Friday, February 15, 2013

Making the front page

Chinese New Year brought a sharp drop in the temperature from what had been a very warm winter. Being my fourth Guangdong New Year, it was still the second warmest. Temperatures were always between 10-20 degrees which made it great for walking around the villages and paddy fields, kicking shuttlecocks and sometimes even hittting them with the badminton racket. It also suited the production of the featured photograph in the newspaper - we look cold don't we! The text reads:
"Western son-in-law spending new years at the in-laws
Daniel, who works in Guangzhou as an English teacher, married Qingyuan girl Little Zhong in May last year. 'This is the first year I've had a new year dinner as a son-in-law so it is something very significant (for me)," he said as spoke to this reporter holding Little Zhong's hand. In the picture he is with Little Zhong, the grandfather, his parents-in-law and his brother after they finished a large new year meal. Little Zhong and Daniel have been together for three years and have spent their new years together at her family's place in Waangho street, Qingyuan. He said that he didn't have any family in Guangzhou and there wasn't a feeling of new year (for him) so he would certainly spend his new years in Qingyuan. Having lived in China many years, he understands the special significance of Chinese new year and when in China would definitely spend new year with his parents-in-law. He is preparing to take the family to have dimsum on the first day of the new year and visit relatives and friends."
It is rather hastily written, factually incorrect (it was a phone interview and her brother isn't in the picture) and repetitive but it is still pretty good, even if it is just the Qingyuan Daily.
Chinese new year also brought some breakthroughs in my language learning. My exposure to Qingyuan dialect must have reached a critical point where I've heard set phrases enough to understand a good portion of them without much thought; I can catch the general rhythm of speech - my brain can even parse the sentences of some of the faster speakers; I catch Qingyuan contractions which I knew existed but never heard them nor understood in speech; I can solve problems (like my missing pants this morning) and hold basic conversations. This doesn't mean that I'm fluent by any stretch of the imagination, but this level provides much more access into dinner conversations (notoriously difficult to follow), which means a presence and contribution to the discussion and, even more importantly, the ability to really start to build relationships and rapport. Everyone in my Chinese family has made an effort to include me but there are members who've really tried to sustain a connection despite my limitations of language. One of them is my Coffee Uncle. I'll call him that because there are so many uncles and he does have the distinction in our conversations as the uncle who, out of the blue, admitted a preference for coffee. Since the first time we met, he has always had the biggest smile and genuine yearning to communicate. It was only a few days ago that I managed to sustain a conversation of a few minutes with him. This is the purpose of language and I'm really glad to connect more.
I also tend to be not just the linguist but language analyst, I'm piecing together some interesting regionalisms too. Despite the fact that my Qingyuan extended family mostly grew up within 15 kilometres of each other, there are still interesting differences in language. A case in point is a word as simple as the number two, which sounds like "yee" (the same as in Hong Kong Cantonese) in my new home village of Waangho, but sounds like "zzzz" in my cousin's hometown of Dayou down the road. Apart from the cute closeness in the English alphabet (y->z) there isn't much apparent to indicate why this might be the case, and it is still rather gobsmacking that a word as fundamental as a number can have such different pronunciation. (I should add, in case you are that way inclined that it is of the same origin; these two forms come from the same ancestor that gives Mandarin "er", Japanese "Ni" etc. By coincidence we have our future brother-in-law staying in our apartment with us, who comes from Maoming in western Guangdong (300 kilometres away). It isn't much of a surprise that their Cantonese has some significant differences to what is spoken in Guangzhou and Qingyuan but it is a mutually understandable variant. (I have trouble understanding but that goes without saying.) But what makes this a coincidence is that they have two consonants that are different, and one of them affects the number two, which they say as "ngee". I only raise this because it is the way of the amateur language analyst. It offers a door of exploration. It is quite possible that one of the reasons I can't understand some people is because some fundamental words are fundamentally different in sound. Sometimes catching these small differences is your way in.
We went on an often misguided voyage to Maoming (the hometown of my future brother in law). I finally swam at a Chinese beach, and it wasn't bad and ate a different kind of completely authentic country cuisine. Qingyuan people are crazy about chickens and geese. Maoming people love their seafood, ducks and chickens. Since I've loosened up a little about the food that I eat I could at least try these things without confusing people too much. One of the most important parts of life is exploration and experiencing.