There I was, nervous again, fidgeting over my notes, like a first day back at school, checking my hair was OK and my shoelaces were done. In a foreign land here I was now, faced with the task of trying to learn some basic Cantonese. Cantonese is one of many Chinese dialects. It is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, most of the Guangdong Province and by millions of “Wahkius” (Chinese Overseas). In fact, it is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect from Chinese overseas people. Mandarin remains world number one though. Cantonese is a challenging language to get to grips with, mainly because of the six tones involved. Basically what feels like the same “word” has six different prononciations, meanings and tones.
a – a – a – ah – ah – ah (6 tones – slightly different sound)
To confuse you even more, it’s written differently too in Chinese. The only way for me to find out was to start from scratch and try to learn the language finally. Out of all the Chinese languages I have encountered on my trips all over China and Asia, Cantonese is by far my favourite. I love the sound of it, the tones, the slang:
hila hila – yes yes yes
oom goi ga la – thankyou (stressed)
chee seen la ma – crazy (stressed)
mouh man taih – no problem
You might have read my article last month about starting the Cantonese course in Tsim Sha Tsui at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, well I have now finished my studies again to travel so it’s time for a sum up report. It was nice to be able to study this summer for a short time. It was also my third different university in my third different country and yes I do love ticking off these new experiences and refreshing joys of a varied life. Through my jobs in Hong Kong in the past, the bar work at Delaneys, the English teaching and working for Internations, I was always too busy in my life to learn the language in Hong Kong. I’d finish one job, then work on my travel stories, then I’d plan my trips, then I’d watch football and socialise. Life was busy in my life from 2011 – 2015. I was speaking English to everyone. I had picked up about 50 – 100 basic words of Cantonese but I’d forget them in an instant everytime I left Hong Kong again, which given my travel timeline is pretty regular. I’m not good at immersing myself in a country’s language or teaching myself a language. I need to have a tutor and to attend class. That’s how I learn. It’s how I learned Spanish in Montevideo in Uruguay in 2010 and it’s what I decided on this year and next in Hong Kong. My girlfriend speaks brilliant Cantonese and English and a good level of Mandarin so it was all too easy for me to speak English to her. However her family don’t speak much English. Panny is the best English speaker in her family having spent 5 years living in New Zealand and at least 5 years hardcore backpacking the globe, but her Mum speaks zero English. So from being too busy to learn in the early days in Asia, I finally had time on my side, I was less busy as I work for myself now. I could attend some lessons.
“You’ve been so busy lately that you haven’t found the time” – Damon Albarn (2003)
It was only in the summer on 2015 on my return to Hong Kong that I finally had time to dedicate to learning Cantonese. Working for myself online as a writer, itinerary planner and professional travel blogger has given me more money, time and mobility in my life. I was loving this new freedom for the first time this year I am completely in control of my those three things (in fact, arguably I always have been – but through earning more money these days – it’s just easier).
Money as it happens, is actually a very handy thing to have and you read it here first – I want more. So I started my course in Cantonese at the University of Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui classrooms. I was enthusiastic on my first day, very excited and eager to be in the classroom again.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
With more passive income and not enough hours in the day to earn as much as I want, ironically I finally had time on my side this summer to start studying again and so I wanted to do the best course I could find. I browsed for quite a few courses in Hong Kong – there are lots. But I wanted a proper course with good teachers and to a high standard. I opted to go back to University. I got in touch with the University of Hong Kong’s Chinese Language Center and got myself booked onto a course. I’m 35 now but I’m a student again. It’s my belief that we study every day in life. We always learn new things, we never stop studying. I decided on the beginner’s course in Cantonese. I chose the elementary course and of course I started on Module 1. The main university in Hong Kong is at Sha Tin in the New Territories but this course was held in the smaller building in Tsim Sha Tsui – the pumping heart of Kowloon City. The only slight problem for me was that I knew I was heading to Singapore in August so I would only be able to complete part of the Module. They were so accommodating and flexible to me and Shadow Lung sorted out my lesson schedule for me. The plan was to start the course, travel again and come back and get the qualification. So that’s what I’ll have to do. I’m almost half way there, kind of! Here’s an overview of my time studying Cantonese this summer in Hong Kong. I totally recommend it to anyone who is foreign, has time on their hands and is based in Hong Kong.
My Teacher: Wuh Sinsaang
My Cantonese teacher was Wuh Sinsaang, a local teacher from Hong Kong who is an expert at languages. The classes were taught with passion, at professional level with intense knowledge, never ending vocabulary. Wuh Sinsaang was the best teacher I could have hoped for and I really hope he teaches me again. Sinsaang can mean teacher or Mister in Cantonese and Mr. Wuh’s Chinese name is Wuh Baak Dak. I hope I have got that right!
I liked the way Wuh Sinsaang strives to be the best. He wanted us all to get better and better. He would ask me the same sentences again and again, the same words to check I knew them. Mr. Wuh, thanks for teaching me and I hope to see you again later this year or early next year.
