On Cantonese language

I have to admit, when we first decided to come to Hong Kong, I was a bit disappointed by the language thing.  One of my priorities for overseas life was the chance to become fluent in another language.  I was expecting we'd end up in a place where my high school French and college Spanish would at least give me a fighting chance at achieving this goal.  And instead, we're in a city where I can't even begin to “sound out” words or try to recognize word roots, and where, even if I do learn Cantonese, a fat lot of good it will do me anywhere else in the world. On top of all that, Cantonese isn't even pretty—none of the poetry or lyricism found in the Romance languages. 

        Nevertheless, I dutifully signed up for “Cantonese for Beginners” at the YWCA, where I  learned how to introduce myself, how to call a taxi and give directions, and how to shop. (This last one might actually come in handy elsewhere, since most Chinatowns in the USA use Cantonese).  And I have to admit that I'm learning to appreciate Cantonese. Full of puns and wit, along with a penchant for excessively flowery descriptions, it is a language of poetry. 

       For instance, the number 8 (baat) is considered lucky, not because of some lunar significance or because it was mentioned in an early religious text but because it sounds like the word for amassing. I love that idea, that a word gets meaning not only from its assigned definition, but from its homonyms. If that's not poetic, I don't know what is.  (The Olympics in Beijing this summer, by the way, started on 8/08/08, at 8:08:08 local time. )

      Another example: The word meaning bat (fu) is a homonym for good luck. Thus, bats are a lucky symbol and are frequently painted onto dishes or woven into scarves.  Four (sai) on the other hand, sounds like death in Cantonese, so it is a number to be avoided.  

     And as for flowery language, one of Matt's colleagues in the English department recently exclaimed, while reading personal essays, “If I hear one more student talk about 'glorious victory' I am going to scream!”  Almost everything the students had accomplished, from piano contests to athletic events, was described in terms of “glorious victory.”  

      Our apartment building has this bit of poetry on its resident handbook: “Life is full of beauty of wonders/Taste is something that we acquire in life/The art of living demonstrates our status/Wealth might give us everything/But there is nothing like Home.”  (!) Even Starbucks gets into the act, exhorting us to "blossom over a cupful of joy" and describing its travel mugs and coffeepots as "delight to go" and "serenity at home." 

       I have been surprised to find this grandiose description creeping into my own speech.  Just last week, Matt and I were walking along the boardwalk of Tsim Shat Tsui, looking over Victoria Harbor to admire Hong Kong's skyline, and we spotted a coffeeshop with a great view: “Wow, that looks like a great place to get a drink and enjoy life.” 

       We both cracked up at this, such a Chinese thing to say, when normally we would say “enjoy the evening” or “enjoy the view.”  But why not “enjoy life”?  Why do we limit this enjoyable moment to its specific time and place? Isn't life, after all, made up of moments, strung together into one glorious whole?  So right now, I'm not just enjoying writing, not just enjoying this tea or this air conditioning, this chance to be alone while Matt and Finn are taking a walk—I'm enjoying life.
And as a sidenote--happy inauguration day, everyone!  We wish we could have been in the States on such an auspicious day, sharing the glorious victory and triumphal ascent of our storied and inspiring leader, destined to bring good fortune to the nation so endowed with wisdom as to elect such a man, born under the sign of the Ox, a sign which symbolizes prosperity through fortitude and hard work, and which is the sign of the new year of 2009 that will be celebrated in Chinese communities all over the globe in only a few days' time.     


KC Allen said...

That is the fun of Chinese, every word has about a hundred homonyms! It is an amazing language and you come to appreciate it more as you get into it. Any language without grammer is good in my book!

Numerology « Notes from an Escalator said...

[...] 10, 2009 by foodsmith Remember that post about Cantonese language where I said that the number four was bad luck? Well, we’ve lived here almost 9 months, [...]