Illustrations by Cate Roser
It was bingo time at Yale’s Orientation for International Students, and my groupmates had yet to write a name in the box for “a person who speaks three or more languages.”
“Wait — Kinnia, don’t you speak English, Cantonese, and Mandarin?”
“Yeah, but it’s more like 2.5 languages… you know?” They wrote my name in the box anyway, and I was left wondering how I had arrived at the number 2.5. I was pretty sure that Cantonese was the 0.5 — I just wasn’t sure why.
Growing up in Hong Kong meant that most of my classes were taught in English besides six years of Chinese classes in Mandarin, but I spoke Cantonese — my native language — everywhere else. One Friday afternoon in seventh grade, I left my Chinese class unsettled. I sprinted back home, desperately Googling the prosodic rules of ancient Tang poems on my sluggish Samsung Note — all because my teacher had commented on how these poems were meant to be recited in Cantonese, not Mandarin. Bursting into the kitchen, in a twelve-year-old’s piercing soprano, I started a fervent reading of Wong Wai’s “Yearning” in Cantonese. My mom was unimpressed, even after my five-minute lecture on how, prosodically, Cantonese makes the poem that much more meaningful. Scoffing, she said: 「相思你識條鐵咩」 (loosely: “what the hell do you know about yearning?”). In that moment, though, I felt like I did know what it was like to yearn — for validity, if not anything else.
I tell this story a lot; I enjoy how idiosyncratic and defensive it makes me seem. In the years since, I’ve picked up the habit of writing in spoken Cantonese (which makes use of the universal set of Chinese characters and some more niche, Canto-specific ones). This habit is like microdosing the drug that is unsolicited Cantonese poetry in the kitchen; I feel real, and illicit, when I do it. I almost never see spoken Cantonese written out officially, as TV captions or in government papers; Mandarin is always employed as the standard written form (which, in itself, represents a kind of superiority: there’s no fear that it will ever be lost in the tides of time).
Nonetheless, this drug has taken its toll on me: I have never felt as incompetent as I did one night, sitting cross-legged on my wobbly dorm chair, nervously chewing the tip of my pencil while helping my friend with her L3 Chinese homework. Embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure about the “official” written syntax which I knew her instructor must have expected; Beijing Mandarin, after all, has nuances that differ drastically from the Cantonese structures I am used to. I never told anyone how I labored over the Mandarin speaking portion in Yale’s Chinese placement test (I emailed to ask about protocols for native Cantonese speakers, only to find that Yale didn’t have a system for recognizing spoken proficiency in Chinese dialects), and, after twenty discarded voice recordings, settled for a garbled fusion of Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations. Beyond feeling sorry for my Mandarin teachers in primary school, I also sensed that, in some way, I had failed to live up to my roots. If I couldn’t even help my friend with her Chinese homework in America, or express myself coherently on a test that was specifically designed to test Chinese abilities, what did I have apart from the impassive label, “Chinese,” on my passport?
Probably noticing how I struggled to correct her grammar, my friend turned to me and said, “It’s OK to not know Chinese perfectly — you’re an English major anyway!” It was clearly meant as a gesture of comfort, but it really hurt — in ways that I am only beginning to understand.
During family dinners, my grandma has told me, with an emphatic nod, 「讀英文好」 (“being an English major is good”). And I agree, especially the part of me that’s still thirteen and beaming onstage at school, clutching my certificate for “Best in Form for English.” But where does this pride come from, exactly? My parents like to recall how, thirty years ago, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, knowing how to English was the only skill you needed in the job market. English was the language of royalty; it was spoken in “rich people places”— areas where Western expats worked and drank — while Cantonese prevailed in the wooden slum villages my dad lived in. So I guess my family is proud that I am an English major, not because they necessarily value literature, but because it was and still is an achievement to speak the language of our colonizers — and to speak it well. So it goes: another authority, another “official” elite language, but the same illegitimate space that Cantonese is boxed into.
Sometimes, even I wonder whether the language I speak is legitimate. It’s a colonial debt we never repaid: my grandpa used to own a si6do1 (“store”), I take the dik1si2 (“taxi”) when I’m late for school, and my favorite drink is so1daa2 (“soda”). The words I speak are in-betweens, echoes of a language I do not own. Is it not tragically fitting that I, being in love with the real deal, am studying English in America?
In my senior year of high school, we studied Pai Hsien-yung’s Death of Chicago. After completing his PhD in Western Literature at the University of Chicago, the main character 漢魂 (literally “Chinese soul”) realizes that he does not know how to reconcile his abstract knowledge of Western literature with his Chinese identity — he spirals into depression, ultimately ending his life in Lake Michigan. By then, all my classmates knew I was planning on majoring in English in the US; this ensured that I was consistently the topic of discussion (and the butt of many insensitive jokes about suicide) in Chinese class. I would always respond with “the bodies of water in Connecticut are not picturesque enough” — but even then, I sensed cultural betrayal looming over me like the fog over Victoria Harbor in spring. My impending betrayal had been easy to ignore when I was confident enough in my own English abilities, yet lately I’ve been feeling like I have no right to speak in English classes at Yale, with my weirdly phrased sentences and jumbled thoughts.
Last Wednesday, my suitemates and I were jaywalking outside our college; we were so engrossed in a discussion that when a gray Toyota came speeding towards us, no one noticed but me. In a moment of frenzied panic, I screamed in the middle of the road, 「睇車啊!」 In my mind, this fleeting moment of unabashed Cantonese in the middle of New Haven is engraved as an eccentric diary entry I always return to; it is relieving to know that Cantonese is still my go-to during emergencies. The phrase was useless though — no one understood me. As the Toyota streaked behind us, my suitemate yelled in Mandarin 「你說啥?」 — I yelled back (in English) “Nothing!” and chuckled to myself all the way to Sterling.
When I speak, I settle — as my ancestors did — in the in-betweens, the illegitimacies. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about how, in Cantonese, 寫, 瀉 and 捨 all have the same pronunciation; therefore, to say that I write is to say that I spill, which is also to say I experience diarrhea, which sounds exactly like I sacrifice. There is a brutal sense of tragedy: if I give up something on either side of me, does it mean that I will be saved from the chasm in between?