Thursday, September 25, 2008


That, more or less, was the gist of what some dude on the bus snapped at a little old lady.
Fortunately, she neither saw nor heard him, as she was deep in conversation with another little old lady.

I have often found the Chinese ability to be blissfully unaware of white people remarkable. Many Chinatown Chinese not only sometimes fail to register the distinct presence of a white person in their vicinity, but also have a hard time recognizing them at all. All of us white folk look alike, you see.
And whatever those sounds coming out of the lower halves of our faces are, they sure don't sound like a human language. It seems at all times as if we are having an argument with ourselves.
They wish we would learn Chinese and speak like civilized people.

White people, especially if they are not long-time San Francisco residents, tend to get irritated when Chinese refuse to speak English with each other. Surely "those people" are talking about whitey behind his back? What else could "they" be doing than conspiring against Caucasians? Are they saying I'm ugly? What, what, I have a booger hanging from my chin? Or are they telling each other where they can take away some white person's livelihood, or sell a white person's kidney? Hmmmph!

Let us examine a fairly typical Cantonese conversation, by two Toishanese persons on the Number One California Street bus heading into C'town.

[Canton: Kwang Chau, a southern province of China, which speaks a language more closely related phonetically to T'ang dynasty Chinese than to Mandarin. Toishan: a district in Canton, where many of the Chinese-Americans have relatives. The Toishanese dialect is not too different from city Cantonese, and many Toishanese are bilingual in both their own dialect and Cantonese. Besides often possessing a modicum of Mandarin proficiency.]

I shall refer to the first Toishanese gentleman as 'Little Mustache' (siu wew-soh), and the second as Smelly Foot ( chau keuk). Such casual and almost comedic handles are fairly typical nicknames among old acquaintances - I myself am often called 'Dow Sah' (red bean paste - a filling used in certain pastries and dumplings).

I think you'll agree that it is a very suspicious conversation. Yes.

Little Mustache: Wah, ho loi m-kien-ah nei, diem?
[Hey, haven't seen you in a long time, whazzup?]

Smelly Foot : Mow-yeh, hoei gong, nei ne?
[Much of nothing, going to work, and you?]

Little Mustache: Fan ok-kay laaaaa, gong yuen le. Wei, nei yi-ga tzo matyeh gong ah?
[Returning home (long drawn out vocal marker of finality), work over (short marker of completed aspect of the active verb). Hey, what kind of work do you do nowadays (questioning verbal off-glide)?]

Smelly Foot: Tzo woei-kai.

Little Mustache: Wah, key ho yeh, tzo low sai ma?
[Well, that's quite impressive, are you a boss?]

Smelly Foot: M-hai, m-tzo low sai, jauh hai tzo gong.
[No, not a boss, (just) doing a job.]

Little Mustache: Do key ho (g) me, fat-tat le nei. Ngoh jong hai foh key...... yat yeung e fan diem.
[Still, that's very good, you've had good luck. I'm still a waiter..... same kind of restaurant.]

Smelly Foot: Wah, ngoh teng-wa le nei-ge sai-low sien kiit-fan le ma, hai m-hai chan ge woh?
[Oh, (polite change of subject to avoid causing the other person to dwell on their current differences as far as jobs and income levels are concerned), I heard that your younger brother/younger male friend already got married, is it true?

Little Mustache: Yau hai, saam nien ji chien, nau-yuk-si.
[Sure did, three years ago, (in) New York city.]

Smelly Foot: Ay-yah, gong hay le, siu-so hai mut-yeoh ah?
[Well congratulations anyhow, his wife ('younger sister-in-law') is what kind of person?]

Little Mustache: Ah, keui ne, yau sam uh, yau leng ge, wong-sik tau fa.....
[Oh, she, well, a good person, pretty, blonde hair.....]

Smelly Foot: Waaaaaah!!!! Keui-yah kwai-muy lah maah?!? Kam keng ga![Whaaaaat?!?!?! She's a barbarian!?!!!!?! That's terrific!!]

Note: Kwai-muy literally means ghost-devil (kwai) younger sister (muy). One distinguishes among older and younger in all the familial terms.

Yes, as you can see they are clearly conspiring against us. We must absolutely be angry and put a stop to this right now. Did you hear what they called the blonde? Outrageous, I tell you what - they just aren't respecting the majority of the natives of this place. This is California, speak Spanish dammit!


e-kvetcher said...

>>Well gongrats anyhow

What are gongrats?

The back of the hill said...

What are gongrats?


Errm, I mean, that was supposed to be 'congrats'. I have since changed it to read 'congratulations.

Kylopod said...

"White people, especially if they are not long-time San Francisco residents, tend to get irritated when Chinese refuse to speak English with each other."

Maybe it comes from watching too many movies. I was looking at The Karate Kid, Part II the other day, and it struck me (as it didn't when I was a kid) how the Okinawans spoke English with each other even when no American was present and even when it involved intimate conversations among people who had grown up together. If Mr. Miyagi can use "our" language even when he has absolutely no reason to, why can't the people on the bus do so?!

P.S. I was not implying, in case you're wondering, that Okinawa is in China.

P.P.S. In a similar vein, here is a recent post of mine on the topic of thinking people of other races all look alike:

Mo-ha-med said...

Hehehehe. Absolutely brilliant.

I expect the Republic of California to one day follow the lead of South Africa - have 11 official languages.

At least. :)

Spiros said...

The Gongrats sound like they should be a Chinese-American post-punk band.

Spiros said...

Most of the "English First" and "English Only" folks tend to display a surprising lack of ability to use English effectively, or even coherently.

e-kvetcher said...

Which I wish to remark--
And my language is plain--
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar:
Which the same I would rise to explain.

Ah Sin was his name;
And I shall not deny
In regard to the same
What that name might imply;
But his smile it was pensive and childlike,
As I frequent remarked to Bill Nye.

It was August the third,
And quite soft was the skies,
Which it might be inferred
That Ah Sin was likewise;
Yet he played it that day upon William
And me in a way I despise.

Which we had a small game,
And Ah Sin took a hand:
It was euchre. The same
He did not understand,
But he smiled, as he sat by the table,
With the smile that was childlike and bland.

Yet the cards they were stocked
In a way that I grieve,
And my feelings were shocked
At the state of Nye's sleeve,
Which was stuffed full of aces and bowers,
And the same with intent to deceive.

But the hands that were played
By that heathen Chinee,
And the points that he made,
Were quite frightful to see,--
Till at last he put down a right bower,
Which the same Nye had dealt unto me.

Then I looked up at Nye,
And he gazed upon me;
And he rose with a sigh,
And said, "Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,"--
And he went for that heathen Chinee.

In the scene that ensued
I did not take a hand,
But the floor it was strewed,
Like the leaves on the strand,
With the cards that Ah Sin had been hiding
In the game "he did not understand."

In his sleeves, which were long,
He had twenty-four packs,---
Which was coming it strong,
Yet I state but the facts.
And we found on his nails, which were taper,--
What is frequent in tapers,-- that's wax.

Which is why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark,
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,--
Which the same I am free to maintain.

Spiros said...

Well I for one will plainly state that Bret Harte is a better poet than Rebecca.

Anonymous said...

Are any Cantonese nicknamed 'Little Wombat"?

And if so, what kind of people are likely to be? Schoolgirls?

---Grant Patel

Anonymous said...

Hello, Lev?

---Grant Wombat

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