One of the best things about the course was meeting my other classmates, all of them were Cantonese beginners like me. What I really liked was that they were all Asian and all hugely enthusiastic and eager to learn. I would be the only European/non-Asian. This made it much easier to learn in my opinion. I didn’t have the easy way out of other “westerners” (hate that term but you know what I mean by it) to hang out with in class and compare notes with. Foreign “Gweilos” (white ghosts) in Hong Kong tend to stand by each other and indeed most of my best mates in Hong Kong are from other countries. So it was nice to be with all Asians. Meet our class!
Left to right:
Jonny – Northern Ireland (Baak Ngoi Yih Laahn)
Yuki Nishimoto – Japan (Yat Bun)
Julie Koh – South Korea (Hong Gok)
Wuh Baak Dak (Wuh Sinsaang) – Hong Kong (Heung Gong)
Chinatsu Wakai – Japan (Yat Bun)
Cynthia Erica – Indonesia (Yanneh)
Rieko Yamada – Japan (Yat Bun) – at the front
It was nice to meet you all and study with you and I hope we can meet again. I’ve got most of you on Facebook now too – so good luck with your studies and best wishes! I’m sorry my busy life didn’t allow me to do the exams with you as we had so much fun in the lessons.
I did 16 lessons from Module 1, over a period of 8 sessions. Each lesson lasted approximately 50-55 minutes. So it was about 15 – 16 hours of classroom study. This is not very many I know but it’s a start for me. I had homework once a week and I’d spend 30 – 60 minutes with my girlfriend at night going over what I had learnt. I attended the course from July to August 2015 in between my travels. The entire Module consists of about 40 hours class time, plus lots of homework and learning!
I was happy to be doing afternoon lessons, from 2.30 – 4.20 pm and also happy that the course was held in a quiet classroom with air conditioning in Tsim Sha Tsui.
I won’t go into details with the lessons as this article is long enough at 2,200 words! But here is a brief overview of the things we learned:
1. How to introduce yourself to others.
2. Basic words like excuse me, thank you etc.
3. Counting from 1 – 100.
4. Measure words.
5. Everyday vocabulary.
6. How to tell the time.
7. Countries of the world.
8. Daily routines.
OK because you have bothered to read, here is a sentence of my work:
Cantonese: Ngoh giu Jonny, ngoh haih bak ngoi yih laahn yahn. Bak ngoi yih laahn hou sai, Heunggong gei daaih, daahnhaih hou leng.
English: My name’s Jonny, I’m a Northern Irishman. Northern Ireland is very small. Hong Kong is quite big however very beautiful.
I’m just learning to speak and listen to start with so the writing is done in English as an interpretation of how it is said in Cantonese. As my life develops and the longer I spend in Hong Kong, I will hopefully one day be able to write some Chinese. The onus is on me of course.
And if you check the video at the bottom I speak a bit of Cantonese. (Siu siu Gwongdongwha).
Being a student again meant kind of relaxing and embracing the “university lifestyle” so I took a break from travel blogging and business backpacking on my days of study. This meant good food, coffee and beer!
Pre-Lesson Coffee Shop
I have been on a budget saving money for my next big trip of course, but I did also get to my lessons early on some days and tried out the coffee shop on the corner. They have WiFi in there and I could go through my notes and check my homework before class. As it was July and August, Hong Kong was so hot so I normally opted for an iced lemon tea or iced coffee.
It really did remind me of my days at University in Bournemouth in England. I’d often have coffee with Clare Tweedy or Rebecca Taylor in those days.
Post-Lesson Pizza and Beer Venue
Although I know Tsim Sha Tsui very well and used to work here in Delaney’s Irish Pub, I was still out exploring the poky streets after the lessons. I found some great local restaurants with some of my favourite pork dishes and my new favourite beer and pizza place (Paisanos). There are some marvellous places in Tsim Sha Tsui to watch the world go by. I love it.
After lessons, I’d sit with my notes out in a restaurant or cafe and when my 10 week de-tox was over at the end of July, I could enjoy a beer too!
Due to my endless travel lifestyle I had to cut the course short sadly and I left it early. Yes, I am off to Singapore next and then Bahrain, Denmark and the Faroes Islands before another reunion in Bournemouth. It’s a really crazy life I live and it’s only recently I’ve realised that. 100 countries in and I’m still wanting more and more travel and yet more writing work, website editing and launching more and more websites.
As for the Cantonese – I will get better, I know it. I will put my mind to it and I’ll be back to finish the course and get another university certificate in my backpack.
To the course organisers, Miss Shadow Lung, all the girls in my class and my teacher Wuh Sinsaang, oomgoi sai. Thank you very much for the fun time and best wishes to you all!
Ngoh jungyi Loy Hang (I like to travel). Here is a video of me trying to speak a bit of Cantonese: