cross-border daddy and musings

i remember long ago watching an interview with a chinese actor wherein the interviewer asked how the actor learned to speak such good english –

“from watching police academy movies!”
maybe that stuck so well with me because i was was also watching police academy movies at the time. but if someone were to ask how i learned chinese, i could flippantly answer, “from watching cross-border daddy! (爸爸兩地走)”

i wouldn’t normally indulge in a soap drama but this is “educational” and – what luck – got to start watching from the beginning. (chinese dramas are fun since they run for just a few seasons. then you can pick up the entire drama on 13 dvd’s and have a marathon-session.)

in other news, i learned why it’s utterly valid to mimic a mandarin-speaker by liberally tacking “r”s. in a concept called er hua (兒化), er modifies the word it follows while in cantonese you just use a different word altogether. i thought i was being blatantly stereotypical but it turns out there was a true basis for it! (on a side note, er hua also translates to “son methodology,” yet another example of sexism in the society??)

a lecture held in chinese is remarkably cool. falling into taking notes in chinglish because the lecture is in chinese is likewise very cool. we discussed different variants of mandarin, how they are spoken differently in disparate regions.

if only cantonese words mapped to mandarin, like my chinese name, 慧, is wai (cantonese) or hui (mandarin). if “w-” would always map to “h-” and “-ai” always map to “-ui,” that would just be too logical and easy, wouldn’t it? =S

whether you do or don’t speak a chinese dialect to begin with, learning mandarin, with the highly standardized pinyin system, is just a spelling lesson. “beef” is no longer spelled “gnau” (cantonese) but “niu,” and “flesh” is no longer spelled “yook” but “rou,” and all the associated, whacked way to prounounce “r”s and “-ou”s in the blessed language. pinyin “-ou”s actually sound more like “-oe” in the english word “toe.” so the translation process for me goes something like this –

  1. see a character, 肉
  2. simultaneously think “flesh” and “yook,” the cantonese pronounciation
  3. remember that it is “rou” in pinyin, the mandarin “spelling”
  4. tell myself that a pinyin “-ou” actually sounds like an english “-oe”
  5. expel the sound from my vocal track and hope it came out okay, but remember how i’m tone deaf.

just great. extraneous levels of translation for the language i learned before english. if an immigrant has to go through this much translation, i whole-hearted admire their pluck to move to an english-speaking country….!

there are three major differences between cantonese and mandarin and are hence stumbling blocks for lifetime cantonese speakers to learn the “common language” (普通話) : (1) canto-speakers don’t curl their tongues and trip up immensely on words starting with zh-, sh-, ch-, and r-… besides the fact that we’ve long ago learned the incorrect pronounciation for common words like “what” (甚麼); (2) the fifth tone in mandarin is a non-tone and from our own dialect, we are pretty lousy at making that non-tone; and (3) we don’t have that blessed er hua that is not only a foreign concept, one that even formal cantonese doesn’t use, but the tongue-curling action required by the r- is just another tongue-twister that taunts us.

On this day..


  1. Matt says:

    Having studied Mandarin for a couple of years, I found your Mandarin-Cantonese comparison really fascinating. As I listen to Cantonese speakers on the bus, recognizing some words but not most, I often wonder how the parallels work.

    Of course, now I’m dying to know what’s the “mispronunciation” of shenme 甚麼 / 什么 ?

  2. Matt says:

    Oh, and yes, er hua is strange even to Mandarin students with no background in Cantonese.

    To make it even stranger, I studied for a few weeks in Beijing, and they add ers in their pronunciation to words that don’t even have them, and sometimes with no apparent rhyme or reason. Favorite example? 畫畫 “to paint a painting.” Except that it’s not hua hua as any other Mandarin speaker in her right mind would say it (and which stands to reason since it’s the same. damn. character.) — oh no, it’s hua huarrrr.

    A bunch of pirates, they are, those silly Beijingers. Yarrrrr, ni zenme la???

    When asked why in God’s name would they pronounce it that way, the response, over and over again, was, “It’s better that way. It would sound dumb without it.”

  3. wyn says:

    What drove me bonkers during the erhua lesson is that there are these “variants” (for lack of a better word) – hua/huar, dian/dianr (點/點兒)- with very different sounds and a different meaning such that if you drop the “r” as I would seriously love to, not only does it sound dumb, you are *wrong*, so the instructor says. And I can’t find these variations in, my favourite chinese dictionary. I.e., “hua er” is not a listed “compound word” the way “hua jia” (畫家) is… and I think it should be!

    LOL. PIRATES. I won’t forget that funny anytime soon. =D (It’s because of the stupid “r”s that made me balk whenever people would tell me that Mandarin is *so* beautiful and Cantonese is cacophonic.)

    While reading aloud, we kept getting stopped after saying shenme (甚麼). Afterall, it’s a very important word and we were butchering it since every Canto-speaker learned it in the streets and got it wrong. Sh- requires the tongue-curling (for the proper Beijing accent) that we are lazy at, and we are so familiar with the word, we tend to rush through it, giving it a flattish tone instead of linger over the word “shen” to give it the appropriate rising tone.

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