One Language Two Characters



He and I both speak Cantonese. It’s our mother tongue.
I’m from Guangdong, China. We younger generations, compared to our parents and grandparents, speak Mandarin fluently.
He’s from Hong Kong. He can barely speak Mandarin.
Last year, a British band called the Libertines did a video promo for Hong Kong music festival Clockenflap on Facebook. In the video, they greeted in Mandarin.
The following are the two top comments on the video:
‘It’s irritating and even insulting to speak Mandarin to Hongkongers.’
‘Speaking Mandarin to Hongkongers is like speaking French to the British.’
I disagree on the second one. Wrong analogy.

My friend yells at me: she has to get out of the crowd. Her family called.
I can’t barely hear what exactly she said. I am in fanatic.
‘The fire is out of control! We gonna burn the city! Burn the city!’ I jump with the band. I jump with the crowd. I don’t care the fact that I stand alone in the crowd, though I am aware of it. But I am not alone. I know I will know other people in the crowd and people going to festival will be very friendly.
The band pushes the atmosphere even higher. ‘Hong Kong is out of control! We gonna burn the city! Burn the city!’ And we the crowd goes even crazier. I can’t breathe. Maybe because I yell too much and too hard. And maybe just because the crowd keeps jostling and pushing.
After a while, I don’t know where I have been pushed through. I guess I will never meet my friend again. I’m a little bit sad. People are all around me, mostly western faces. I am here now without any company.
I keep on chanting, to overrun my feeling lost. I imagine I am the one on the stage, creating such a sensation at the seaside of a city whose language they don’t speak. And yet, we communicate through music.
‘This is such an amazing place! We hope we can come back very soon!’ The frontman said, ‘such an amazing stage!’ We scream even louder. I look up a bit. Layers and layers of skyscrapers surround along the whole West Kawloon Waterfront Promenade. Neon lights dazzle in the night. Music festival in this city is so metropolitan.
‘Burn the City!’
The chorus goes on again. Dancing with the music and the people, my body throws myself into the crowd. My body leaves my sentimentality behind.
Somebody’s arm on my shoulder. I turn my head. A Chinese man. He notices that I looking at him. He turns his head and smiles a bit. ‘Burn the city!’ he yells. ‘Burn the city!’ I follow. And then we jump and dance again with the music.
The song finishes. We clap.
He turns his head again, ‘you alone?’
‘Not really. My friend waits me outside.’
‘I’m Teddy. What’s your name?’
‘Hazel.’ I guess Chinese name is not that important. It’s too formal to bring it up for two strangers meeting at the first time, I guess. And no one will judge this. It is not a pretentious thing to use English name in Hong Kong.
Another song goes on. We scream and then look at each other with smiles. And then we throw our bodies into the music with the crowd again.
Finally the headline finishes. After two days of delirium, my body is exhausted but still hyperactive. Music goes out and the lights turns on. My sentimentality come back. I wish I can come here again tomorrow on Sunday. But I can’t. I need to travel back tomorrow in the morning. I can’t play too hard. I need to prepare for the next week’s work.
The crowd scatters around and heads toward the exits in different direction. Bottles are all on the ground that is soaked with lagers. I guess the aftermath of music festival is all the same around the world.
‘Hey, where do you live?’ It’s him again. I take a good look at Teddy. Dapper dress. Brown blazer and leather shoes. I like people wearing blazer and leather shoes. I am wearing blazer and leather boots.
Where do I live? I am wondering a bit. Sheung Wan? Guangzhou?
Somehow, my mouth mutters,‘Sheung Wan’. I guess it isn’t that necessary to tell a stranger where I really come from. And I don’t really know if I tell him I am a mailander will be ever a difference. For him, or for myself.
‘And you?’
‘Yuen Long. What do you do?’
‘I’m still a student. And you?’ We walk together with one of the divisions of the crowd toward the exit.
‘Er… It’s quite complicated. It’s something sort of related to advertisement.’
He must be a very tricky person. His word is so not serious.
‘Not much Chinese faces in this festival, right?’ I ask.
‘I know right. Last year even fewer. You know, Hong Kongers aren’t really into independent music and stuffs. You like Franz Ferdinand a lot?’
‘Yea, I basically own all their albums.’
‘Yea? I have their first album. Do you go to gigs or music festival often?’
‘Not really. The first time in Hong Kong. I am not really into Chinese bands, they are too melodic. Their lyrics are all too sentimental for my liking. And going for a western band gig is very expensive here. Also, only very few of them will go on tour in Asia.’
He nods. ‘Which film is your favourite?’
I start to think a bit. I never take this kind of ‘your-favourite’ question seriously. There is no such a thing as favourite. People keep changing. It’s just all about how much you have encountered so far and how do you feel at this very moment.
‘Well, I can’t say I have favourite. But I like Stephen Chow (周星馳) a lot.’ I do really like Stephen Chow. I like his senseless humour. Stephen Chow, all Cantonese knows and can fully appreciate his humour. You can read Stephen Chow’s films from a very artistic perspective, or in superficial way- just for a good laugh.
And I don’t want to give out some serious names or condescending answers for this question to a stranger.
He says he likes him too. I smile. He doesn’t explain further. I’m not going to take his reply seriously. But I guess neither does him.
But then he starts to recite loads and loads of Stephen Chow’s lines.
I laugh. I didn’t expect that. And then he continues to recite more. He is also amused by his reciting, laughing out loud. His laugh is so contagious. He laughs like a child who doesn’t care how others think of why he’s laughing so loud. ‘I have nearly all his DVDs.’
I nod.
My friend texts me. ‘I have to go. My friend calls. Nice to see you.’
‘Do you mind exchange our numbers?’
‘Sure.’ I suppose it won’t be much a trouble. If I don’t like him, his number and him will be just gone with my Hong Kong mobile number tomorrow.
We head home separately.
I am on my way to meet up my friend. Alone at the street, no accompany again. My mind is occupied with strange feeling. The contrast between the festival in Hong Kong and the reality in Guangzhou is too overwhelming. It’s only about 90-mins train between the two places though.
Back to my place. I mean, the place where I stay tonight. My grandpa owns a house in Hong Kong. So I guess technically it’s my place/home in Hong Kong?
My mobile buzzs. He texts me. I didn’t expected this, at least not so soon. He looks like some tricky person, like I said.
He asks if I will go to the festival tomorrow.
I replies him I can’t. I already bought the return ticket and I need to go back to university a little bit earlier to prepare for next week.
I should not talk to him too much, I tell myself. We are not in the same city. I won’t be in this place tomorrow. The festival is too good I know, but I need to go back to reality for work. I need to continue my life and do what I’m supposed to do.
I am a mainlander, which I still haven’t told him, yet.



