Very rarely do I walk into a Cantonese speaking establishment by myself, let alone with friends. When I do enter, I am always suddenly overcome with a more awkward gait and mannerisms, unsure what to say or how to interact with the store owners or waiters. Physically, I look the part – ethnically, I am Chinese, but culturally, I’m quite far from it.
I grew up speaking only English in my home. The only Cantonese I ever learned were words necessary for ordering food, etiquette, and, of course, mah-jong (no, not the solitaire kind, the real way). My aural comprehension became decent – I could follow along in most conversations, but never saying anything in response, merely nodding and smiling. Whenever I did go to Cantonese-speaking places, I was with my mom, who did all the talking; in which case, I was never left to feel uncomfortable or out of place. There were the few times in which I would head to the Chinese mall by myself, but it itself was filled with so many native English speakers that it seemingly didn’t matter.
Living in France never presented the language barrier or awkwardness that I felt here in New York. Perhaps it was because they were always speaking a dialect that I had not been raised speaking (Mandarin). Or perhaps it was because I was too focused on integrating into the larger community on-hand – the French sphere – that I was therefore too preoccupied and unable to assess the feeling of being a linguistic pariah in France. In any case, I never felt as though I were on the cusp of impinging on a community or niche as an impostor (i.e. merely looking the part).
But I’m not in Paris anymore – I’m now in New York where the Cantonese population is much larger, especially when you head on down to lower Manhattan; the hard-consonant and sharp and poignant chatter is impossible to miss. My ears can easily pick up on the quips of bargains for fruits from the outdoor vendors and pick up on the gossip shared between elderly women running errands. But the minute that I enter through a door frame and into a store, I almost seem to find myself tongue-tied and paralyzed language-wise.
Do I communicate in what is perceived as this niche’s “outsider” language (English), or do I try to integrate into this community by speaking in my [fragmented] Cantonese? By no means am I trying to be racist, but there doesn’t seem to be an easier way to convey this internal conflict, which articulates the notions of community and language as a marker/identifier. There are the instances in which I am able to step foot into the community, only to find myself pulling my body back, as I realize that I cannot go much further; I order something and the waitress poses another question – one that I am unable to properly respond to – and the experience of integration is immediately over. In either case, I am the “other.”