Accent: A Life Story Written in Your Voice
Since my early childhood, I recognized myself as an “outsider”.
I was born in Hainan Province of China. When I was two years old, my family moved to Enping, a small town in Guangdong. As a child, I quickly learned the local dialect, and I have never felt any exclusion. However, I have always been aware that my family was different. My classmates have been living here for generations, and they speak the same language at home and at school. On the contrary, I speak Mandarin at home and local dialect at school.
The sense of alienation never stopped haunting me. Wherever I am, I can always jump out of the moment and turn myself into a bystander. This Lunar New Year, when I tried to observe my own family party and seize different accents in the conversation, I found that everyone has their own story written in their accent.
My father’s family origins from Guangdong, while my mother’s comes from Hunnan. In the 1950s, my grandparents moved to the state farms in Hainan Province. For half a century, they worked there and raised their children. As the local economy turned down in the 1990s, my relatives returned to Guangdong successively and scattered over three different towns in Jiangmen City. The language spoken in this region is called Sze Yup. It’s similar to Cantonese but much more variant. Local dialects differ from town to town, but most local people can understand the dialects in nearby regions.
On my paternal grandparents’ dinner table, everyone speaks their own dialect, while the conversation goes on without any difficulty. What a strange scene. My grandparents and my uncle’s family speak Kaiping dialect. My aunt’s family speaks Heshan dialect. I can understand the former but not the latter.
My paternal grandparents speak Kaiping dialect all their life. However, the residence in another region has totally changed their eating habits. My grandpa is good at making noodles, dumplings and steamed bread — traditional food of North China. The last time I visited them, while I expected delicious local goose dishes, I was welcomed with dumplings served along with vinegar and chopped chili sauce.
But my maternal grandparents are less lucky. Just imagine spending your old age in a region where you know nothing about the local dialect. They speak Hunan dialect with each other and Mandarin to their children. At present, they settle down in Enping so that my mother can take care of them. They never learned the local dialect, but they may not be able to return to their hometown either. Their native dialect has become the code word reserved only for each other.
My parents grown up in Hainan, in a community with people from all over the country, except local people. Some minorities lived nearby but isolated. My parents speak Mandarin with a slight Southern accent. After moving to Enping, my mother quickly learned the local dialect, which even influenced her Mandarin in reverse. Sometimes she adds modal particles in Enping dialect to Mandarin, and she is even able to distinguish the accents from different villages. But learning Enping dialect was much more difficult for my father, though his family speaks a similar dialect.
As for me, although I spent all my childhood and adolescence in Enping, I have never regarded this place as my hometown. The language gap lies deep inside my heart. Finally I left for another city to go to university, and now I have been living in Beijing for over three years. I don’t consider myself as a Pekingese either, but I find a close affinity with this city so far away from home. Surrounded by a mixture of accents from all over the country, I feel at ease.
Every time I return home for the holidays, it took me some time to recall that long-lost accent before meeting my friends in high school. At present, most of my high school classmates work in nearby cities, speaking different dialects. One of my roommates has engaged with a man from Maoming where exist several dialects, and the couple works in Shenzhen where most people speak Mandarin. I can’t imagine how they talk with each other or how they would talk to their children in the future.
When I was in high school, I increasingly felt being trapped by a language that I hated. I studied hard at English and got interested in western culture. Later, I learned French in university and became interested in linguistics. For some time, learning different languages made me feel free, but that feeling was later proved an illusion.
One day, I went to a cha chaan teng (Hong Kong style tea restaurant) in Bejing with a friend. The manager brought us the menu and asked if I came from Guangdong. I was so surprised: I had only said hello to him and he knew my origin!
At that moment, I realized that accent is shaped by one’s own life and could never be changed. My grandparents’ lives, my parents’ lives, and my own life are already written in my voice and last a lifetime.