Learning Cantonese, Unlearning Shame

Learning Cantonese, Unlearning Shame

Earlier this year I was taking Conversational Cantonese at City College. After a lifetime of fractional non-conversations with my grandparents with mom and dad as translator, and catalyzed finally by a trip to Hong Kong where I could not tell my taxi driver where our hotel was, I finally gave in.

My Cantonese teacher was a small, fast-talking, borderline ADHD woman named Mrs. Wong. For some reason she would come into every single class ten minutes late, out of breath and laughing: “HAHA! I have to walk all the way across campus carrying these heavy bags! HAHA! It’s so warm in here!” At first I was genuinely confused as to why this woman was so manic, but if she could teach me Cantonese, all would be forgiven.

I started off in the beginner-beginner super n00b 10a class, filled with white guys trying to holla at Chinese girls in the mother tongue. I sat next to a few other ABC (American-born Chinese) students who wanted to brush up on the language their grandparents spoke to them in. In our second class, Mrs. Wong singled out all the students with Chinese last names. The first was a girl sitting behind me.

“WHAT’S YOUR CHINESE NAME???” Mrs. Wong yelled, as she was apt to do. “Umm… I think it’s…” and she said her Chinese name. “WAIT WAIT WAIT. What did you say??? Did you mean to say…” and then Mrs. Wong proceeded to shame this girl about the way she pronounced her Chinese name! In my head I’m like, oh hell no this crazy lady better not come around to me or we’re gonna have some problems. But sure enough… “Nathan? Nathan Lee?” I raised my hand, “Hai douh.” “Nathan, what’s your Chinese name?” “I’m not sure… I have to ask my grandma,” I said, prepared for confrontation. “AIYAHH!!! You forgot! Aiyah ok ask your grandma then and tell me next class.” And that’s how I escaped the wrath of Mrs. Wong.

There was this one white guy in the class who was helllla loud and whenever Mrs. Wong would ask us to repeat a word, he would yell it from his seat but his pronunciation was straight lahp sahp—hot trash-type pronunciation. What drove me crazy though was that he didn’t stop. Every single time, even though he knew his pronunciation sucked, even though people would giggle at him, he was still shouting it out like he was super proud. And it hit me one time when I was leaving class and Mrs. Wong said to me, “Mhgoi, joigin!”—“Thank you, goodbye”—and all I could say was “…Ok!” even though everyone else in the class, especially my Loud White Brother, would say goodbye to her in Cantonese. Why couldn’t I just say “joigin” like everyone else? I wondered how much shame had built up in myself over years of being embarrassed whenever I would attempt to speak Cantonese to other Chinese people. And how for white folks, that shame simply wasn’t there. Loud White Brother can shout out janky Cantonese like no one’s listening because he has no framework for linguistic shame from his own people. And I’m embarrassed to say my own Chinese name or a simple phrase like, “Thank you, good bye” because in my attempts to say those things throughout my life, I’ve only been met with embarrassment. Shame is something we learn, something we’re conditioned to.

Because of my work schedule, I had to transfer to the slightly more advanced 10b class. Why I thought this would be a good idea, I’m not completely sure. But this class had less loud white people and more ABCs like me. There was this one kid Josh who had 6 years of school-learned Cantonese… boy he was a know-it-all and I could not stand it because he was hapa and his Canto was pretty good for someone who didn’t grow up speaking it (he also had transition lenses, which made it easier to not like him). But man this kid brought the identity issues out in me. Like yo, Josh, why are you showing everybody up by writing out the characters when this is a conversational class, it’s unnecessary dude. Besides our token white guy, Matt (married to a Chinese woman), Josh was the least Chinese dude in the class by appearances (said one student: “I thought he was lo fahn!”), and yet he was the star student. When Mrs. Wong asked me one day to be his conversation partner for the rest of the semester, I was like “Umm no. He’s too good.” “That’s why it will be helpful for you!” Mrs. Wong so astutely replied, and I knew she was right. But I couldn’t partner up with the very person who reflected back my shame so clearly. Yes, I resented Josh. But perhaps I resented him because he was what I wanted to be: the Americanized ABC whose Cantonese, though heavily English-accented, was solid. And if I couldn’t achieve this, I didn’t want to be partnered up with the guy who already had.

Eventually work became too tiring for me to keep going to class. I dropped it in March and my Cantonese ability has quickly regressed to the level it’s been at my whole life: limited to dim sum and curse words. I hope I can get back into Mrs. Wong’s class sometime in the future, but I’m glad, at least in this one area, that I did not run away. Once I started going to the 10b class, I started greeting and saying goodbye to Mrs. Wong in Cantonese. It’s a super small step, one that Loud White Brother has probably already surpassed, but it’s a big deal to me. I hope my life is filled with small, silly steps like these where I confront the things that bring me the most fear, that I can unlearn the shame that has built up without my permission or knowing, so I can deconstruct and construct myself into the person that God made and is making. I hope I can become disciplined in not running away from the things that scare me. Thanks for reading. Mhgoi. Joigin.