My Cantonese is improving thanks to the NRA

expatlingo nra cantonese comic

Around the time the National Rifle Association (NRA) announced that its solution to the Sandy Hook tragedy is armed guards in every American school, my love for Hong Kong, and its strict gun laws, low crime rate and strong economy, grew tenfold.

In fact, I’ve been inspired by the NRA to re-double my efforts to learn basic, friendly every-day Cantonese.

So over the weekend, I braved the holiday crowds and took a special trip to Hong Kong Island from my home in the New Territories (also know as “Mordor” to the Hong Kong Islanders) to seek out a few more Cantonese study books.

First I checked out Eslite, the three-level Taiwanese books store at Hong Kong’s newest mall, Hysan Place in Causeway Bay. They had a full shelf of Mandarin learning books for English speakers and a grand total of two Cantonese learning books for English speakers, one of which I already own. So I bought the other one: the Lonely Planet Cantonese Phrasebook.

After riding the tram from Causeway Bay to Central, I enjoyed a nice lunch of garlic eggplant and pork dumplings and then visited the two bookstores at the IFC mall in Central: Bookazine and Dymocks. There I found another Cantonese study book, “Interesting Cantonese” by Susanna Ng. More of a list of sentences than a language study book, I bought it because there is simply so little out there. Well, that and because it taught me how to say “ParknShop” and “7Eleven” in Cantonese (Baak Gai and Chat Sahp Yaht) as well as a bunch of Hong Kong place-names.

Cantonese study books

Now I have four books to help me learn Cantonese, plus some Pimsluer language CDs. I could really use a class, but since I live in the aforementioned “Mordor of Hong Kong” that is easier said than done, so I’ll use my books and CDs for a bit.

Despite my newfound enthusiasm, I still secretly feel that studying Cantonese is a practice in futility:

  1. Many (most?) locals speak (some) English. Well, save for the ParknShop clerks and the ladies who collect the rubbish from my house. And those who speak English, answer back in English as this funny video by Norwegian Cantonese teacher Cecilie Gamst Berg illustrates:
  2. There is no standardized system for Romanizing Cantonese (that is, writing it out using the alphabet–like Pinyin for Mandarin). So each book uses a slightly different system to account for sounds and tones.
  3. Bloody traditional characters. Thanks to my previous Mandarin studies I can read a slew of simplified characters. But in Hong Kong they use the traditional characters. Obvious ones that I see every day I know, like 車 for 车, 長 for 长, and 電 for 电. But I often get lost in a maze of strokes when trying to suss out traditional characters. (Don’t hate me Hongkongers, I know you love them.)
  4. Lastly, and related to all of the above, I think native Hongkongers secretly don’t want the rest of use to learn Cantonese. After all, how will they gossip about us and our spotty, untaken-care-of skin then?

Still, I will persist if only to learn enough to be a bit more chatty with the eternally friendly rubbish ladies and to stick it to the NRA. After all, I can have a coveted permanent Hong Kong ID card and “right of abode” in only 6.25 more years.

(What does the comic say? Credit is due to the Wikipedia page, Cantonese profanity, for help with the comic. “仆街”, pronounced “puk1 gaai1” can mean both “prick” and “drop dead” and “can also be used in daily life under a variety of situations to express annoyance, disgrace or other emotions.” “𨳒” pronounced “diu2” means “f*ck.” The full phrase roughly means: “Disgraceful prick! F*ck your gun rights!”)

Related posts:

China’s Pearl River Delta = Woe for the Chinese Language Student

Mini-bus language angst

The Retrograde Chinese Lesson (Comic)

Gun-toting, Cantonese hillbillies in the New Territories

28 responses to “My Cantonese is improving thanks to the NRA

    • From my perspective–looking out the window to see 50 foot high bamboo and jungle-covered mountains–it doesn’t feel like Mordor. But it’s just so far removed from the “bright, lights and big city” of Central that folks that only know that part of Hong Kong can’t imagine living way out here (let alone visiting!)

      Truth be told, before I got used to it and found my own routines, I sometimes felt like it was Mordor too!

    • HK Magazine actually referred to the New Territories as Mordor last week…sigh!

      The New Territories is the dark side of the moon to certain expats and Hongkongers. The New Territories actually touches Mainland China! Villagers with dogs live out there! Plus the density of Starbucks and Louis Vuitton stores drops significantly!


  1. I learned a bit of Canto from Steven Chow (or would it be Chow Stephen) movies…have you watched many of those? I find a few in particular, Love on Delivery, Fight Back to School 2 and From Beijing with Love the most tolerable, but 無厘頭 in any country is not my usually cup of tea.
    Cantonese is a good language for 骂人, otherwise headphones were invented for that part of the world…

    • I find something about the long, rising “aaaaahhhh” and the end of most Cantonese exchanges disarmingly cool, but maybe it’s just me.

      I haven’t watched any Steven Chow movies, from a brief glance on You Tube, I’m also not sure I could take the 無厘頭!

  2. I found when I went to HK earlier this year that I could “recognize” much more Cantonese than three years ago which I assume was from my Mandarin studies. Perhaps you should just refocus on Mandarin? Good luck with the Cantonese.

