I started Cantonese class today, expecting to learn vital phrases like, “Please help! I’ve suffered a splinter from your disposable wooden chopsticks.”
What I didn’t expect was a singing lesson. But there we were, eight faculty in our free 10-week lesson, belting out the doh-ray-mees of the Canton dialect: six basic tones with names that conjure images of urban housing – high level, high rising, mid level, low level, low rising, mid low level.
Without even introducing ourselves, a collection of strangers was immediately forced to mimic the teacher’s peppy sing-song. Voices cracked, cheeks flushed. “There’s no judgment made,” she reassured us. “Make your mistakes here.”
The beauty of learning obscure languages, I’ve learned, is how much more the locals appreciate the effort. Understandably, they take it as a sign of respect, of cultural appreciation. I already have utterly impractical notches on my belt: conversational Hungarian and survival Slovak. I also know some niceties from a bunch of other East European countries — an essential for a foreign correspondent who asks for a lot of favors. So whatever I get out of this class, I know I’ll garner grins galore on the streets of Hong Kong.
On this day, my pitch was surprisingly good, catching the teacher’s attention. “How many years have you been here? Months? You must have a singing background?” Uh, not even in the shower.
Sure, I was flattered. But it also ratcheted up the pressure to replicate the feat on ensuing swings around the room.
Finally, she taught us a word, a phrase: How are you? “Dim-a?” (Don’t forget the high-rising tone on the “dim”!)
Again, I pulled it off. Which led to more individual praise from teacher: “Maybe you were Cantonese in a previous life?”
That threw me off. Rather than follow the last minutes of class, I day-dreamed of being a 19th-century opium smuggler, steering a waterlogged sampan …