There are people outside of Hong Kong who think that Hong Kong is a part of China like it is actually a part of China.  For instance, I have a friend who posted a picture of the awe-inspiring skyline of Hong Kong Island, and above it the status read: “I am in China!”  I also have friends asking me on Messenger, “How’s life in China?” Sure, geo-politically, Hong Kong is indeed part of China.  Culturally, however, many Hong Kongers proudly identify themselves as non-Chinese.  Ever since the takeover, the Hong Kongers have been desperately trying to maintain their identity by fighting to keep Cantonese in the public arena.  Many Hong Kongers are resentful of the Mainland Chinese speaking Mandarin and trying to impose on them.  In previous posts, Wes and I had discussions about how Big Beijing try to assimilate an area by reducing the local language to a mere dialect.  Today, I experienced a Hong Konger’s passive aggressive attempt to maintain his cultural and linguistic identify in a rather perverse, but in some ways, charming, manner.

It was pouring rain after Thomas and I had lunch at this crazy spicy noodle place in Sham Shui Po. Since I didn’t have an umbrella, I decided to buy one at the Circle K at the end of the block.  I walked into the little cramped store, and there was a young man working at the counter.

In Mandarin, I asked, “Do you sell umbrellas?” I learned very quickly when I first started to work in Sham Shui Po that people’s English ability is limited in this neighbourhood.  In fact, many looked relieved when I switched from English to Mandrain.   As a result, I automatically speak Mandrain when I conduct my daily business during the work hours.

The young man working at the counter looked to be in his early 20’s.  He  looked at me as I was speaking to him, and he nodded his head ever so lightly.

“How much is it?”

He mumbled something in Cantonese under his breath.  I shook my head and gave him a quizzical look.  He looked up and without looking at me, repeated what he had said previously in an annoyed, louder tone, as if my presence was bothering him.  I’ve had this experience with other Hong Kongers; they seem to believe that by speaking louder, this imperial language speaking fool would instantly understand what was said.

At that moment, Thomas came up closer to me.  He is a tall, good looking white guy.

“How much is it?”  I said, in English this time.

The clerk noted Thomas’ presence.  “The big one is $49 and the small one is $42.” He spoke back to me in English, his tone audibly calmer and more pleasant.

“May I see them?”

He turned around and bent down to reach the cupboard  to fetch the umbrellas.  He then put them down on the counter for me to inspect.

“I will take this one.” I said as I pointed to the small umbrella.

As I was groping around my bag for my wallet, the clerk carefully cut off the tag on the umbrella for me.  Then I gave him some money and he gave me the change.

“Thanks” I said as I picked up the umbrella from the counter, and walked out the store with Thomas behind me.

I opened my brand new Circle K umbrella as I stepped out into the rain.

“Did that just happen?” Thomas asked.

I laughed.  “Yup, it sure did.”

My lazy unwillingness to learn Cantonese had made me appear to be a Mainlander speaking the imperialistic language imposing on the local population.   Next time, I better greet the store clerk with, “M’goi.” Then I can speak whichever language I want without coming across as an imperialistic fool.


My Particle Theory

By far the cutest thing about the way Chinese people talk is all the ahs and lahs, the sais and mas, that I’ve been told over and over again by locals have “no meaning.”  If pressed further, these locals will tell you (or really they will just agree with you if you propose the idea) that these particles add emotional meaning to the sentences they complete, and wikipedia agrees.  They are spoken punctuation, spoken emoticons.  Until the other day, when I discovered my particle theory, this was about as far as I got in figuring out why Canto is so particle-rich while English is so particle-poor.

You know how sarcasm and other subtleties that are so easy to express in speech fall flat in text?  Emoticons solve that problem.  But what if all that tone-of-voice stuff we use to express things like sarcasm, or soften our statements, make them more polite, clarify that they were said in jest, etc., what if all that stuff had the potential to change the semantic meaning of the words we use?  In tonal languages, tones change the meaning of sounds, make them different words, as any Westerner who has ever tried to say the number 9 in Canto knows all too well.  (Digression I can’t resist sharing: I once tried to use sarcasm in Cantonese when people were acting ridiculously afraid of the dog I was walking.  I tried to say “It’s a dog, not a tiger,” but ended up saying, “It’s a penis, not an old lady.”  How many tones does Canto have?  Penis.  Diu 😉

Ergo, because Cantonese uses tones for semantic content, they are less available for expressing emotional content.  But as the email/texting revolution has taught us, that emotional content must be expressed in normal day-to-day communications; in many instances it’s more important than the semantic content of our words.  So Canto evolved a solution: lots of spoken emoticons, called particles, liberally and adorably used.