Speaking in Two Tongues

March 16, 2009 § 2 Comments

There are many ways to learn a language. Most often people seek to study a second (or third or tenth) language, in a classroom or on their own. Or they learn it at their mother’s knee, conversing in the familial Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Hindi, while speaking English to the world outside.

I saw on Facebook that our son-in-law is using Rosetta Stone to teach himself Swedish, the language of his ancestry. My husband and I joke that our son-in-law is studying Swedish so he can talk with his father without our daughter knowing what they’re saying. Or maybe they’re planning a trip to Stockholm, who knows.

During high school in Canada I was compelled to learn French, so I can scrape by pretty well. I don’t have to use subtitles much when watching French movies, I can find my way easily around the menu of a French restaurant, and on the one occasion I went to Paris, I did not feel utterly lost. But I never think in French and that’s what separates “speaking French” from “knowing” it.

Long before the French though,Mother married an Englishman (I was ten), and when we moved to West Yorkshire,  I developed my second language: English. (“What?!” You say, quizzically.)

Well, I know to look both ways at the Zebra crossing so I won’t get struck by a passing lorry. When I’m tired, I prefer the lift to the stairs. I’ve corrected my mistakes with a rubber (rather than preventing “mistakes” with one) I’ve gone to the Chemists for a plaster, which I’ve then affixed to my finger. I’ve enjoyed the warmth of a good anorak, and I’ve been gone longer than a fortnight. I prefer Trifle to Blancmange (aptly pronounced blahhhhh-maahhnj) and I can never put my hand on a Biro when I need one.

Additionally, I know the difference between a barrister and a solicitor. You probably shouldn’t look for crisps in a chip shop, I need plimsolls if I’m going to play netball, and there’s nowt for the moggies to eat. I’ve never written to an Agony Aunt, I prefer bangers and mash to bubble and squeak, but I’d rather have a butty than either. I’ve exclaimed “Gor Blimey, this fairy cake is delicious” Luckily not too many things have gone balls-up, though occasionally my teachers would say “Oy, you, stop skiving.”  Okay, then, Bob’s your uncle. Oh, and there’s nothing like a bit of cha to raise your spirits.

Which is something that my Chinese American husband would certainly agree with, though he, like all Chinese, would never dream of taking his tea with milk and sugar. Crazy, he says, it just doesn’t go. Like putting fish sauce on your breakfast cereal. He calls it the same thing, though: cha.  The British slang, in fact, comes from the Cantonese word for tea.  “Cha” was the first Chinese word our son learned, picking it up from hearing his parents’ one word question “Cha?” (Tea?) or “Ngeem Cha?” (Drink tea?)

My husband’s mother was an immigrant, arriving here in 1936, just as the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally being lifted.  Her husband was a third generation Chinese-American, but the exclusion act had required him (as it had his father) to go to China for his bride. In fact, Elmer’s father had been born in China and came to the U.S. alone in 1913, at age 12, to seek his future. In 1921, he returned to China to marry (it was an arranged marriage) and then returned again, alone, to America. There would be many such trips across the Pacific for the next 14 years. The couple had five children before the family was allowed to come to America.

When Rose Louie Lieu arrived at the port of Los Angeles, she spoke no English.  Elmer is uncertain if his father tried to teach his mother some English, but certainly he had to translate for her. They settled on Clanton Street in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, about two miles by bus or foot from Chinatown and the familiar charivari of her native tongue. Five children became six, then seven. All the children always spoke Chinese with their parents, and each of them went every afternoon to a special Chinese school to learn how to write the beautiful Chinese characters.

Dad worked in the shipyards, Mom stayed home and hand painted silk ties. When Elmer, the baby of the family, was about five years old, his parents opened a small neighborhood grocery store on Washington Boulevard. At the store, both his mother and father spoke English with their customers, but the language at home was still Chinese.  (Except for the year when they both got mad at each other, and didn’t speak at all, but that’s another story.)

In 1969, the grocery burned to the ground. The Lieus were in their late sixties, so they took the insurance money and retired. From that day forward, their English language slipped away little by little. By the time I met Elmer’s mother in 1992, she didn’t speak any English at all.  During the many telephone conversations Elmer had with her, he spoke Chinese fluently, and without hesitation. But put him on the spot, ask “What’s the word for this,” or “How do you say that” and he can’t remember.

His mother came from a village outside of Toisan, in the Pearl River Delta. Up until about 1950, three out of every four Chinese immigrants was from Toisan, and the city was referred to as The Home of Overseas Chinese. The dialect that she and Elmer’s father spoke is further distinguished as being a “country dialect.” It is a derivative of Cantonese, but can lead to awkward assumptions: Many people know the Chinese dish Moo Goo Gai Pan. It is chicken with mushrooms. In Toisanese, “gai” means “dog” and “goy” is chicken. Best to have your dialects in a row before you order your Peking duck.

Mandarin is now the official Chinese language, but 70 million people still speak Samyip (Cantonese) and it is the official language in Hong Kong and Macau.  Of course, the dialect that Elmer’s parents spoke is preserved from a time nearly a century ago. In the very same village, they are no longer using these particular idioms or constructions; like many immigrant families, we have preserved for ourselves a vernacular of antique Chinese speech. 

