Cantonese Hong Kong

Christopher DeWolf

The inevitable finally happened. Last month, during a Chinese New Year dinner at a seafood restaurant in Sham Shui Po, a working-class neighborhood in Kowloon, my wife’s uncle said something that I had been asking myself for years: “You’ve lived in Hong Kong for so many years–and you still don’t speak Cantonese?”

He said that in Cantonese, and I understood it, so I guess that’s something to my credit. But I couldn’t help but feel shame because I have been in Hong Kong for nearly seven years and my Cantonese hasn’t progressed much beyond the kindergarten level. As someone motivated primarily by deadlines, I have been waiting all along for the moment when people start looking askance at me for barely speaking the local language.

When I first moved to Hong Kong, I wanted to learn Cantonese, but then life took hold, and life here is fast enough that language lessons can easily fall by the wayside. My wife, Laine, who is originally from Hong Kong, taught me enough Cantonese to buy fresh food at the wet market and I took a course that helped build my basic vocabulary and wrangle my tones into place. (Cantonese has either six or nine tones, depending on whom you ask – just one reason why it’s such a difficult language to learn.)

But English is one of Hong Kong’s official languages, and enough of this city’s business, social and cultural life happens in English that it can be easy to get by without speaking anything else. I know plenty of expats who have lived here for decades and speak even less Cantonese than I do. “When I first arrived in Hong Kong, Cantonese was a wall of sound, and 18 years later, it’s still a wall of sound, ” said a banker I met recently.

It would be very easy to spend the rest of my life without learning another word of Cantonese. Comfortable, even. Yet I am nagged by a sense of guilt and a question that has lingered in my mind ever since I moved here: Do expats have a moral obligation to learn the local language?

I posed that question to my friend Daisann McLane, a writer who began learning Cantonese when she still lived in New York, simply because she was fascinated by Hong Kong movies. “I don’t like to look at it in terms of moral obligations, ” she tells me.

Ms. McLane runs a bespoke tour company called Little Adventures in Hong Kong that takes tourists on intimate walks around the city, giving them a chance to meet shopowners and eat at off-the-beaten-path restaurants. It builds on the relationships she has made over 12 years of speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong.

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