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The Journey So Far: Reconnecting with Cantonese, and Chinese School

Perhaps I was an unconventional kid, in that, I begged my mother to send me to Chinese School. In my head at the time, I thought, "If no one at home is going to teach me Cantonese, then school will". So I saved up my lai6 si6 (red envelopes), and used it one year to attend.

Thinking about it now, that was probably the first moment I took my Cantonese learning into my own hands.

After enrolling, I quickly learnt that Chinese School, was in fact, not for someone like me. Not for someone who had almost zero proficiency in Cantonese, and could barely speak. From memory, Chinese school seemed to be geared towards learning how to read and write, and though I learnt some vocabulary through learning how to write individual Cantonese characters, I was not able to understand what the teacher was saying 80% of the time. After a year of Chinese school, I dropped out. I was discouraged and felt like I had missed the window of entry.

I couldn't speak Cantonese.

I couldn't even decipher what the teacher was saying enough to follow along.

So many barriers of entry existed, and as a kid, so many of them were things out of my control.

Fast forward to 2018, and my interest in learning Cantonese was still strong. It was definitely hard to find resources on how to learn Cantonese in the early and mid 2000s, but in 2018, I had accessed more resources than ever before, to help me study.

One of them, was Youth Collaborative For Chinatown's Cantonese Saturday School, in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Poster by Jeffery Chong

It was the first time I was in a class with so many other types of people: 1st and 2nd generation Cantonese folks, mixed Cantonese folks, non-Canto folks, and people of all ages!

Photo by Jonathan Desmond

Another aspect of this class that was so exciting to me, was being able to get out into Vancouver's Chinatown, and use what we had learnt in that class that very same day. Vancouver's Chinatown, like many other Chinatowns, has a rich history, and its people that continue to pour into it is what makes it so special. We got to walk the streets, go to grocery stores, and learn about different kinds of coi3/vegetables like baak6 coi3 (bok choy), dau6 miu4 (pea tips), and even different names for caa4 (tea) so we could use that vocab at dim2 sam1 (dim sum).

Middle photo by Jonathan Desmond

Seeing a variety of folks learning Cantonese was incredible. It made the journey less daunting and incredibly fun. Chinese school at Mon Keang also taught me how essential community is in playing a part in nurturing the process of learning our heritage languages. It truly takes a village.

Photo by Jonathan Desmond

In the end, I made wonderful friends and have continued my Cantonese studies to this day. Has it been a consistent journey? Not exactly, but it has been a fruitful one still.

Part of my mission with Cantonese Connection is to make the journey of learning Cantonese accessible, and welcoming.

There are too many of us in the Canto-diaspora that know all too well the difficulties that can come with learning Cantonese: lack or resources and immersion, active promotion of mandarin over cantonese, lack of safe spaces, you name it. I want Cantonese Connection to be a tool that helps bridge some of the gaps where some of us fall into, and help support your Cantonese journey, whatever that looks like for you.

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