OF meetIng IndIans OUtSIDe OF IndIa

Consider being in your first week in University in an alien country, where everything is pale and cold, strange and new, would you run away or toward a trace of anything familiar?

Rice and dal feel like a treat,long conversations with your parents become the highlight of your day and you have nightmares where you frantically calculate currency conversions. Walking around the city with a Greek and Italian for a week, who ran to speak with anyone who looked like they might be from their home country, it was always amusing to see how I turned my head whenever I saw brown skin. It is pretty much the same routine i followed back home when I saw someone I knew on the street; I’d turn my head around, fall ten steps behind them or make a quick escape through the nearest exit. Here, making eye contact with any Indian meant potential conversation,exchange of numbers and being added to WhatsApp groups called ‘Thani naadan’ and ‘Desi dopeheads’. you make me feel this small

You’d think that missing all things Indian would make me want to be with fellow ‘desi dopeheads’, but what really happens is that it serves as depressing reminders of how painfully different one Indian is from another. Like my Greek friend, my face does not light up when someone speaks in my language, when I meet an Indian , I speak in english and not ‘Indian’, unless of course, I choose to speak in Hindi.

Let me give you an example of what speaking ‘Indian’ here, really sounds like. Over two smokes and 5 minutes of ‘where are you from’ and ‘what course are you doing’ the conversation effortlessly slides into ‘what is your surname’ and ‘what caste are you’. This is a relatively smooth transition,believe me. It goes from casually mentioning and mutually agreeing on our food woes and suggestively asking if you happen to eat meat. This unquestionably warrants some prodding into religion, which finally leads to where the talk really begins, the caste question. My open jawed amazement at her pointed question about my surname, didn’t get any better when I flatly refused to tell her what it is. This simply prompted her to ask me if I was a ‘baniya’ (she sort of looked hopeful), it’s okay, I could tell her if it was any worse. Now, in all my life I do not remember where 5 minutes into introducing myself to someone they asked me what my caste is or everyone in the group exchanged caste and religious identities before asking for each other’s names.

At a debate on the topic, ‘What nationalism really means and why it is important for India’, I remember a professor talking about feeling a sense of home when in a new country, you see underwear hanging on a clothesline in broad daylight and you know it’s an Indian. Well, when I left India’s fiercely growing nationalist spirit behind with a sense of relief, I think I might have carried a whiff of it on me, because it sure did stink when I spent 10 minutes speaking ‘Indian’ with fellow Indians here.

i DON’t Know WHAt thE NatiONAL AntheM MEans

How many  of you Indians out there know what the lyrics of the national anthem means?(yes, hurry and Google it!)I don’t understand a word of Bangla and yes, a long time ago I might have read the translation too but I don’t remember it at all. If someone said they didn’t know the national anthem, even a five year old kid, you’d gasp and the parents would keep that poor kid awake all night memorising the jumble of words that make no sense right? Okay so I know it and I can sing it, you can question my pronunciation, but it’s all there in essence. But I don’t understand it. Does that deserve a gasp too? Perhaps it would for people in monolingual countries. So we Indians are in an odd predicament indeed. A national anthem we stand up to and sing in perfect harmony even if it is in a Karan Johar movie, in a language most of us don’t understand, still feeling patriotic(whatever that emotion might be- is patriotism an emotion?). How is music connected to language then?k3g national anthemWe learn language through associations, words that tally with an image in my head. A for apple means I see a shiny red apple in my head and hence I process the intonations of the word ‘apple’ as a logical word. A logical word- you know, when you play scrabble and you just know when someone is making up a word? That kind of thing. Which is why when we learn a new language, we translate immediately in our heads to an already established image of the new word in our mind, hence making this new jumble of words logical too. Sa se seb= A for apple= shiny red apple.

But the curious case of the national anthem is a jumble of words that have become all too familiar which correlates to no logical imagery in my head, but still makes sense because of the associative emotion. So what is this connect between language and music? How does it become a coherent whole?

National anthems have an aural politics of their own. Other than the performative aspect of it, which brings into question the ritualised motions of standing up, placing a palm on your chest, singing along, is a national anthem a genre of music in itself? The rhythm,the melody and tempo specifically designed to produce an emotion?

The idea of a national anthem is to consolidate a sense of community and solidarity, some articulate goals and others even suggest boundaries and landscape(Vindhya,Himachala,Yamuna… or And like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots we crush). How about those that produce fractures in the sense of community and a reluctance to associate to a nationhood- consider Germany’s troubled concept of the anthem. There is certainly a mixed politics to the creation and continued association with a national anthem.