    • You are completely right that Mandarin helps a lot. To be honest, I don’t plan to commit a ton of time to Cantonese, I just want enough to say place names correctly, get around the wet markets and taxis better and carry out a few friendly exchanges.

      The English and Cantonese speaking spheres of Hong Kong can be so separate sometimes. Like two parallel worlds. I’d like to poke through just a little.

  3. The only real way to learn it is go to school, full time, for 5 years.

    I bet you the total cost of those books that they will be mostly unused.

    But you are right, it is pointless to learn anyway. Unless you want to (1) use it for a career or (2) REALLY want to immerse yourself into the country and speak to locals – it is worthless.

    • Always a bight ray of sunshine from Shanghai, Developing City Blog! 😉

      I don’t want to be anywhere near fluent in Cantonese. I just want enough to share a few short exchanges with locals and to say key place names correctly. And I need those silly books to piece together the list of things that I want to be able to do.

      Fortunately, because the cost of classes or tutoring is so high in Hong Kong, the price of the books is still less than two hours worth of lessons…

    • Cantonese would help if you plan to dig deep into the non-Shenzhen part of Guangdong. Meaning, everywhere else in Guangdong. Dongguan and Guangzhou are getting more and more non-Canto speakers, but still the majority are the 冇-type, not necessarily the 没有-type.
      Not to mention, many Chinatowns around the world would be a bit more amusing…besides that big one you already live in;)

      • A healthy dose of Cantonese would mainly just be to help me enjoy daily HK life a bit more. I hadn’t actually thought about the benefit in world-wide Chinatowns. Good point! Think of the eavesdropping possibilities.

        In the Mainland, I’ll probably always revert to Mandarin since I’ll probably always be more advanced in it…

    • Learning at least a little is fun. Mandarin is still my priority, but I hate not at least being able to say a few basics to all the friendly, older Hongkongers around who don’t speak much English.

      • Agreed! Even being able to say thank you is worth learning in any language right? We have three sentences in Cantonese so far – thank you (both forms), “can I have the check please?” (which probably gives away our main activity here, haha) and “hurry up” (which is really redundant in this super efficient city!). I’m sure we’ll pick up more as we go 🙂

  4. I know exactly how you feel when trying to learn Canto! I felt the same way having learned a *tiny* (and I do mean tiny) bit of Mandarin in Taiwan and then having to start over again in Hong Kong… But you are also right on the low crime and strict laws in Hong Kong. Why can’t Americans see that? Why do regulations on the firearms you can own mean loss of personal freedom to so many people in the States? To me, it would be personal freedom gained: I can go to school/public places without having to walk through medical detectors and worrying about what idiot is going to pull out a gun next!

  5. I’m wondering why you’re learning Cantonese, Jen, if you already know Mandarin, since all the HKers are now required to learn Mandarin (though many speak it very poorly). Cantonese is more difficult tonally than Mandarin but the characters are the same… though sometimes the expressions and ways of using the characters may not be.

    • Oh, I’m just learning enough to be friendly and have a few little chats since a lot of the greetings and question words are different than Mandarin. Not a huge commitment. Just being able to say “good morning” and “thank you” in Cantonese has already won me lots of nice exchanges in the two weeks I’ve started using them.

  6. Good for you, Jen! I have some friends who picked up some useful Cantonese phrases and slang by watching some of the Canto soaps, especially friends who already speak Mandarin and who can read the subtitles. Might be a fun strategy for you. Also, I stumbled upon this tumblr, and thought you might appreciate it (apologies if you’ve already seen it): Happy New Year!

    • Congratulations American Tai Tai: you’re the first commenter to have anything positive to say about bothering to learn Cantonese!

      I’ve tried a few Mandarin soaps online before and could get the basic idea, but you overestimate my abilities in thinking I can read characters fast enough to follow along while also eavesdropping on the Cantonese! A girl can dream though.

      But seriously, out in the New Territories even a little Cantonese can be mighty handy from time to time, if only to get a friendly response and some help from a local. I still think a tiny bit of work and memorization will result in a nice pay-back.

      Oh, and I love Cantomemes. I just clicked through them all again because they are so hilarious. Thanks for the reminder to check back and see the new ones!

  7. About your 4th point. I think it’s mainly because people that can speak Cantonese are proud of being able to speak it because it’s seen as a hard language to learn with all the tones etc. And accent is so important. Even if you can speak Cantonese, if you have an accent, I think people are likely to take you less seriously?
    I speak Cantonese at home as my parents are from HK (although not fluently – I mainly speak Chinglish -_-) but my parents are forcing me to learn Mandarin with simplified characters (even though they don’t know simplified very well) since they think it’ll be more useful later on in life. I’m going HK this summer, do you think I need to brush up on my Cantonese? I’d like to think I can survive by using just English but I’m doing some voluntary work with a charity and I don’t know how much Canto I’m expected to know. I mainly learn from watching TVB HK dramas 😐

    • If I were you I’d brush up my Canto just because it’ll probably make things more fun and interesting for you! But you can certainly do fine w just English generally. Not sure about the volunteer work though. Sounds like a fun summer. I’d be interested in hearing how it turns out.

  8. Pingback: “Gau go gaau gau gau ge!” Song by The Police or Cantonese tongue twister? | Expat Lingo·

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