What started out as a beginner course to learn some Cantonese phrases to know for an upcoming and first trip to Hong Kong in 2000, became a twenty-year investment into a language that has given me more than I could ever had hoped or dreamed of.
When taking that beginner course, I started to feel that I could actually learn this language and start to say things beyond asking where the toilet is or ordering some dishes at a restaurant. Although I was having those thoughts, I still had no real idea what I was getting myself into and had no plan of attack because I had never learned another language before.
All I had was my textbook that we were using in the class at the USDA Graduate Center in Washington DC. My teacher, Laura Wong, was very nice and very encouraging to us and this made it easier for me to gain confidence in trying to speak in the lessons. It is to this day that I try to be as encouraging as I can to my own ESL students that I teach.
Shortly after starting the class I was on a plane for my planned trip to Hong Kong. It was only 8 whole days with feet on the streets and I truly tried to use as much of the little bit of Canto that I had learnt but can’t really remember too much about my speaking experience as there is a serious stimuli overload when you get to Hong Kong.
The most important thing was that from the 1st day to the 8th day of that first trip, all I kept saying to myself was that I am coming back to Hong Kong and soon. So when I got back to DC, I got back into the class at the USDA and continued to learn more Cantonese and shared what I had learnt from being in Hong Kong on my trip. But I didn’t know what to really do to be a language learner, so everything was a trial and error hit.
When on that trip I did find a great pronunciation dictionary at a book store and started to carry that with me every where I went. It was well put together by The Chinese University of Hong Kong and it truly was my best friend for about a year as I planned my next trip back to Hong Kong. During that year as well, I labeled everything in my house (my Grandmother’s house) with the Cantonese pronunciation using Yale Romanization. I mean everything! I did the same thing for my office that I worked at and even though my co-workers didn’t like being passive learners of Cantonese, I didn’t care. This helped me to know and remember all of the items that I saw and used at home and at work every day.
Everyday, when I got off work as a bicycle courier dispatcher, I would ride to Chinatown in Washington DC as it was on my way home and I would go into stores and restaurants and start talking with people that worked there. I became a regular customer and bought small things that I often didn’t need but wanted to practice my Cantonese with native speakers. I’ve always been a confident person when it comes to speaking to strangers. I guess you could say that I have a gift for the gab— or is it a curse? Maybe a curse for others.
In planning for my return to Hong Kong, I arranged to take a 3 month absence from work which meant that I was returning to spend three wonderful months in this amazing place and I wanted to use my time wisely in terms of learning Cantonese. So I found a Cantonese language school called, The Hong Kong Language Learning Center, and they had a location a few blocks from my hotel that I was going to stay in for the entire 3 month adventure.
I went to classes every morning, Monday – Friday from 930am – 1230pm and found a small restaurant that I started going to, where I had befriended the waitress and she became my ‘language parent’. A language parent is a native speaker of a language that you’re learning that has patience to speak with you. Not correct your every mistake but to encourage you to speak more and help you by just being a friend and talking with you. I went to her restaurant every day after class and used every word that I could and forced myself to speak even when I didn’t know the correct word.
Another added help that I received was that in Washington DC I had started learning a traditional style of Chinese kung-fu called, Jow Ga. So when in Hong Kong, I continued my training at the Jow Ga school here and all of the guys at the school mostly only spoke Cantonese and they also became a language parent of mine as well, unbeknown to them. With my waitress friend and my kung-fu brothers, I was put into the position of having to rely on my Cantonese in my daily life while in Hong Kong.
Those three months solidified my want and need to continue learning Cantonese as I had now built a life in Cantonese. I had friends that I had never spoken English with and my relationship with Hong Kong was now my springboard to a whole new life, but as my Sifu Rahim Muhammad told me, ‘I had to leave in order to come back’. My three month adventure of a lifetime was up and I was on a plane back to Washington D.C..
I returned on September 9th, 2001. Three days later and the United States changed forever. But from my three month stay in Hong Kong, I had changed forever as well. My language journey was just beginning and at the same time, it had taken me so far in such a short period. I went to all of my Chinese shops and restaurants that I went to before my trip and they saw the change in my Cantonese and in who I was as well. I had vowed to move to Hong Kong before I got in the plane to come back. For the next 11 months, I worked three jobs at a time to save up to open a record shop in Mongkok.
August 8th 2002, I was back, but this time for good. Over my time, I took a few classes here and there but mostly just kept my dictionary on me at all times and continued to stay in a Cantonese frame of mind. I mostly didn’t make friends with other foreigners as I wanted to make a new life as a Cantonese speaker. I acted in a handful of TV shows, movies and stage plays, not because I wanted to be an actor but because the role was available for a foreigner that could speak Cantonese.
I focused on reading and writing and attended Chinese University to study it a bit more intensely and it gave me a massive boost in my spoken ability. Now after 18 years in Hong Kong and 20 years of speaking/learning Cantonese, I can say that I am quite proficient. With saying that, I still have a long way to go to become even more proficient. I still get stuck with words and phrases. I still get laughed at for making simple mistakes and I still have trouble reading and writing, but I have the same issues with my native language of English as well. Learning a language takes a lifetime and even after an extended amount of time and energy learning, you still need to brush up on things and continue to push forward. The love becomes the challenge of learning and knowing that you will always have more to learn.
Keep learning and pushing forward with your language goals and know that you will get to where you want to be if you put in the work, but you will have to keep raising the bar for yourself because your first goal was reached. And isn’t that so kool (I spell kool with a ‘k’)?