Long Time, No See!
After a year of Mandarin lessons and a year-and-a-half of Cantonese lessons, I can say “Where’s the bathroom?” in both languages, but don’t know what to do if the person answering does anything besides point. In Cantonese, right is “yao” and left is “dzaw”—don’t ask me the tones because Cantonese officially has either six or nine tones, but I hear 16. Problem is, if someone answers, “Down the hall to the left,” I’d hear, “Blah-blah-blah left.” Actually I’d hear “Mut-mut-mut left,” because “mut” means “blah” in Cantonese. After a few left turns, I’d end up where I started, where there’s only one thing I could say to the person who gave me directions: “Ho noi mo gin!” (Long time, no see!)
The above is called “losing face”: either mo min or diu gaa. I prefer mo min, because diu pronounced with the wrong tone means, “f**k,” though I doubt diu gaa translates “f**k-face.” I don’t mind losing face, but I’d rather not get punched in it.
I first visited China in 1999, during my solo trek around the world. On that trip, I learned such Mandarin phrases as “Ni hap!” (Hello!)“Duo shao qian?” (How much is it?), and “Xie xie” (Thank you). As a beginner traveler, I fell into the trap of believing that, when in doubt, I could mime whatever I needed. Untrue, as I discovered when looking for my bus from Lijiang to Dali. Unable to read signs, I ran from bus to bus holding up my ticket and pleading “Dali?…Dali?...Dali?” The drivers stared blankly. Panicked, I felt a weird temptation to try Spanish, the only other language I knew. Good thing an old man read my ticket and led me by the hand to my bus, or I might never have made it home to write my memoir.
Seven years later, I started researching a novel inspired by my Chinese-Mexican ancestry. I wanted to find the village of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum, who was born in China. Until the 1970s, Toisan county was where most Chinese-Americans traced their roots. To prepare, I wanted to learn Cantonese. Toisanese is the local dialect, but I live in Denver, where I thought finding a Cantonese instructor would be easier. No such luck. Everyone insisted Mandarin would be more useful, so I surrendered and found a Mandarin tutor.
Mandarin is hard.
A year later, I only knew a handful of phrases, like, “I’m an American.” Shit, they could tell that by looking at me. So I hired a translator to help me find my ancestral village. Fiona Zhu, or Zhu Zhu, proved invaluable. My favorite great-uncle had told me my great-grandfather’s village was Gong Hao, but Zhu Zhu discovered that Gong Hao was a district containing eleven villages. So we embarked on a hunt.
On my previous trip to China, I often thought people were angry, because Mandarin tones sometimes sound harsh. Cantonese and Toisanese sound more musical. A comedian once said Cantonese speakers sound like they’re falling off a cliff: “mut-mut-mut-aaaaaaah!” Still, Cantonese can sound angry too if you don’t understand. At one point in Gong Hao, shouting people surrounded us.
“Are they angry?” I asked.
Zhu Zhu chuckled. “No. So nice, everybody wants to help find your family!”
Ultimately, someone directed us to a 99-year-old man in the village of Git Non, who we nicknamed Old Mr. Ma. He spoke Toisanese. My translator did not. The interview went something like this:
“My great-grandfather was born in Gong Hao 120 years ago,” I said, “so I’d like to learn what life was like here long ago.” My translator relayed this to his granddaughter in Cantonese, who relayed this to her grandfather in Toisanese, whose answer made the same trip in reverse.
Five minutes later, Zhu Zhu said, “He wants to know your grandpa’s name.”
“Ma Bing Sum, but he left before you were born, so you wouldn’t have known him.”
Chinese people are big on family history, so Mr. Ma refused to give up so easily. I told him Ma Bing Sum was born in Gong Hao around 1888 and moved to America in the early 1900s. Then I showed him a letter my uncle once wrote my great-grandfather. Mr. Ma grew excited, “Ho Ho Ho!” My great-grandfather was from this very village! Mr. Ma had met him during a couple of his visits home. He verified that Ma Bing Sum had lived in El Paso with a Mexican wife. He opened the village’s red book of ancestors to a page naming Ma Bing Sum and his eldest three sons. Across the path from Old Mr. Ma’s house stood the humble home where my great-grandfather was born. Down the street stood the huge house he built with money he made in America.
“Your grandpa was the richest man in town,” Zhu Zhu said. This village was full of my distant cousins. “They say you are family.”
I had tears in my eyes, but I did not lose face.
Two days later we did a full interview. One thing Mr. Ma shared was that long ago in Git Non, teens approaching marriageable age moved out of their parents’ homes and into two communal homes: one for boys, one for girls. Those homes now appear in my novel.
Two years later I returned for Qing Ming, a Chinese version of “Day of the Dead” when people clean and decorate family graves and feed their ancestors. The Ma family served a roast pig, which now makes an undignified appearance in my novel. The next day we celebrated Mr. Ma’s 101st birthday. Everyone chuckled with delight when I said Cantonese phrases Zhu Zhu taught me, like M’Goi (thank you) and ho ho mei, (delicious).
That does it, I thought. I’m learning Cantonese and I’m coming back. Mr. Ma won’t understand me, but his family will. I can also return to Guangzhou and Hong Kong where my uncle grew up, and speak the language he spoke. What’s more, I want my novel to feel realistic, and language is culture. I renewed my search for a Cantonese tutor: “I don’t care if Mandarin is more sensible!” I found Jing Jing, a twenty-something tutor from Guangzhou.
Sometimes Jing Jing’s lessons reveal a generation gap. She worked hard to teach me “Hang gai, Tai hei, Sik fan,” meaning, “Go shopping, see a show, eat”—the Chinese version of “Go to the mall.” She assures me this is “very popular,” though I doubt my great-grandfather said it in the 1910s. Then again, she also taught me the common greeting,“Sik dzaw fan mei ah?” which never goes out of style. It means, “Have you eaten yet?” or literally, “Have you eaten rice?” a reminder that rice is central to Chinese culture. Jing Jing explained that, upon meeting someone, it’s polite to say, “Please give me your advice.” I’m eager to make this request of my Chinese cousins.
There’s something about a foreigner speaking our language that warms the soul. It says this relationship means so much that I wish to build a bridge between us.
The last time I saw Old Mr. Ma he was waving from his doorway on his 101st birthday, saying, “Bye-bye!” a popular farewell in modern China. I had given him sweets, a card, and a red balloon. He was most tickled by that balloon, not because he’s feeble-minded—we had discussed profound concepts, including how he values the family closeness of village life, which is why he never sought his fortune in America—no, he loved the balloon simply because he’s a joyful person.
I hope I get to tell him, “Ho Noi Mo Gin!”—“Long Time No See.” If he’s no longer around, I’ll ask where his grave is so I can leave an offering. Hopefully by then I’ll know how to ask for directions.
About the Author:
Cara Lopez Lee’s stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, and she’s a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. She married her husband at an active volcano in Costa Rica. They live in Denver. You can buy Cara’s memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands, at Conundrum Press, IndieBound, or Amazon. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.