Jessica Shao: Cantonese

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Our native language can be a touchpoint to our cultural identity. To Jessica Shao, it’s much more than that.

When I tell people that I speak Cantonese, I’m often asked, “Is that Chinese?” or “Is that a dialect of Chinese?” The answer is a little complicated.

As a Chinese immigrant who was born in Guangdong province and moved to San Francisco at the age of 10, I have always struggled with the question, “where are you from?” Living in the Bay Area, it is very hard to feel connected to my birth home, and speaking Cantonese is the only connection I can have.

Cantonese words that are commonly used in today’s vernacular mirror the terms used in ancient poems from the Tang Dynasty. When Tang poems are recited in Cantonese, the words rhyme, unlike in Mandarin. Beyond its poetic ties, Cantonese is an extremely expressive, precise language. I love the way Cantonese describes colors using onomatopoeia, as if the colors have a voice. To describe that an object is very yellow in Cantonese, you say 黄黚黚 (wong gum gum). 黄 (wong) means “yellow” and 黚黚 (gum gum) is the “sound” of the color yellow.

In recent years, fewer and fewer young people are speaking Cantonese in China. When I last visited the village where I grew up in Guangdong province in 2016, I noticed young children spoke to each other in Mandarin, instead of Cantonese. I thought to myself, uh oh, I fear that one day not too far from now, the Cantonese language may disappear, along with its long-standing traditions. While some say that Cantonese is a dialect, I would argue that it is a language and a cultural heritage of China. Preserving the Cantonese language is crucial to maintaining the colorful, lively, and poetic traditions of China. Cantonese is important to me because it is the core of who I am and connects me to the people I love and the place where I came from.


With a Perspective, I’m Jessica Shao.

Jessica Shao is currently a graduate student at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. She lives in Los Altos.