Tuesday, January 15, 2008

HK/Aussie trip: Language and Christmas in Hong Kong.

So one thing is for sure: You can make people study a second language from early childhood on, but you can't make them speak it at home or with their friends. And if they're not speaking it at home or with their friends, they're never really going to be native.

I don't think I heard a single Chinese person speaking English to another Chinese person in Hong Kong the entire time we were there. The British occupation may have created a tradition of afternoon tea at fancy Western hotels, but it sure didn't make people not want to speak Cantonese. Signs and menus in tourist areas are bilingual, and English is the official second language of Hong Kong. And it probably is used by default in international business contexts. But day to day, on both street-level Hong Kong and the elevated walkway super-upscale Hong Kong, Cantonese is the only linguistic currency that really matters.

It would be very interesting to look at some of the linguistic impact of the long-term language contact situation here, but I'm not aware of any work that has looked at English and Cantonese in Hong Kong. Be that as it may, the whole situation around language in the region started me thinking about other aspects of cultural change and how Western traditions have and have not been incorporated into the locale culture of Hong Kong life.

So Hong Kong celebrates Christmas. The whole city was decorated, from holiday lights on buildings and in streets to Santa Claus displays in malls and signs with reminders about last-minute gift shopping. For at least a couple of weeks, the whole city seems to mobilize around Christmas, whether or not people celebrate it as a religious holiday. Insofar as holiday traditions are manifested cosmetically, Hong Kong in late December might as well be London -- trees, lights, Santa, and all.

But beyond that, things start to get a little weird. Like the local school choir that comes to do Christmas carols at your hotel on Christmas Eve, which by the way there is little to make you feel more acutely aware of spending Christmas away from home than a group of adorable eight-year-olds coming to remind you of that fact, in your hotel lobby, as you sit in the adjacent piano bar and look on like the weird displaced old person that you are. So there is all the potential here for painful poignance. Until they start singing, when things shift from Lifetime original movie holiday edition to weird indie art film holiday edition. Because they're singing Christmas carols, but they aren't Christmas carols. They're singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but you don't understand the words. Are they singing in Chinese? You listen more closely. Hm, no, not Chinese. They just have the words all mixed up. It's like some bizarro Rudolph with a bizarro group of reindeer friends. On Dashund and Dancer and Printer and Vicki, on Comet and Cupid and Daddy and Blintzer! And half the songs you don't know at all, and while it's tempting to blame the musicianship of the eight-year-olds, you have to admit that their musicianship is really pretty solid, and the fundamental thing is that you're not familiar with the tonal systems of the Chinese instruments that are being used to play the music, and because some of the songs you don't know at all.

And then towards the end of all of this two even more adorable even littler kids come out and give you little roses and say Merry Christmas, and you just want to die with how adorable they are and how weirdly Christmasy and non-Christmasy it all makes you feel. Cue painful poignance.

And then the caroling is over and you head out with the rest of the eight million people plus tourists in Hong Kong to the harborfront to see all the lights. And you wander around for about 30 seconds before you come to realize that this isn't Christmas Eve; it's Mardi Gras without the boobs. It takes twenty minutes to walk even one block. The crush of people is so overwhelming such that a couple of the subway walkways are closed so that people won't die of suffocation. You have never seen people like this, not even in New York City in Times Square on New Year's. It is Hong Kong's usual evening crowd, which is already something, times about a zillion. It's a party, but it's not clear what we're all celebrating! We're just walking around a lot in cute dresses and boots! But whatever we're celebrating, this is definitely not the time for a quiet evening at home. There are lights to see! There are still presents to buy! There are people to crush in subways!

Christmas Day is even weirder. Other than banks, everything is open: grocery stores, restaurants, tourist attractions, hardware stores, dentist's offices, Prada outposts in train stations. Santa Claus is still at the mall, working very hard to assess the niceness and/or naughtiness of all the children who are still lined up twenty deep to see him. Wait a minute -- wasn't Santa supposed to come the night before Christmas? Yes, he was, but your parents weren't able to get to the mall to get photos until now. And in fact you'll have the chance to see Santa in the mall at least until December 28, which is the day you depart Hong Kong. (You can't speak for dates beyond that.)

During your trip you meet and make friends with several locals. One of them is someone you know from the US who is from Hong Kong, back visiting her family for the holidays. She tells you over lunch that Christmas in Seattle never really feels like Christmas to her, because it's so boring: everyone stays home with their families and nothing is open. This is an eye-opening comment that makes you realize the narrowness of your perspective, and yet you can't help it; this isn't Christmas.

You make friends with some other locals at a dim sum house on another day, and they are fortunately showing around some other friends visiting from Singapore too, so they not only order all kinds of good food for you that you are totally not aware of how to acquire (there's that Cantonese coming in handy again), but they also offer to take you along with their friends to Lantau Island for the day. Ken, Chris, Edwin, and Eva are about the nicest people you could possibly hope to have help you order pig stomach dumpings and chestnut cake and tell you all about Taoist temples and how they differ from Buddhist temples. It turns out that Chris has just finished a chem eng degree in the UK and has never been to the US but is obsessed with visiting the state of Oklahoma so she can see twisters up close and personal, and Ken is a mountain of knowledge on cognitive science and the visual representation of information, and Edwin is in the Singapore police force and manages to meet the stringent physical requirements while still smoking a couple of packs a day, and Eva, well, you don't know much about Eva because she's very quiet and nice to be tolerating all the English conversation when she would clearly be much more comfortable in Cantonese. And you come away wondering -- if you spoke Cantonese too, would you have more or fewer of these interactions? The more you fit in locally, the less you look like you need locals to help you.


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