Essays
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Language Swap

In Hong Kong, as a learner of the native language, I spend a large portion of my time attempting to listen to (read: eavesdrop) and converse with locals in Cantonese. My goal is to, one day, be able to think in the language, rather than go through the rigmarole of making slow mental translations and then carefully laying out each word like I’m taking an oath. While nowhere near fully developed, this new tongue is gradually taking some kind of shape.

Yet, I was still dumbfounded in April when I arrived at a hotel in Bali and thanked the driver in Cantonese. The words flew, unbridled, out of my mouth with the exact casualness that I yearn for when I’m forcing out broken statements in my daily Hong Kong life. Just like that, no conscious connecting of synapses required. In that moment, pride (admittedly polluted with the faint waft of smugness) emanated from my every pore.

Mini triumph celebrated, I had no choice but to sedate the Cantonese if I was to remember that I was, in fact, in Bali. Shamefully (and, I like to think, unusually for me), I had not learnt any Indonesian or Balinese before arriving. Luckily for my inconsideration, it seemed that everyone in Bali spoke English, the — sometimes-begrudged — sole ruler of my body and brain, and so it was on this that I cruised through my holiday.

When I returned to Hong Kong, I had completely misplaced my Cantonese tongue. It was weak and pre-pubescent, and I had been granted the freedom, the obligation, to turn off the linguistic processor and let my tongue visit the shapes and sounds it knew best, sans guilt. As I greeted local vendors, I perambulated the same language trail I had traversed in Bali, as if my brain simply refused to give up this luxury of ease. As if I had never used Cantonese in Hong Kong in the first place.

Having grown accustomed to absorbing vocabulary on a full-time basis through my efforts to learn Cantonese (and as a general collector of foreign words), it seemed my brain was keen to take in any new sounds. Ten days later, I ventured to Myanmar. En route, I learnt ‘hello’ (minga lar ba) and ‘thank you’ (che zu ba) in Burmese, and, while the phonemes regularly became entangled, so novel were they to my mouth, I was hooked. I found myself employing these exotic sounds on a more-than-hourly basis, cooing and calling to people like lovable, village girl Belle in provincial France (only, I was juddering around Bagan on an e-bike, ‘sweaty’ my most salient feature).

Four days later, I returned home. To the local fruit seller, I said, ‘che zu ba’. I had left Myanmar, but my words seemed to be somewhere along the flight path, taking a lengthy and convoluted route home.

It seemed that my personal exchange rate of linguistic currencies had fluctuated in importance according to time and location, which, along with my somewhat porous brain, resulted in a jumble of words streaming out of my mouth, like a patient spewing involuntary nonsense after coming round from anaesthesia. What had once felt infuriatingly arid was now aflush with languages.

There’s something mystical about the way foreign languages punctuate our daily lives, unannounced. I can search and rummage, and, in desperation, mentally empty out all of the words I’ve learnt, seeking the one that will complete the conversation I’m having, to no avail. Then, like a cruel trick, the very same word can surface accidentally in another country, or through the ink of my pen, unprompted.

I’m still fascinated by my inadvertent criss-crossing of geographical and linguistic borders, but I truly hope that, while back on home soil, I’ll be able to stay solely on the Cantonese path for the long haul.

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