Monday, March 22, 2010

Last week, my parents had me speak to my grandmother on the phone. It was awkward in several ways -- I only knew her from one visit my entire life, which was a decade ago; I'm already socially awkward by nature; and I don't speak Cantonese very well. Still, though I fumbled through a few phrases, even I could admit my patchwork attempt was not too bad by any standard.

As my parents drove me home, I told them this story:

Once, I answered the door to find a young man who turned out to be a Christian missionary. I had no interest, but having always been terrible at turning away solicitors, for some reason I wanted to reinvent the wheel instead of simply saying "no thank you" and spent a moment trying to think up some nicety. He took my blank stare to mean something else.

"Do you speak Cantonese?" he asked.

Instinctively, I nodded. Because, well, technically, yes, I did. 

Then he began talking.

I'm not sure if he noticed, but another instinct, I hope, helped me hide my dismayed expression. His Cantonese, even to me, was completely unrecognizable, garbled; I could not understand a word he was saying. After taking a second to note that I actually felt a bit impressed, I quickly clarified that I indeed spoke perfect English and that I had thought Cantonese would make him feel more uncomfortable, and finally bid him a swift farewell. My parents were laughing.

I admitted to them that ever since that incident, I had been very self-conscious about my own Cantonese, thinking that I must sound incomprehensible to others. They laughed again and said that even if my "jook-sing" status was readily apparent, I was perfectly understandable.

I thought of this because it was this fear, above others, that always made me demur from speaking to people -- including my grandparents. I confessed to my parents that I was ashamed that I had to pause and think so much, that I didn't want my silences to come off as unhappiness to find myself speaking to my elderly grandmother. They assured me she did not think that.

I'm just remembering now how that same evening, my mother had asked me a question about English vocabulary, and how frustrated I became when she refused to give me any context. My father made an unfortunate attempt to smooth things over by saying that her question was too difficult for me to answer. We ended up arguing and she accused me of having a short temper while I accused both of them of always treating me like I'm stupid when I'm really trying to give them the best of my knowledge.

I've always seen our differences in language as a barrier that separates, rather than something we share ... but clearly we have the same difficulties, even if not in the same language. I guess we do have more in common than I've believed.

posted at 3:08:29 pm

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Glo'ri'a'na, noun:
1. An alternative form of "Gloria."
2. As "Americana" defines itself as artefacts of American culture, "Gloriana" consists of the artefacts of my culture.


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