The comeback kid
FEB 27 — Do you remember your first experience learning a new language? What were your first words?
In my case it was in Standard Two and my friends were teaching a bunch of us Cantonese. The impressionable first word? Chi sin, meaning crazy. That was the flavour of what turned out to be a very long month.
The next few to follow were of the more colourful variety but I have to say that they were effective in keeping my young mind piqued enough to learn more (not much more though). I would hazard a guess and say that many, like me, wet their feet by learning swear words and insults first.
By the same token, an enterprising fella by the name of David Tung Tak-Wai is planning to teach Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers English starting with the fundamentals — insults, name-calling and swear words.
The piano tutor with two master’s degrees wrote the book The Art of the English Quarrel to raise interest in learning the language.
Tung may not be an English language expert but he is passionate about sharing his experiences with other people who are going through similar difficulties that he once had with the language.
He is employing street talk instead of spouting grammar and tenses to reach out to his target audience of mainly school dropouts, clarifying that it is not his intention to encourage people to swear.
The South China Morning Post (Feb 13) quoted Tung as saying that he had had “enough of seeing Hong Kong people being verbally abused by foreigners and unable to fight back in English.”
So he has taken it upon himself to help the downtrodden, like the all-too-familiar sight of a customer service staff remaining catatonically silent while a hoity-toity English-speaking customer berates him.
This is what happened to a friend of a friend. Her Englishman colleague used to poke fun of her spoken English with a sarcastic “Is that a question or a statement?”
They worked together in a small practice and this was a daily ritual for the senior colleague. Feeling frustrated yet bursting to slay him with her tongue she kept her silence instead.
In another instance, I happened upon one of my French neighbours giving the postman a telling off one day for not accepting a certain document as proof of address.
I was hardly surprised when the postman kept his calm (good on you, Mr Postman) and allowed her to rant and rage. I would have loved to read his mind at that moment.
This is where Tung hopes to come on, dishing up retorts with Cantonese translations. For instance when faced with an insincere apology, he suggests one retaliate with “That’s it? That’s your apology?”
To threaten, “You’ll wish you were dead!” will do the trick while “Yeah? What are you gonna do?” should suffice to respond to threats. I can just about picture an indignant teenager chin out and fists clenched dishing out one-liners before stalking off in a huff.
It is not always the foreigner who talks down to the local. Tung said sometimes the so-called upper-class Chinese use English to embarrass others. He advised that one should always have one or two phrases handy to make it clear that you will not be intimidated just because the bully speaks English.
Sometimes the tables are turned. My Singaporean friend had been on the receiving end of the customer service/ security staff ‘s grumbles without knowing why. Not knowing much Cantonese then, she dismissed them. Then one day the staff informed her husband that he should scold his maid (a.k.a. wife) as she was lazy and had not been collecting their dry cleaning!
Yet this same officer is saccharine sweet when dealing with Caucasian residents. Perhaps his halting English has something to do with his deference.
A stroll around the expat forums tells me that foreigners are also keen to learn some Cantonese insults, just so they know when they are being dumped on.
From what I have seen, most are aware that gwei lo is not necessarily a bad thing, unless they are being called sei gwei lo (dead ghost man).
Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong people have been known for their fiery riposte in the past, especially by stallholders towards unsuspecting tourists on the streets of Mong Kok. There are also the old ladies at the wet market who have no shortage of colourful of words for customers who finger their produce.
Yet when faced with someone who is confident, loud and speaks a language you have little knowledge of, it is hard to explain your side of the story let alone stand up for yourself.
So if you know someone who has struggled to find the right words for a witty comeback in English and failed, tell them about this book.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.