So you know all those ching chong wing wong jokes we make in America, and also all the “Long Duk Dong” style jokes? (If you don’t know who he is then you are clearly not a child of the 80’s) Well, since moving to China I kinda wondered where they all came from. After all, Mandarin doesn’t sound anything like ching chong wing wang. Before I understood it all I basically heard was a “shi” type sound when I heard chinese people speaking.
After traveling around southern China I finally got my answer. The reason it doesn’t sound like Mandarin is because it’s not, it’s Cantonese. For those of you who are not up on your Chinese languages Mandarin is the official language of China, but in the south (including Guangdong province and Hong Kong) they primarily speak Cantonese. And you might think same country so same-ish language, but no, they are entirely different and most Mandarin speakers can’t understand Cantonese unless they study it.
The reason we think Cantonese is “chinese” is the same reason western Chinese food is really Hong Kong style food. It’s because Hong Kong, and the south, was open to the west a lot earlier than most of mainland. As Chinese people left Hong Kong for the west they took with them their style of cooking and their language. Even today I’ve heard (and some Chinese friends confirmed) that the spoken language in most Chinatowns in the west is not Mandarin, but Cantonese. I had one friend who couldn’t even speak to Chinese people to order a meal (though they could communicate through writing).
And yeah, everything in Cantonese sounds so much dirtier! Why is that?! I have no idea, but here are a few examples.
Nowadays as Hong Kong is part of the motherland Mandarin is heard more and more on the streets of the city and is a requirement for most locals to know. But not long ago Hong Kong was both literally and figuratively a foreign country for mainlandÂ Chinese. As for me, I had a hard time too. I went from being able to speak and read at a basic level to not understanding anything in Hong Kong. (Even though the writing is technically the same, Hong Kong uses traditional characters while I have only studied the simplified characters of the mainland.) I was embarrassed when we went to a restaurant and my friend had to translate the menu for me. I mean, I’ve been studying Chinese for almost 2 years and suddenly I couldn’t even read a simple menu?!