Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Got a great joke for you. A guy moves to Guangzhou and decided that he’s going to try to become competent in Cantonese in his two years there.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA x infinity, for ever and ever. Maybe when the Angels win the pennant.

Let me offer the following context: some of you are probably impressed that I’ve managed to learn Mandarin at all. (I am really not trying to brag here. I am reminded daily of the general inadequacy of my language skills and how far I am from being fluent after studying Chinese for 5 years, so far that nearly every day I almost decide to stop trying all together because there is too much, far too much, too far to go, years and years and years.) Some of you probably still think that, as Joe Biden put it, learning Mandarin is a big fucking deal.

Cantonese is so much harder. I thought it would be hard, sure. But Cantonese so hard I forgot to laugh. It’s hard like diamonds. It’s hard like the Madonna album Hard Candy. It’s hard like that Ellen Page movie Hard Candy. It’s hard like jolly ranchers. It’s hard like my ex-wife.

Coming to Guangzhou, you’d expect that I might pick up Cantonese on the street or “around town,” as it were, since “Canton” means “Guangzhou” and “ese” means “it’s easy!” After seven months here, here is a list of the phrases I can say in Cantonese off the top of my head:

  • Hello.
  • Good morning.
  • Goodbye.
  • You dare to say such a thing here?
  • Go die.
  • Have you eaten?
  • Yes, I have eaten.
  • No, I have not yet eaten.
  • I do not eat.
  • I do not speak Cantonese.
  • Fuck your lungs.

Our Cantonese tutor says that this last one is a real piece of Cantonese slang that people use to curse each other, but I don’t buy it any more than I buy any of the other things that she says, like, “watch this Chinese TV show; you’ll enjoy it.”

Technically I can say more than that, but not that much more. And everything else I have to think about hard before it comes out of my mouth. (Trivia: the first time I wrote that sentence, it said “comes into my mouth.” I was trying to write “comes into my head” but got distracted I guess. If The Guangzhou Story were an episode of Pop-Up Video, this is what it would be like.) And — this is a weird feeling — I can only speak Cantonese via Mandarin. So when I speak Cantonese, I translate it into Mandarin first, and then into Cantonese. Same thing in the other direction.

To improve this situation, our Cantonese tutor has tried having us watch Cantonese TV and learn Cantonese songs. The TV is incomprehensible because the subtitles are generally in traditional characters and too fast for me anyway. The Cantonese songs are slightly better because I can drill them a lot of times and there usually aren’t that many words.

Currently the only song I really know is called 《强》 (“Strong”), by an artist named 郭富城, who I guess is really popular. He probably has an English name, but my visa in China prevents me from doing any journalism so I’m not going to look it up.

The easiest way to give you a sense of what sort of performer he is is just to give you the names of his most popular songs. They are, in the order listed on the Chinese video sharing site, “Love”, “Careless”, “Fly”, “Longing”, “Star”, “Time”, “Pain”, “Tender”,and “Captivated”. His music is full of the subtlety, wit, and restraint characteristic of so many Chinese singers. The chorus to “Strong” (ok, that’s the only part of the song that I know) is equally nuanced, and essentially consists of 郭富城 telling the listener, “You’re strong! You’re awesome! Never say die” several times in a row. The video is here, if you’re interested.

OK truthfully I find this video really inspiring. I sing it to myself sometimes in the shower. Once I move back to America, if you ever see me and are having a bad day, ask me to sing 《强》 and I’ll totally do it for you. I promise that afterwards you’ll have enough confidence to drive a car, or leap over rocks, or give the camera an exaggerated, slow motion Thumbs Up.