A Step Forward
I remember that in the first place, I responded to all the people who spoke Cantonese to me with the sentence “I don’t speak Cantonese.” Every time after I finished that sentence, they would give me the weirdest look, since I said it in a language, as I implied, I shouldn’t have known. But this was truly the first sentence I learnt and it was the only one I knew how to speak for a long time.
Though I grew up in Shenzhen, a young city situated in the southeastern part of China where Cantonese prevails, it didn’t occur to me that it was that unusual to admit one’s incapability of speaking Cantonese until I did so on the first day at primary school. Everyone around me communicated with others in Cantonese instead of Mandarin. Even though all the teachers taught in Mandarin and there were even signs on the wall suggesting people speaking Mandarin instead of other dialects, it still did not stop the others treating me differently when they couldn’t stop laughing at a joke as I was standing there in a complete bewilderment. It was really hard, but fortunately I was not alone; there were several other students in the class like me. And during class breaks, we just hung out together and spoke in the language we were familiar with. It was pretty obvious there were two camps in the class, and languages were the clear lines between.
I did think about learning this new language and reaching out of my comfort zone for breakthroughs. But I just didn’t like this language. My classmates used to nickname all of us based on the pronunciation of our names in Cantonese. My Chinese name is “Mengqi”, which is a name with a normal pronunciation in Mandarin. However, once it is pronounced in Cantonese, it sounds like the English word “monkey”. So they laughed every time at me when this word was emtioned in class. I also had similar experiences out of school. I remember going to Hong Kong with my mother. What enraged me at that time was the fact that salesmen tended to treat the costumers who spoke English and Cantonese, instead of Mandarin, more nicely. I don’t know if I was just too sensitive and paranoid because of all the things that had happened at school, but I did feel people’s dislike of a certain language or their negative impression related to it. Due to these unforgettable experiences, I stopped myself even before I actually stepped out of my comfort zone. I became increasingly stuck to Mandarin and I believed it was the right language I should speak, even though many people are strongly prejudiced against it.
One day as I was waiting for the bus with a close friend, who had the same“background” as mine, I saw her responding to the people that we usually didn’t talk to in Cantonese and waving them goodbye when they went past.
“Since when do you speak Cantonese?” I stared at my friend unbelievably.
“I’m learning. I believe you are too, right?”
“No, I’m not!”
“Come on. You have got to try. Are you still unable to forget those jokes? Believe me, they don’t mean it. You should go and talk to them.”
I looked at her in the eyes and started to question the decisions I had made. Did they really not mean it? I didn’t know. What I could clearly recall was that nickname truly gave my friend a hard time. She was really depressed by then. However, she seemed to have got over that. Maybe I should take a step forward like her. I cannot stay like this forever; after all, those guys are my classmates, not enemies, though they acted as if they were the latter.
From then on, though I still had doubt, I started to embrace my friend’s suggestion. I took every chance to join my classmates’ chat and managed to understand every single word they were saying by combining their gestures with the few words I had already known. In the meantime, I tried to speak Cantonese myself. Surprisingly, it was not hard at all. I could soon speak fluently with the right pronunciation, as if those words were already at the tip of my tongue, and all I needed to do was open my mouth, and they just spilled out. Maybe I was more deeply influenced by Cantonese than I had realized.
And language did link people with one another. My classmates’ attitudes changed gradually. I don’t remember when that started or how exactly that started, but it did happen. What impressed me most was my birthday when I was in fifth grade. We all gathered together around the cake in the center of the classroom, and my friends sang the Happy Birthday song to me in English, Chinese and Cantonese. Time flew and happy moments like this were engraved on my memories just as the unhappy ones once did.
In the first few weeks after I graduated from my primary school, I still looked up whenever I hear the word “monkey”, ready to smile back at the people winking at me. Even now, this word is unique to me. And every now and then when I thumb through the pages which are filled with words my friends left me when we were about to be apart from each other on the graduation ceremony, all I could see were good and sincere wishes. I could even feel the surface of the pages with my fingertips, since they are rough and uneven because the words were written so hard that they pressed through the other side. I think the nickname and those words, together with many other things related to Cantonese, had already been sown into my soul. They grew with me, flourished with me and are now deep-rooted in me. They influenced me not only because they came with the prejudices from other people when I was young, but also because they helped me to learn a language and get to know new people. To some degree, they even changed me imperceptibly and made me who I am today.
However, one thing that still remains unknown to me is whether those kids really meant it when they nicknamed us and did all those pranks at first. I think language is a part of culture. Some cultures are exclusive, and this is therefore, mirrored in their attitude towards other languages and people who speak in those languages. We cannot change that, since the pride of a culture runs in the blood. But we can change ourselves. And when I took a step forward to adjust myself to Cantonese, Mandarin was simultaneously assimilated into the everyday life of my classmates. Though I started with “I don’t speak Cantonese”, I was eventually changed by the people around me. And I believe they were changed by me too.