During our marriage, I’ve spent a lot of time smiling in restaurants while Elmer conducts elaborate conversations (in Toisanese) with waiters and waitresses across the country, and in Canada. Especially in Canada. I know the drill. He says “Are you Chinese?”

“Yes,” the person answers, adding his or her own question. “Are you Chinese . . .” and they’re off and running. My ear is attuned to any reference to bak gwee (White Devil, that’s us pale folks) but so far no one has mentioned it.

The best (and most authentic) Chinese restaurants are often the most unprepossessing ones, in strip malls and office buildings. We found one such place in Crescent City, California. The food was excellent and the owner-waitress-wife of chef was from Toisan. It’s a good thing our son was there too, or I would have had to spend the entire meal without uttering a word. Just as we were leaving, Elmer and the woman had a particularly lively and cheerful exchange. As we walked to the car, I asked Elmer “What was that last thing you said to her?”

 “Do you want to go back to the hotel?”


“Do you want to go back to the hotel?”

“That’s the last thing you said to the waitress?”

“What do you mean?”

Julian was laughing so hard at his father’s unwitting faux pas, I thought he would pass out. When my dear husband finally caught on, he started laughing too and we all had to sit in the car awhile to collect ourselves.

The first word my mother-in-law taught me was Heckla. It means “have some more.”  She used it like a blessing, though, making sure that we were well fed, warm enough, cool enough, had enough cash . . . and here, have some more. It did no good to say we were full, or fine, or had enough money; there was always something more to give us. It was a beautiful and generous sentiment and I wish we could have had it etched upon her headstone, but of course, the Chinese are far too formal for such things.

In the 17 years that Elmer and I have been married, I have picked up a bit of Chinese here and there. It’s not as fluent as my French, or my idiomatic British, nor will it ever be the language of my thoughts. But I can urge Julian to hurry up Lwoy-la. (Come on). I can say I’m ready to leave.  Luwht-la (Let’s go.) I know that the antique dress in the lacquer trunk is called a Cheung-Sahm and I know that the carved trunk with the scenes on it is the Jun Muk Lung.

My abilities extend to wishing you a Happy New Year, (Gung Hay Fat Choy), saying Thanks (Wa-deh) and politely asking how you are (Neh How Ma) My husband and his long time friend, Bill Ahaus, are hilarious when they say this to each other on the phone, in what I call Chinese-restaurant-short-order-screech. Bill’s a bak gwee (like me) but his wife Doreen is Chinese American, so it’s okay. It’s not racist if you’re making fun of yourself.

I also know Wah Sun (New China, frequently seen on restaurants and my husband’s Chinese name)  Ma (horse, and also the famous cellist) Haack (black, and Haackas are a dark Chinese minority; Chow Yun Fat is one, so is our brother-in-law, father of the family’s claim to real success: Famous Headline News anchor, Richard Lui) and the ever essential ShiHahngGee (literally: shit bowl paper, but what we polite Americans call toilet tissue.)

Sadly, our son won’t learn Chinese at his father’s knee, as it’s hard to teach Chinese when you can’t remember it except for when you’re having conversations with waitresses.  Julian has picked up some colorful Cantonese terminology (and a few insults) with which he dazzles his contemporaries at school. And he has learned to listen for the music in other languages, puzzling out German and French and now his own choice for speaking in a second tongue: Latin. Deus Succurro Peur




  A Very Short British-American Glossary

zebra crossing — crosswalk

lorry – truck

lift – elevator

rubber – eraser

chemists – pharmacy

plaster – bandage, bandaid

anorak – parka style winter coat

Trifle – layered dessert with fruit, cream, cake and sherry

Blancmange – molded gelatinous dessert

barrister – an attorney who argues cases in court

solicitor – an attorney who represents you in matters not involving court

crisps – potato chips

chip shops – fish and chip shops—chips are slices of fried potato

plimsolls – girls gym shoes (like Keds)

netball – basketball

Agony Aunt – advice columns, like Dear Abby & Ann Landers

nowt – nothing

moggies – cats

bangers and mash – sausage and mashed potato in a casserole arrangement

bubble and squeak – fried potatoes and cabbage, sometimes a bit of bacon or sausage

butty – a sandwich made with meat and butter

Gor Blimey – an exclamation, a colloquial form of “Gosh!,” from “God Blind Me.” Really.

fairy cake  — cupcake

balls up – totally ruined, messed up, SNAFU

Oy – A form of address similar to Hey!

Skiving – to avoid work, dawdling

Bob’s Your Uncle – “That’s it, then,” that’s all there is.

Cha – tea













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§ 2 Responses to Speaking in Two Tongues

  • David Lauri says:

    I spent some time in Germany studying German, and while I never really got to the point that I “knew” German in the way you define knowing a language (i.e. thinking in it), the point at which I knew I was fairly fluent was when I found myself on the Strassenbahn, inadvertently eavesdropping on the conversation of two women next to me and suddenly realizing I was understanding everything they said without having to try to do so.

  • larkinvonalt says:

    You say to-mah-to, I say to-may-to; I think we’re in agreement here. If you are understanding it without trying to do so that would pass any threshold for “knowing” a language. Danke.

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