Despacito; Slowly; 慢慢地

It’s something of an irony how bad my Cantonese is. Technically, it’s my first language, but the words fall from my lips haltingly: not completely alien, but not familiar either.

Sometimes, I think of English and Cantonese as opposites. English reads horizontally from left to right; Cantonese traditionally reads vertically from right to left. English can be vague when you ask about an aunt or uncle; in Cantonese we specifically refer to your dad’s second younger sister or your mum’s older brother.

For a long time, I completely refused to use Cantonese. The sounds were harsh, rigid, inflexible. And of course, the less I used it, the more alien it seemed. I’m sure growing up in a predominately white town in the 90s had an effect, but I’ll leave that for the psychologists.

Admittedly, I’m probably biased, but the Chinese language has had a long history of being mocked. Technically, ‘Chinese’ isn’t even a singular language, it’s a family of languages that branches out into multiple dialects and vernacular.

For a lot of people, though, this fact is irrelevant. ‘Chinese’ to them is a language that sounds funny and is therefore inferior. I can’t even count the amount of times a complete stranger has approached me, speaking a bunch of gibberish in a high pitched imitation of what they think I sound like. Still, the perceived hilarity of the phonetics don’t seem enough to disuade them from getting a tattoo in the same language they make fun of. Incorrectly written most of the time, may I add. If you ever need a definition of what cultural appropriation is, please refer to the previous sentences.

With China growing in power and world recognition, though, it’s interesting (amusing) for me, as a British Chinese, to see so many western companies scramble to capitalise on this new market. And one of the methods they’ve been using is to provide their services in Mandarin Chinese. The petty part of me is secretly delighted to see the languge I am mocked for, now being frantically incorporated to keep many businesses afloat.

Immature, I know.

Still, if money wasn’t a factor, would the Chinese language be as recognised and used? No, of course not. The increase of Mandarin Chinese speakers is mostly born of need, rather than want. It’s taught in schools to help students now in preparation for the future, where they’re more likely to encounter business in China. But it’ll take much longer for the language to be regarded as a neutral ‘equal’, for lack of better wording, rather than a silly sounding string of phonetics to be mocked because it isn’t understood.

Maybe I’m too easily impressed, but hearing Luis Fonsi’s Despacito reach number one on the mainstream music charts was amazing to me. Even the ‘English’ version featuring Justin Bieber has minimal English- it means that millions of people are listening to, and enjoying, a song in a language they don’t understand. Whilst Spanish has always had different connotations than Chinese- often perceived as sexier to the point of fetishisation- the stereotypes still exist, but Spanish is arguably seen as more ‘desirable’ than Chinese. Even so, a Spanish language song making it to number one is still exciting to me.

I genuinely hope I will get to see a Chinese language song reach number one on the western music charts someday. Yes, South Korean singer Psy has already achieved this with his viral hit Gangnam Style, but a) Korean and Chinese is not, in fact, the same and b) let’s be honest, that was less a celebration of another language, but an enjoyment of the ‘funny Asian man’ making a fool of himself with the bonus of a catchy tune.

Still, with more and more children learning Mandarin and being exposed to different languages and cultures, I like to think things are improving. A slow progress, perhaps, but progress nonetheless.

Despacito, in Spanish. Slowly, the English would say. And in Chinese? 慢慢地 (man man de)
Best wishes,

Jia

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