Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Forgotten Language

I emailed this to my son, who's fluent in Putonghua and can hold his own in hockey rink Cantonese:

Humbled in Honkers:

I flag a taxi, I jump in, expelling "Tai Hang Douh" as quickly as possible, for it's usually when ya go too slow that expat Cantonese doesn't cut it. I follow with "Wong Fung Toi", simply because Wong Fung Terrace is the little private road that I really mean, but I want him to get to Tai Hang Douh first.

"Wong Fung Toi?" driver intones back at me, genuinely puzzled, tapping the break in the middle of Lower Albert Road. He makes as if to go down Ice House Street, a true disaster.

"Wong Fung Toi, yes," I say. He's said it just like I did, and I am pretty darn sure I said it right.

Back and forth we verify and confirm and act like parrots, and I desperately add, So Kon Po, and he's all ahhhh! So Kon Po! and I think s**t, no, I don't want him to take me to So Kon Po... what the hell is Cantonese for "above?" And my mind spits out beautiful Indonesian sentences for perfectly explaining what he's gotta do.

"M'hai So Kon Po," I tsk, exasperatedly. I hope to God that I look like I am searching for a better way to explain myself, but how do you say in Cantonese, "I beg your pardon, but it seems to me that my Cantonese, formerly quite adequate for giving a taxi driver directions, is now virtually forgotten, replaced instead by halfway decent Indonesian?"

I sputter and pray he doesn't turn up towards Midlevels, as we are now racing along the underside of Government House towards Cotton Tree Drive.

He goes to his cell phone and speaks to dispatcher/wife/gambling buddy/random number: "gonggingjungmanggongwongdong Wong Fung Toi, ah?"


"Aaaaaaahhhhhh! WONG FUNG TOI !!!!" What's Eureka! in Chinese?

He hangs up with a smile and says to me, and I swear to God there is no difference between the two pronounciations, "M'hai Wong Fung Toi. WONG FUNG TOI ahhh" in a helpful, not at all insulting voice. Although I proffer a sincere, "duih m'jih", I'm thinking what the Sam Hill am I going to do next time I'm in a taxi and I want to get to Quentin's house? Taxi driver is chuckling to himself in that head shaking manner of "now I've heard everything! Wait'll the wife/drinking buddy/guys at the shop/ kids/dog hears THIS one!"

Readers, please do NOT tell me that wong fung toi, if intoned in a certain way, means "s**t my pants" or "swim with donkey" or worse. Then again, tell me how that would be pronounced so that I will never make that mistake again!

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