my mother’s sister-in-law are from GZ. And to clarify once more – my mom and dad only lived in HK for about a decade, they were not born here.

Anyhow, as we  continued to talk about Cantonese, this alumna I met asked if I’d be interested in doing a speech in Cantonese before his local Rotary Club! I was a bit hesitant, as I always worry how stupid I sound in Chinese, but I accepted the challenge, and a few weeks later, I’d come up with a relevant topic — I spoke about my eyewitness account of 9/11 in New York and linked it with the recent tragic bus hijacking in Manila.  I was able to do the first half of my speech, describing my personal experiences, in Cantonese with little incident, but when it came to the second half, where I urged Hong Kongers to similarly “Never forget,” and forge some kind of national identity and stay active, I chose to switch to English, just to make sure I did not mess up.  Overall it wasn’t so bad since in HK most educated folks do speak English, so it was perfectly acceptable to make that last minute switch, and Hong Kong Chinese means mixing in a lot of English at the same time (e.g. 你get我的意思嗎?), so overall, the speech went well.  Plus, my message was apparently very well received.

I got compliments on my Chinese as well, and was told for only living in HK for one year, it was quite good — although it’s not as if I just learned it all from scratch in the past year (we didn’t speak Cantonese at home but I still sort of learned it through some limited osmosis here and there).  It was also observed that I said some words with a sort of Mandarin twist, and was asked if I was more fluent in Mandarin — but the reality is just that I’ve learned so much of my formal Chinese in Mandarin, that I will make a lot of such mistakes in Cantonese, even though I am technically a Cantonese person!

It was a relief to get the speech over with, as I really fretted quite a lot over it.  However, I am ever grateful to Perry for giving me that opportunity and am proud of myself for doing this! Public speaking is never easy, but doing it in a language that you think you sound dumb is is even harder!

Another anecdote on Chinese before I end this entry — a few weeks, I found myself again in Shenzhen, where I like to get beauty services on the cheap (you can get an excellent massage at a clean and reputable spa for about 25 cents USD a minute).   In SZ, the language used is actually Mandarin, even though it borders on Hong Kong and is in Canton (Guangdong) province.  Many people do speak Cantonese, however, as so may HKers also cross the border to do shopping and such frequently.

I was at the hairdressers, where it seemed everyone wanted to speak to me.  This was actually not the first time I found this to happen.  BTW — in Asia, a lot of hair salons primarily employ men.  For some reason, hair is something only men do (I’ve never had a female barber or stylist once in China/HK, in contrast to NY, where I nearly always find a woman to do my hair), including the hair washers frequently (but not always).  So perhaps you can say that men in the hair business are just supposed to be extra flirtatious, but this did not seem to be my observation with the other customers.

I definitely do not think I’m any sort of special beauty, and I’d guess that a lot of people in Asia would think I’m even too big to be Chinese (the only time I’d ever seen people from China look the same size as me was when the Chinese Olympic Fencing team came to visit my club in NY — and they weren’t beasts or anything, just athletic and fit!).  Anyhow, as I was talking to the stylist who was doing my hair, I said how I hated to talk in Chinese (we switched between Mandarin and Cantonese, as he knew both, but primarily spoke in Mandarin), and he interjected — but I love the way you sound in Chinese!  He also proceeded to ask me if I were married, and since I wasn’t, if I had a boyfriend, if I was doing anything for dinner, if I could stay longer, and when I was coming back.

That’s when it dawned upon me — duh! If Americans find foreigners with accents in English so charming, so must Chinese people!!

CDotD: Your Security Deposit is NOT Guaranteed!

No one likes studying, but I have owned up to the task of the OLQE, and am steadily studying conveyancing and company law with the aid of a prep course (thank goodness for that).  Along the way, however, I learn all kinds of interesting things about Hong Kong law and history, get a sense of business and law practices here, heck, I even learn English by studying for this stuff!  All some good consequences of this awful exam.

Yesterday, as we were reviewing under guest lecturer Judith Sihombing, a prominent law professor at the Chinese U. and author of “A Student’s Guide to Hong Kong Conveyancing,” I brought up a curious thing I’d read in our course notes on security deposits.

