I speak what I call "Canadianese." It's a combo of non-native Chinese mixed with a non-specific accent with a hint of "oh girl, you will never get away with that." When I travel back to Hong Kong, my rudimentary Cantonese kicks in and I am able to honk out requests for water, tea, certain dishes and directions to the nearest restroom. I am usually met with a side squint and a short pause before they answer back. Sometimes I will get a slow answer with each word enunciated and other times I will get a rapid fire staccato that sends me into a dizzy spin. I have learned to read facial expressions and body language to help me understand the answer, of which I only heard half.
As we progress from one generation to another, the language of our forebears is lost and what we are left with is small bits and pieces, we are left with knowing only how to order dishes of dim sum by sound, not by meaning.
When words lose their meaning, they lose their power. I am only stringing sounds together to get something I need, but if I was to try to express my thoughts eloquently, I would be at a loss...for words. Being in Asia and not being able to communicate brings me to the moments when I am trying to understand someone who speaks only a few words of English. I am as patient with them as I would like them to be patient with me if I try to speak their language.
As I cross over the threshold of a store, I will prick up my ears to listen for the people in the store speaking Cantonese. I find it soothing, as though I was back home again. There are days when I will drive to Monterey Park, just to hear my ancestral language. The sound and tones floating by create lovely memories of playing near my mother's feet while she played Mah-Jong with her friends. Each word is a signpost to a past that held sweet and bittersweet moments that created who I am today.
But for the generation that has grown up in a house with a generation that has only the slightest grip on the past, will they have memories that are evoked by words spoken in a language gone by?
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog.