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Tone Deaf

When my dad sees an English word in the newspaper he doesn’t understand, he points to it and asks us for the definition. He’ll say it a few times to himself, rolling the word in his mouth and chewing on it, until the meaning and the sound collide, soften and stick to his brain like gum. Likewise, when my mum learns a new word from television or conversation, she writes it down in her notebook. If the word is particularly tricky, she asks me to spell and define it, then scrawls it down onto scrap paper and sticky-tapes it to the wall to help her remember its meaning and spelling, the way foreign-language students do in the lead-up to exams. Even now, the word diarrhoea is stuck to the dining-room wall.

In this way, every migrant family is the same: children learn from their parents, parents learn from their children. It’s all very educational. Controversially, though, Mum insists she first learned the word cunt from me. I don’t remember the exact circumstances clearly enough to verify the claim, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Mum says that afterwards, as often seems to happen when you’ve learned a new word or concept, she inexplicably started seeing and hearing it everywhere.

‘The next night on SBS,’ she told me, ‘there was this European movie with a woman screaming at her husband because she found out he was having an affair. She yelled to him: “You only like her because her cunt smells like eggplant!” That’s what it said in the subtitles. And suddenly I realised that I knew what this word was. Cunt. It was that same word you told me not to use at parent–teacher meetings.’ She paused to think. ‘I wonder whether I would’ve worked out its meaning if I hadn’t heard it from you. Smells like eggplant. Yes. Yes, I think I would have.’

Apparently, I’d given her strict instructions at the time not to use the word amongst friends or even with her gynaecologist. She understood, but has since embarked on a lifelong, covert love affair with the word. The lawn-mowing man who screwed her over? She knows just the word to use. The drunken New Year’s revellers who left beer bottles in her yard? There’s only one word to describe people like that.

In stark contrast to the dedication of my parents, I’ve become complacent about Cantonese over the years, to the extent that I’m now uncertain whether I can lay claim to the language at all. Now and then, the same tick-a-box question comes up in forms and surveys, questionnaires and applications, leaving me confused and anxious. ‘Do you come from a non-English speaking background?’ it asks. ‘YES/NO.’ It seems like such a straightforward thing to ask, but my pen always wavers. Eventually, I select either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at random. Looking back, I’ve probably filled out a 5050 share of ‘yeses’ and ‘nos.’ What is your ‘language background’? What language do you speak at home? They seem like such simple questions. But they’re not.


Cantonese is the language predominantly spoken by my parents, and the main language spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and southern parts of China. In and of itself, it’s one messed-up dialect. The audio instructors on my Teach Yourself Colloquial Cantonese CDs are more technical and polite about it, referring to it as a ‘tone language.’ This means the same syllables, pronounced in different pitches, can mean completely different, incongruous things. Consider this sentence: Goh-goh goh-goh (that older brother there) goh goh (is taller than) goh-goh goh-goh (that other brother over there). Again, that’s: Goh-goh goh-goh goh goh goh-goh goh-goh. Pause, then add another goh – with a different tone this time – and you’re telling the same brother to cross the road. Depending on how you say it, gau can mean ‘dog’ or ‘nine,’ ‘enough’ or ‘rescue.’ Mae could mean ‘rice’ or ‘not yet,’ ‘flavour’ or ‘tail.’

Because of its tonal quality, linguists describe Cantonese as a language that’s sung, which might suggest the language is pretty or melodious. But songs can also be terrible and cruel. Think of the late-night sexual moans of the feral cat, the broken wail of the American coyote, or the screeching of the rabies-infested bat. To my ears, Cantonese is not a sung language at all, but a screamed one, a dialect for bickering, exclaiming over scandals and haggling over meat prices.

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