Obies Using Languages: Beatrice Chum ’17

Beatrice Chum is a current junior from Hong Kong, with a double major in Politics and East Asian Studies (Korean concentration) and a minor in Latin. She was raised in a Cantonese-speaking family but attended an English-speaking international school since first grade. Here, Beatrice shares the strong-willed nature of her first language.

My language fights.

Cantonese fights for recognition. Cantonese sounds completely different from Mandarin when spoken and looks very different when written, but formal texts are written with Mandarin vocabulary and grammar. So is Cantonese a dialect because it is mostly spoken and not written? Or is it a language because it is not mutually intelligible with other varieties of Chinese? It depends on whether you are a politician or a linguist.

Cantonese fights for attention. With a grand total of six tones, Cantonese is a wonderfully expressive language. A friend once thought I was getting into a fight over Skype when I was actually mooching recipes off my mom in absolute excitement. But these Cantonese tones seep into other languages. Whether it be in Korean or Japanese, my tones find themselves unnecessarily rising and falling like a boat in a turbulent storm.

Cantonese fights for purpose. It is with much shame that I admit that Cantonese was my first language. “But… you’re so bad at it.” Yes, I may have adopted a slight English accent, along with a serious lack of flow and the awkward misuse of idioms. I can cite the fact that I attended an English-speaking international school in Hong Kong all my life, but it really comes down to extreme neglect. It wasn’t until I left for college when I realized how Cantonese is in everything that I am.

Cantonese fights for me. It keeps me close to my family. It provides me with endless laughter with my friends (whether it be a collective attempt to practice Cantonese or my own unimpressive effort to teach it to others). It gives me security in calling Hong Kong home. It offers me the opportunity to share a different perspective abroad. Who I am is shaped so much by the language that rolls off my tongue when I have to count quarters, when I Skype my mom, and when I think of fighting against all odds.


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