HONG KONG – The barista greets me with a grin. He’s seen me in his café many times before. He knows my shtick. But his cheerful young colleague, it’s new to her.
“Mgoi, yat bui dung gafe. Mou naai, mou tong.”
Please, one glass cold coffee. No have milk, no have sugar.
With that, I’m just about smacking the ceiling of my Cantonese skills. Good enough for this young woman, who smiles wide. “You speak Cantonese very well,” she said. “We can understand you.”
Is there any greater sign of cultural respect than to try and speak someone else’s mother tongue? Even if it’s just a few words? I say no.
Hello … Thank you … Goodbye … That’s just courtesy. To elicit a laugh, take it to the next level: Delicious! … Cheers! … No problem!
With Cantonese, the southern Chinese language spoken by 60 million-plus people worldwide, I now know more than a few words. To put a number on it, I hover around 2 percent fluency. Is there a name for that? “Beginner” is too abstract, unsatisfying. So, I’ve just coined it: “Café Cantonese.”
This fulfills my curious need to alliterate when describing my linguistic limitations. “Survival Slovak” is what I speak around my beloved home-base, Slovakia.
Or, to be fair, it’s a notch above that: I once even deployed my broken, child-like Slovak skills to dodge a speeding ticket. The Slovak patrolman barely suppressed a laugh, listening to me jabber away.
After four years in Slovakia, sure, I could push to learn it. To pursue more substantial conversation with my neighbors, or the many other Slovaks I meet. Oh, where is my inner drive?
Then there’s my true second home, Budapest. I think “Horrible Hungarian” might apply to what I speak there. Or even “Horrendous Hungarian.” This is no insult to one of the world’s most complicated languages, which is now also the mother tongue of my children. But after a 17-year dalliance with the language, I’ve no good excuse to not have conquered it by now.
Sure, I can kibitz with my Hungarian in-laws about the country’s gloomy economic and political situation. But the grammar is deeply flawed – damn those insufferable suffixes. And I tend to recycle the liveliest verbs, nouns and adjectives from my lexicon. Unbelievable! Unimaginable! Unjustified!
Comprehension is even worse. Our chats routinely hit speed-bumps, as I trip over unfamiliar words. Sometimes, I’ll wave the white flag, hollering for my wife to bail me out with interpretation.
So that’s three languages, mastery of none. I’m a polyglot poseur. How’s that for alliteration?
Which brings me back to Café Cantonese. The 10-week course I took last year still pays off. Without exception, Hong Kong Chinese react with surprise and appreciation when I utter a word or two of their minority language, which is under pressure from the Mandarin-speaking leadership in Beijing.
The Hungarians used to react similarly, back when I lived there in the 1990s. There are only 15 million Hungarians in the world, and it’s the Hungarian language – more than anything else, like religion – that unifies them. Hungarians, though, are now accustomed to their tens of thousands of Western guests.
The novelty wore off, and the reception I get in shops is much more ho-hum.
Next door, the Slovak reaction is different. Their country is off the beaten path to the foreigners who flock to nearby Vienna, Prague and Budapest. When I take a stab at the Slovak language – spoken by just 5 million – the initial response seems one of bafflement: Why would any Westerner live here?
My words, though, melt their gruff exterior, and they delight in me butchering their language. (At least they seem to.)
Now in Hong Kong for a second time, I once again dabble in an obscure language with no practical use beyond these borders. For some reason, those café smiles make it worthwhile. Well, that and the other main function of my Cantonese: haggling in the night market and souvenir shops.
“Hou gwai! Peng di!”
Very expensive! Cheap more!
On second thought, does “Quibbling Cantonese” count as alliteration?