People | Comic

Second Place Language

According to people I met back home, my face didn’t match my voice.

I cannot recall the sound of my father’s voice anymore.   He’s now been deceased for longer than the years when we were both alive.  It wasn’t until my cousins shared a digitized VHS of him over WhatsApp that his cadence boomed in my adult ears.
In English, accented with Cantonese, he spoke genially about golfing.   I winced upon first listen.  My colonial education in Hong Kong made clear to me the tensions around which accents were considered sophisticated, and which ones were made fun of.
I turned away not just from my Dad, with whom I had an uneasy relationship, but most Cantonese popular media.  Sometimes my parents watched Stephen Chow or Jackie Chan films.  I wouldn't join them.  When the dulcet tones of George Lam blared from every portable newsstand radio, I let it wash over me, tuning out.
Well into my teens, I kept a careful distance from local pop culture.  Notions of belonging went unexamined for me. It felt punk to belong nowhere and to nobody.
Attending college away from Hong Kong quickly shattered my fragile ego.  Every fiber of my being longed for familiar scents, tastes, phrases and ways of being.  I felt haunted by the opportunities I wasted to learn Cantonese.
I was wrestling with an unspoken ruler,  One I imagined many Cantonese people were held against.  I was trying to reject a culture I had felt already rejected me, a cultural foreigner.   Almost every day, someone would comment on my accent, asking “you’re not from here, are you?”
According to people I met back home, my face didn’t match my voice.  My geography didn’t sync with my language abilities. Strangers reminded me of this, as well as my extended family.  I was not only a contradiction, but a disappointment.
As a working adult, I lost steam with my youthful charade of disconnected ennui.  I wanted more than anything to feel committed, to act and live with stakes.  Some friends switched jobs and cities every few years. I felt tied to Hong Kong.  I knew I couldn’t make up for lost time, but I had to grab hold of what is a quickly disappearing place.
It’s only in retrospect that I can see how indelibly pop culture here made me who I am.  A word that critics often use to describe Cantopop is “melancholy.”  I am nothing if not melancholy.  Embracing bittersweet yearning helps me accept the inevitable tides of change.
 Perhaps I had overestimated how much people scrutinized my Cantonese.  Because now when I speak it, mistakes and all,  I don’t hear as much derision as I used to.
These days, I’m watching Mabel Cheung and Stanley Kwan films,  And listening to Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui,  I know it won’t bring back my Dad or my youth.  But it is giving me somewhere to rest for awhile,  Somewhere I don’t have to run from. At last.