Yeltsin Speaks Cantonese// the logic of messing up unexpected questions

It’s been about five days since the last dinner with the in-laws, but they were in the area to get their fingerprints done for the new HKID card, so off we went to the nearby shabu shabu place.

Shabu Shabu = 90 minutes of hot pot, all you can eat and drink

Unfortunately, I was the one who went ahead to get the ticket. Usually, when this happens, I’ll ask the staff in Cantonese how long we have to wait for a table or do they have a table straight away, but this time they sucker punched me with a ‘how long…’ question of their own.

Jung yau gei loi do?

Gei loi is ‘how long’, jung yau is something like ‘still have’, and do is a short way to say ‘arrive’…so I could understand what was said, the problem was, what did it mean?

My brain ran through the logical options: how long until the other people in your group arrive, how long are you willing to wait for a table, how long have you been in Hong Kong, how long does it take to arrive in places generally…

But none of them seemed to fit, so I replied, ‘gei loi meh?’[how long for what?] which was probably quite rude, but I didn’t have a clue what they were saying.

They said the same thing again, I stared back at them blankly, and then the ultimate frustration…a guy standing nearby stepped in and translated for me. They want to know how long your friends will take to arrive, he said.

Ah, that makes sense.

But they never said ‘friends’ or ‘people.’

My wife told me later that it was a abbreviated question cos understanding was assumed. Everyone knew what they were asking, they didn’t need to spell out every word. Which is true, for native speakers, but not for my brain.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.

I guess it’s quite common for language learners. When the question is weird or illogical, even if you understand each word being spoken, your brain will instantly dismiss what you’re hearing and assume they’re saying similar words that you don’t know.

Like in the post office last week, I sent a Chinese New Year’s Decoration rolled up in a small tube to my mum in the UK, and the post office guy asked if I had any perfume inside. I heard the word for perfume, but it didn’t make sense to my brain…possibly because they’ll usually say liquids in English, and why would I put perfume in a tube shaped package? Again, there’s a logical disconnect, my brain told me the words I’d heard were wrong somehow, and it was something else he was saying.

If someone asks me in English, ‘it’s about non-canned chicken, isn’t it?’ I might also wonder if that’s what they were really saying, cos it’s oddball. In Cantonese, all I can do is follow logic as best as I can, and accept that I’m gonna look like a clown now and then.

As for Boris Yeltsin…

When we got inside and started eating, I was opposite my father in law. Actually, he has a new translation app on his phone that he’s very excited about cos he thinks it can allow us to speak more deeply about things.

It’s always been hard to talk to him as his voice is quiet and the words don’t come out too clearly. He does know a little bit of English, so we can usually mix the two languages and get by, though I always try to use Cantonese as we’re in Hong Kong and I need the practice.

One problem is, and it’s my problem specifically, I can’t stick to simple things or simple topics. I always overreach cos I’m translating directly from what I think in my mind. So, we got to talking about Chinese History, and China’s relationship with the USSR. I don’t know much about this so I asked my father-in-law what he thought, and he started reeling off Russian leaders like Gorbachov and Yeltsin.

In Cantonese, foreign names are translated phonetically most of the time; sometimes it’s so close to the English that you can guess what it is, other times it’s completely alien e.g. Sherlock Holmes = Fuk yee mor see

The Cantonese for ‘Yeltsin’ was quite long so I used the English version when I spoke, which led to this classic exchange:

[In Cantonese]

ME: Yeah, I know Yeltsin, he’s famous for drinking lots of alcohol.

FATHER-IN-LAW: That’s right. He’s famous for that in China too.

ME: I think he was the leader after the German wall broke…was broken by other people, German people.

FATHER-IN-LAW: You speak Chinese well now.

ME: Yeltsin spoke Chinese?

FATHER-IN-LAW: You speak Cantonese well, you have improved.

ME: Yeltsin?

FATHER-IN-LAW: Yes.

ME: Yeltsin knew how to speak Cantonese? Very strange. Why does he know how to speak Cantonese?

FATHER-IN-LAW: I don’t know.

ME [To my wife, in English]: Did you know Boris Yeltsin spoke Cantonese? Is that true?

WIFE: Who’s Yeltsin?

ME: Russian leader, drank a lot of vodka.

My wife talks to my father-in-law in Cantonese, then turns back to me.

WIFE: He said you speak Cantonese well, you’ve improved.

ME: Ha. I’ve improved so much, I completely misunderstood what he was saying.

WIFE: It’s normal.

ME: Just to confirm…Yeltsin doesn’t speak Cantonese?

WIFE: If he did, he didn’t tell me.

This whole conversation was so ridiculous that you have to laugh, and again, it’s all connected to logical responses, or what my brain thinks is logical.

All I heard was someone knows how to speak Chinese, and because I hadn’t said anything remarkable I assumed that my father-in-law was talking about the guy we’d already referenced i.e. Boris Yeltsin. Even when he said Yeltsin spoke Cantonese well, my brain didn’t budge, it tried to make it logical, tried to come up with a reason why Yeltsin would know it.

On the other side, I guess my father-in-law wasn’t used to hearing the English name for Yeltsin, so he said yes when I asked ‘Yeltsin?’ to confirm.

And from there, it derailed.

Man, I love languages.

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