December 3, 2006

Talk the talk

I was positively giddy to be in Hong Kong.

Not only did I fluently speak the local language (Cantonese), but I spoke the second most spoken language, English, even better! Ask the guy how to get to the city? No problem! Wittily chat with the taxi driver on the way to the hotel, and find out that it changed its name and ownership just a month ago, along with some sordid gossip on the hotel owners? Simple, when you speak the language, and utterly impossible when you can’t.

I was half afraid that Hong Kong would now be speaking mostly Mandarin – it had been 10 years since the handover back to China, and I had heard it was the main language of instruction in the schools. But clearly on the streets, and in the hearts of the people, Cantonese is still the primary language.

I could walk around the streets and hear the banter between the guy sweeping the street and the shop owner on his stoop. I could understand the things random people were saying – completely mundane and boring things, like “Check the temperature of the freezer”, or “No, those are only 2 for a dollar”. I think it is a common phenomenon, but when people are talking near me in a language I don’t understand, it immediately makes me think they are talking about me (maybe snickering to their colleague at the outrageous price I just paid for apples). But not so here – all the stuff that is completely off the radar to a tourist who doesn’t speak the language was mine to understand.

No more explaining in broken mandarin to mainland Chinese that yes I was Chinese, but I didn’t speak mandarin. No more puzzled looks from Tibetans who assumed I was mainland Chinese. No more being able only to say “Hello” and “thank you” in Nepali. I felt like I had been restored somehow, and a giant barrier was gone. Things that were so difficult, like trying to patch together the correct phrases to ask the taxi driver to turn down the music, were so trivial now.

I know that this will wear off soon – just like I take for granted I understand everything going on around me in the States. But it really makes me understand the importance of being able to communicate – and how isolating it is when you can’t.

And of course, being able to order all my favorite dim sum dishes is a big plus too. :)

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