Like whichever country you are reading from, HK landlords will collect a security deposit from tenants to protect their property from damage, and incentivize tenants to keep their rented property in good repair.  At the end of your tenancy, so long as the property has not been damaged beyond ordinary wear and tear, the landlord shall refund your deposit.  In HK, typical residential tenancies require 2 months’ security deposit.

However, what happens when your landlord sells your flat to a new purchaser? This is a very common occurrence, as flipping is prevalent, and the real estate market always seems to be hot here in HK.  The good news is that insofar as your lease goes, the new landlord must honor its term.  The bad news — any option to renew that has not been registered in the Lands Registry, needn’t be honored.  The worse news?  Your security deposit is gone!

That’s right!! No, the former landlord will not be transferring your security deposit over to the new landlord, nor does the new landlord have any obligation to hold your security deposit to be returned upon the end of your lease.  If you want it back, you have to find your original landlord (assuming he hasn’t moved to Canada or something), and request it or even sue him for it.

This is because the wonderful Hong Kong courts elected to follow some ancient English Privy Council case that held that security deposits did not run with the land, and were rather completely separate contracts between the tenant and landlord constrained under privity of contract.  For all you non-law people reading — it means that the security deposit remained a matter between you and your original landlord, and cannot transfer elsewhere even though you are now involved with a new landlord.

Being from an incredibly pro-tenant jurisdiction, I was just floored.  My heart felt actual physical strain as I tried to wrap my head over this grossly unfair practice.  Prof. Sihombing went onto explain that no, Hong Kong does not do much for its consumers, and no, the government doesn’t care to hear your complaints because no your vote doesn’t really count here.  What??

Apparently there is still much much more for me to learn (I think it’s going to take a while before I can explain Legco to you – stay tuned if that’s a foreign word to you), and I definitely have quite a ways to go before I can stop feeling like such an outsider!

However, just to be accurate — there are little things you might be able to do to try to protect your security deposit.  You can get your security deposit to be held on trust, but the issue is that the new purchaser must have bought with knowledge of this trust.   You might be able to get the new owner to agree to an assignment of the deposit (again, how is an unknowing unsuspecting tenant to know what’s even going on, or how on earth would this poor little third party get involved?).  Or the landlord, new owner, and tenant might enter into a novation agreement to otherwise get the new owner to assume liability to repay the deposit.  Of course, the same issues arise.  So, aside from these highly unlikely exceptions, most tenants are completely screwed when their landlord sells their flat — which seriously happens very commonly here in HK!

My Anniversary Post — ONE YEAR!

On September 1, 2009 I got on a plane in New York’s JFK Airport to arrive in Hong Kong 15 hours (not including time spent in the airport for the usual niceties) later, September 2, 2009.  As the story goes – I had nothing but my 2 suitcases (and 2 carry-ons), and I didn’t know anyone or anything.  I had no family, no friends, no partner, no job. I had no idea what to expect, but knew just that I needed a change.

In Hong Kong there was so much newness, so much to learn and figure out.  I began experiencing feelings I hadn’t in a long time — wonder and curiosity, exercising a new sort of problem-solving, forcing myself to be social as well as getting to know how to be alone a whole lot more.

I gained a lot in coming to HK.  As Teresa, who has known me for nearly 2 decades, observed, I was finally able to just focus on myself here.  It was the first time I’d ever lived alone, and every day was about me and what I needed to do or wanted to do. 

 I enjoyed my two semesters at the CUHK, studying Mandarin.  It was quite a feeling when I realized I could also experience emotion and awe reading Chinese fiction just as I do in English.  It was fascinating getting to know a foreign student through a third language (my native language would be English, hers Japanese or Korean, but it was through Chinese that we communicated).  It was amazing fun getting to know Pan Laoshi’s sense of humor, even though he spoke the least English of all our teachers. And there was such a feeling of satisfaction whenever I could get through a more complex sentence that better reflected my much higher level of expression in English. 

I love getting to know Hong Kong, which plays a big part of my family roots on both my mom’s and dad’s sides.  I lived in Wan Chai my first three months here, where, I found out later, my dad grew up in the 50s.  I visited my great grandmother’s grave in Tseun Wan during a gravesweeping holiday last September.  And I met my mom’s old high school friend twice while she was still in her HK home (she lives here half time).  

