Chinese Learner

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Jo sun! Neh ho mah?
For those of you who don't speak Chinese, I wished you "Good Morning." And for those of you who do, apologies for not getting the tones right - not easy for a white guy learning Cantonese.

San Francisco boasts the second-largest Chinese community in the United States. And after years working in the city's Sunset district, with many friends and co-workers speaking it, I developed a fascination with the language, if only to join the lively conversations in the lunch room. So, after enduring my fumbling attempts, co-workers taught me some basics of Chinese, cracking up at my mangling of the nine tones.

Though my halting Cantonese would sound about right on a four-year-old in Hong Kong, I've gotten a lot of mileage out of speaking Chinese. My shaky ordering in Chinatown has resulted in waiters practically dropping tea pots in shock. And when an actual correct order shows up, I can barely manage to eat it all. And I do mean all: ordering in Cantonese, however stumbling, results in big grins and the most heaping helpings of food you ever saw.

And it isn't only hospitality. A language reflects its culture, and learning Chinese has provided many insights - the clean economy of words, respectful courtesy, hilarious puns, direct get-to-the-point-don't-waste-time approach and, most of all, the kindness and generosity of the people.

Everyone is astonished I managed to learn conversational Chinese. But I find it astonishing more people don't learn it. Cantonese is the third-most-spoken language in the United States, after English and Spanish. And almost everyone knows some Spanish.


And how hard could it be, given that Chinese is spoken by nearly a billion people? Of course, with dozens of dialects of Chinese, my Cantonese won't get me far in China. But, in San Francisco, it comes in handy. And my daily exchanges in Chinese -- in shops, at work, or on the bus -- always leave me feeling a little more part of the bustling life of this vibrant city.

I don't always know the words, but as they sing in Disneyland, a smile means friendship to everyone. That song got it right. It really is a small world, after all.

So, though I've never been to China, I'm proud to say "ngo sik gong sui sui gwong dong w - "I speak a little Chinese."
Lee ngo hai ngo geh yee gin, ngo hai Richard Swerdlow  -- With a Persective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.
Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.