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!!

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6 responses to “Charming in Chinese: My First Speech in Cantonese and My Accent

  1. Chinese people don’t find Cantonese more charming. Certainly not I. We mostly find Cantonese loud and obnoxious, with more resemblance to Vietnamese than Mandarin in terms of tone and pitch. This would apply to my Korean and Japanese friends as well. They all see Cantonese as “inferior”.

    • I don’t know what your personal experiences are, but I’m just making my own personal observations as an ABC living in Asia (now two years and counting!). Based on my personal experiences, I’ll respectfully disagree, and I have been loving learning and using Cantonese more and more, and if you popped over to TST in Hong Kong, you will find it’s definitely not the Cantonese who are “loud and obnoxious!”

  2. Pingback: Cantonese: A Language to Love | Because It's Time

  3. Guest #1

    Get over yourself and your tone and pitch, I love both Mandarin and Cantonese and Durian and noone is going to take away my love for the world.

    And.’certainly not I’, is the most pretentious sentence I have read in 2012, maybe you should consider not to use it in the future.

  4. Pingback: American Cantonese | Because It's Time

  5. Cantonese is not necessarily loud, depends on the person. I agree most of people talk like a duck, but some very educated people I have met speak very gently.

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