I grew up in Hong Kong and am fluent in Cantonese and English. But I don’t speak Putonghua.
Every time I reveal this piece of information, people are shocked and get judgey fast. Why don’t you speak Putonghua? Did you not ever learn it? Why don’t you learn it?
I can probably pick up four out of ten words, if I know the context. But if the Putonghua speaker is from the north – where they roll their tongue sixteen times per minute – then I probably need Google translate.
The local primary school I went to in Hong Kong began implementing compulsory Putonghua classes when I was 7 years old. I don’t remember it because I simply didn’t pay any attention in the limited time I had to learn. Also, I hated my teacher.
Having been told for as long as I can remember that I would soon be going to boarding school in England, I had it in my head that there would be no need for a third language. I realized how wrong I was when I got my class schedule at boarding school, which included French, Spanish, German and Latin.
So, here we are today, and my lack of language skills is starting to become a real problem.
I have shown up to conduct interviews with people for articles I am writing, and upon arrival, realized the interviewee speaks Putonghua and not Cantonese — rendering a need for an interpreter. This happens often in Macau – where I go regularly for work – because people usually assume a Chinese person from Hong Kong is probably trilingual.
When tourists ask me for directions in Hong Kong in Putonghua, I usually just look blank and quietly respond with “I don’t speak Putonghua” – in broken Putonghua.
Putonghua is everywhere in Hong Kong and Macau, but these instances are not just limited to the two SARs. I am averse to traveling in mainland China, partly because I always end up feeling lost and stupid. I have never been to Taiwan. The first time I went to my favorite Hainan chicken rice place in Singapore, it took me a while to figure out what the geriatric uncle who runs the place was mumbling at me. In Munich, a bouncer at a nightclub who happened to have lived in China spoke to me in Putonghua, and really, I only caught a third of what he said.
As of 2016, 90 percent of the population in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, according to official stats. Surprisingly, only 2 percent are Putonghua speakers (even less than 3 percent who speak other Chinese dialects) — although this is very hard to believe on any given day in the shopping districts in the city.
Because I already speak Cantonese and read and write Chinese, I know that it’s not going to be hard. I’m told to tune into Taiwanese variety shows and listen to Mandopop. I am trying to watch 2018’s most popular Chinese drama, The Story of Yanxi Palace, in its original Putonghua with subtitles rather than the dubbed Cantonese version for Hong Kong audiences. Eventually, I will get my ass in gear and sign up to a class.
Some say Cantonese is a dying language, and Putonghua is the future. There are endless debates about whether it should take over Cantonese as the main medium of teaching in Hong Kong.
Is Putonghua the way to go?
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