I feel such warmth when I observe old Chinese grannies or small children (especially baby hairs! and especially at my favorite Hollywood Road Park); I love listening to the many slangs and colloquialisms of Cantonese (although could do with less of that heavy HK accent and some of the curses!); and I’ve learned a lot of little cultural things here and there – from the way people pray, eat, and shop.   

I’ve gotten to know lots of new people, meeting more international folks than ever.  In fact, I’m typically the “token” American, or one of very few. 

I made bulgogi for the first time at my first dinner party in HK and have gotten requests to make it again!

I saw my first play in Cantonese here, watched a HK movie in HK, have become woefully addicted to fresh warm egg tarts (why can’t they make them like that in the States??).

I’ve been blessed to visit 9 countries, including HK, during this year abroad, some of them more than once (Thailand, China and Macau).

I learned to count to 20 in Hindi (mostly — I tend to need help in the teens), bought my first piece of “permanent” jewelry – my jade bracelet, and got a still more permanent tattoo.

I helped raise funds to end cancer in the Beat the Banana Man Charity Run (even though I was massively disappointed that beating the banana man did not mean pummeling him), and enjoyed volunteer time with local kids at the Changing Young Lives Community Center.

I’ve had 8 guests, including 2 of my 3 sisters, come visit and stay with me.  Two others who visited stayed in outside accommodations.

Although I still haven’t learned to swim, I did get my Level 1 rock climbing certification, in spite of a very real fear of heights, and just barely sorted out the lock ‘n’ twist climbing technique.

I finished reading 8 books in this year, including a massive 1200 page novel.  I have 3 that I’ve started and have yet to finish.  Oops.

Professionally,  I was fortunate enough to get a lot of good networking done in my first year – meeting some of HK’s most famous solicitors and observing my first legal case at the Court of Final Appeal, meeting my “mentor” who always checks in on me and introduces me to all sorts of influential people, and even landing  my (first) job in HK through an informational interview that I had back in October ’09. 

I’m studying HK law now, getting to know it from a whole new angle, as I prepare to be locally admitted.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d bother with another qualification — I always insisted I’d never bother with California, it being so far away, and now look? I’m getting a third qualification in a foreign country!

Indeed, there is so much else that awaits me as I embark on my SECOND year here!  Gosh, who’d’ve thought I’d get this far?

I have my reservations, indeed, but for this day, I’d like to focus on the positive.  I am blessed to have had the financial means, independence, and opportunity to do this, making this year one I will never forget all my life.

Thank you to my friends and family back home.  I know you miss me and I miss you all so terribly much too, especially Granny.  I plan to be back in February 2011, when I’ll hopefully get to meet the p-babies!! Thank you the Internet for making communications with all those back in the States cheap and easy.  Thank you to all the new friends I’ve made in HK, whether we met for just a few hours, or have been hanging out since my very first weekend in HK (Michelle! Zeyar!), and of course a special shout-out to Vineet, my first friend in HK (although you weren’t here when I first arrived quite!).  Thank you to the wonderful teachers at the CUHK CLC, who challenged and encouraged me as I attempted to get a better handle on what must be the hardest language ever (or top 5 hands down!).  Thank you to Steve, my HK “mentor”, whom, as I said, always checked in on me and introduced me to many wonderful people.  Thank you to my alumni networks, which I did tap into to meeting lots of great people.  Thank you to Varun, my famous two-week boyfriend, who gave me and continues to give me sincerity in what can be such a superficial world at times.  Thank you Pure Fitness – you are indeed my “happy place,” and I don’t know what my fatass self would do without you.  Thank you Project X Team for organizing great events with great people, and getting me out and about all around Hong Kong for wall climbing. Thank you Brownstone Management, the team that keeps the family business in order back in NY, so that I don’t have to worry about it anymore. There’s so much else to thank in this world, but I just noticed my word count exceeding 1200 — so I’ll just end this with a general thank you Earth, Life and Love.  It’s amazing what the human spirit is capable of, and I hope that as I embark on this second year in HK, I can give back even half of what I’ve received.