Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Language Barrier of Cantonese

Admittedly, I struggle with accents that aren't South African. Give me an Indian speaking Afrikaans while trying to be respectful of the Zulu person he's talking to and I'm fine. However, my ears are stuck that way. Try as I might, I can barely understand the people in Hong Kong unless they speak decent English (my weakness, not theirs).

Whoever may have told you that Hong Kong was perfectly English speaking is communicating via the seat of their pants. While the signs around the city may be in Cantonese and English, the population does not speak both lanuages equally. In fact, dear Britain, this was a pretty weak attempt at colonialism all round, if you ask me.

There is no easier way to find this out than to go and try and buy something.

In the last week, while shopping, I have had to act out dustbin bags (make circle with arm and use other arm to point inside), lemon juice (squeeze pretend fruit in the air and then make sour face), moisturising cream (rub arm repeatedly), toothpaste (this one is easy - just pretend to brush teeth and it's the first thing you get taken to after the toothbrushes, floss and whitening products) and toilet paper (the easiest one of the lot).

I have also been given Coke when I asked for Diet Coke, been told Red Bull is called "cocaine", been given after-sun cream when trying to buy tanning cream (not for me, I swear), had my name spelled Williamsa and exchanged many shrug-shoulders-and-grin looks... which is cute and funny at the beginning, but gets tiring later on. Ordering something by telephone is a nightmare as the constant presence of fast-food oddities testifies. If we get exactly what we order we run to church to give thanks.

The peak of this was using the realtor expertise of a man called Mr Wong who didn't speak a word of English. Now, bear in mind you can't even write things down here because the scripting isn't A-B-C-D. At Mr Wong's shop, to ask for a flat with 2 bedrooms in a building with a lift within a certain price I had to pretend to sleep while holding up two fingers, then use my hands to make an oblong, act like I was in a lift and then use my fingers to spell out the rent price. He looked at me like I was insane (not altogether untrue) and phoned someone who could speak English and told her in Cantonese what I had been trying to do. "Mr Wong doesn't know what you mean" she spat down in the phone in that typically polite Hong Kong fashion. And I used to be good at charades... I also had to draw a clock to tell him what time I would come back to his office and point to the date on his calendar.

Trying to buy tickets for the Hong Kong Sixes was much the same issue but I, once again, had the added joy of trying to organise over the phone - an exercise in total futility as I couldn't even wave my arms to try and explain myself. There was also a problem on their website which I tried to point out but, as things stand, it's still very much there.

There's only so much frantic arm waving and sign-language I can do in a day. It was exactly the same when I lived in Italy. My brain goes to sleep at night utterly exhausted. Of course it's not Hong Kong people's fault. And they do speak more English than I'd imagine we will find in China or other countries around the place, so the challenges shall continue.

But it's time to pull that Cantonese for Dummies out of the bag, methinks.

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