China’s Pearl River Delta = woe for the Chinese language student

Seven years ago I blindly, hopefully, naively plunged into the study of Mandarin Chinese. It’s always been part-time study, interrupted frequently. Plugging along in this way I now speak, comprehend, and read on par with a young Chinese child.

In Mainland China I was pleased to banter with taxi drivers in my former home of Zhuhai. The usual topics being: where are you from, do you have children, how much money do Americans make, how many children do Americans have, do you like China, etc. Riddled with tonal errors, I can swing this conversation with ease.

Gossiping with my ayi also provided a fruitful range of practice topics, such as: why is the Chinese neighbor formally received by a line of toughs (unspecified Triad links), do they have x at the market right now, what was all the commotion last night (suicide off the nearby apartment complex), etc.

But there was always a hitch: Mandarin is only marginally useful in important swaths of the Pearl River Delta (the area in southern China where Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau are situated).

Zhuhai, is directly across the border from Macau, the former Portuguese possession, which, like Hong Kong, is now a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) of China. Macau is the gaming capital of the world and I took the tiny ferry across the river to visit fortnightly. Macau is a treat to visit if only to gawk at the river of money flowing through the new parts of town, wander romantically through the sepia-toned lanes in the old parts of town, and (most importantly at the time) buy good coffee.

The problem was that I could never get a taxi driver in Macau to understand a word I said: neither Mandarin nor English were much good. Macau is firmly a Cantonese or Portuguese kind of place. Balls.

Hong Kong is a comparative dream even though Cantonese is the lingua franca. Simple English works in many situations and when it doesn’t, Mandarin seems to do in a pinch. Excellent. Except that all those characters I spent ages memorizing are only partially useful because Hong Kong (like Macau) uses traditional Chinese characters while Mainland China uses simplified characters. Sigh.

I learned Mandarin because it’s considered the language to learn. It works a treat in Zhuhai where everyone (Chinese included) is from somewhere else and it’s the common language. But, take a gander at my exceptionally crude map of the Pearl River Delta: Cantonese works everywhere while Mandarin only works in some places.

Hong Kong, Macau, Zhuhai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou

Linguistic map of the Pearl River Delta (according to the author's experience)

So now I’m learning basic Cantonese, if only to talk to taxi drivers and market ladies out in the New Territories (the boonies of Hong Kong) where we’ll be living. Bring it on.

5 responses

    • Almost wish we were moving someplace within China so I could just stick Mandarin. But we couldn’t pass the chance to be a part of the awesome, frenetic vibe that fills Hong Kong. So, Cantonese it is, since I like to try to muddle my way along… Thanks for the good wishes, I’ll need all the luck I can get.

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