American Cantonese

Growing up, I did not speak much Cantonese.  Mom thought it best for us to speak English fluently, and therefore took on the now-disproved belief that speaking multiple languages impedes learning. 

I still had some Chinese around me while growing up.  Mom would speak to her brother or sister in a mix of Cantonese and English.  Then there were some relatives who did not speak English, and therefore required me to speak in Chinese – like Granny, who speaks a dialect that is similar but not the same as Cantonese.  We also made regular weekly trips to Chinatown (the Manhattan one) to attend the torture that is Chinese School!

So given this “foundation,” though my Cantonese is weak, I am able to communicate decently in Hong Kong and also have been able to pick up a lot more while living here.  I’ve written before about my accent, but I’ve come to realize that not only do I sound funny, but the words I use can be a bit strange!

Cantonese is very much a living language no matter how much people think it will or should die, and that means that, like with English, there are lots of turns of phrases that come into fashion, and equally go out of fashion.  Since my family came to the United States decades ago, a lot of their vocabulary was in use in 1960s Hong Kong.  Since many other Chinese in New York also immigrated at that time, so were theirs!

And so in Chinatown, New York, there was a pocket of Cantonese speakers that sound as though they came straight out of the ’60s!

I’m sure that is all changing a lot more now that there have been some other bigger influxes of Chinese, including Mandarin speakers, but I have to admit that it is funny when I test my colleagues with my funny turns of phrases!

Just two small examples — the word for “insurance” is 保险 (apologies for the simplified characters, which are NOT characteristic of Hong Kong Cantonese!) – which sounds like “bo heem.”  But in NY, and other parts of the US, many Cantonese speakers still say “yin saw” — which is basically a Chinglishization of insurance.  However, it turns out very few people would use that word in Hong Kong today!

Then there’s the phrase “feed the tiger” or 喂老虎.  This means to feed the parking meter for some reason – but again, you will not hear this used in Hong Kong today either.

Finally, in the US, Chinese-Americans have developed their own words to suit them in their Western environment.  One day I asked a colleague to help me with reading a Chinese advertisement in a US Chinese newspaper about a company that hires helpers and day laborers, and got stuck at the words 啊米哥. He didn’t seem to know what it meant, and I kept reading it again and again in my mind – “ah mai gor, ah mai go….”

Then I got it — it was “amigo” – which is how Chinese in America call hispanics!

So I don’t just need to bear in mind that I have a funny accent in Chinese, but the words and phrases I use might really sound odd coming from someone born quite some time since they were last used commonly!


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