It was twenty-five (freakin hell!
) years ago that Nazia Hassan burst upon the collective consciousness of teeny-bopper ~ speaking from a mental age perspective ~ India. If you have no idea who I'm talking about, or if it's just memory playing tricks again, check out the Nazia Hassan Foundation
, or maybe even just Wikipedia
. I so clearly remember her smooth, clean, preppy sound, contrast that with the Muqaddar-ka-Sikandar
rage of the times, and her smooth, clean, preppy look, contrast that with the Usha Uthup type alternatives available. There was a time when all of us in the school taxi coming home in the afternoon (well, all except the girl who always had to puke -- "Saardaarji ultaa aa raa hah
") would happily sing multiple choruses of her chart-toppers
Aap Chaisa Khoi Mere
Ssindhaki Mein Aayein
Toh Paat Pun Chaaye-eee
Haan-haan, Paat Pun Chaaye!
Ah the good times :-)
Indeed, together with her brother Zohaib, to my mind they basically were the Happy Carpenters
: pop music a young feller could take home to his parents.
But that was a while ago, so it struck me as a little strange that I should wake up humming this tune today. I tried to push it out of my mind, while trying to do Serious Things all morning, and maybe I was even successful at it, but come lunchtime it popped right back. And then I realized what had been going on -- I'd just fallen for a cool little linguistic pun.
To explain, let me digress. The last couple of weeks, I've gotten fixated on the roast duck that's available at the Cantonese restaurant downstairs. Cantonese roast duck may be inferior to Peking Duck, but that's like saying only the Bee Gees can do the shiny strobes. If you're a disco deewana
, hey, Nazia floats your boat like a hurricane. But that's besides the point of the digression. So - basically - almost every lunch recently has consisted of roast duck (plus a heaping of steamed green leafy, soup, rice, sau mei
cha, and hot red bean soup for dessert -- all for 6 dollars US, eat your quack out). And given this repeated interaction with such ducculence, I decided that I should actually learn to order it for myself instead of pointing at the menu and looking hopefully at the server.
My experience with functional Cantonese has been very very mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, I've learned to communicate with taxi drivers so well that it's almost like a party trick for me. It's a standard sequence now. 1. Take guest who's visiting from outside Hong Kong (last week was a friend from NYC). 2. Insert guest in back seat of taxi, next to self. 3. Instruct driver on nearby destination (usually happens too fast for guest to react). 4. Start conversation in English / Hindi with guest, airily pointing out scenic spots as we drive. 5. Prepare self when destination approaches. 6. At critical moment, abruptly interrupt conversation with guest, lean forward, and rapidfire instruct driver to "stop the cab, please, up ahead to the right - yes thank you very much." 7. Observe stunned reaction from guest. 8. File away.
On the other hand, that's about the only high spot. I've gotten so good at telling the cabbie where home is that the cabbie often turns around and in machine-gun Cantonese spurts something like (this is pure conjecture on my part): "Oh, so you want to go to the University, eh? Okay, you want me to take the long route or go through the city? There's a lot of traffic if we go the shorter way. Anyway, your call -- so which will it be?" At which I gulp and mumble, "Um, no speaking, no speaking, effendi."
Then there was the calamity of the iced coffee. The cafeteria (the other lunch option) offers a drink with lunch. You get to choose. My first month in HK, I would always choose an iced coffee. The girl behind the counter became a friend of mine, and she taught me to say, "I'd like an iced coffee, please, with a little bit of fresh milk." ("Fresh milk" being what they call milk here -- if you don't specify the "little bit" - seeeu-seeu
- and the "fresh", you get half a glassful of condensed.) Anyway, so I thought I'd become pretty cool at the beverage stunt. Then I went back to NY, and met this guy in my old department who's from HK. He asked me - with an edge of a challenge in his tone - so, learned any Cantonese yet? And I said, sure! and reeled off my pet line. And he stood frozen, and stared at me with a glassy eye, quizzical-like, as if not quite sure whether I was joking, or merely kinky.
So I swallowed, and said -- okay, let me have it -- what did I just say?
And he said -- you said -- could I please have some iced coffee with a married woman?
Ever since then, I've tried to stay away from conversation except when absolutely sure there would be no misinterpretation. But the duck, it got me thinking. So first I asked a friend from the mainland -- what's "duck" in Mandarin? (Mandarin duck ha ha.) He said -- "YAAA-tzzzz".
YAAA-tzzz, I repeated.
The 'tzzz' doesn't really mean anything, he offered helpfully.
I filed that away for future reference -- in case I ever needed to say something meaningless in Mandarin. Such as maybe if I find myself at a kitty party in Beijing, or with some investment bankers. Option put call footsie Nikkei tzzz.
But the YAAA-tzzz seemed manageable to me. So I took the next step. Saturday I took a grad student out for lunch. Ordered duck (heh heh). And in the most off-hand, nonchalant manner I could summon, I asked her -- so what's Cantonese for duck?
AAP, she said.
When I was quite sure that that was what she'd said, the first thought I had was that's onomatopoeic. I'm a big etymology buff. I went home and practised saying it in private. You have to say it loudly, with a dropping tone, to get it exactly right -- or run the risk of having the waiter deliver a roasted married woman to your table. Not something one can go about freely doing in public. A few days later, heart in hand, I tested my newfound skill out at the restaurant.
I pointed at the menu.
AAP? I said. The moment I said it, I knew I got it wrong. The question mark at the end, to a sensitive ear (!Kobile
, anyone?), would send the tone skyward -- and who knows what I'd just asked for. But the lady was nice. She knew who I was. She helped out.
Hmm. Might that be roast
duck? A decent working hypothesis, to be sure. "Siu." Different from the "seeeu" that went with the fresh milk. Maybe the one means fresh (it does), while the other means roast? Hah -- having cracked that
one, I tested it out today. I summoned the waitress. I ordered spinach first (just to warm up). "BOH-choy
." That went well, but it was an old reliable in my armory. Having said that, I sprung my biggie.
"Ahhhh, Siu-AAP-aah? Okay, okay, thangyewhh."
My blood was flowing. I had my meal by the jugular. I went for the kill. "Yut-goh FAAN-aah, mgoi!"
Her eyes widened. What was this she was hearing? I'd just ordered a bowl of rice as well, all by myself. A huge beam broke out over her face. "Ah, okay, okay-aah," she said, like a young teenager suddenly face to face with Nazia Hassan. And a song broke out in my heart:
Haan-haan, Paat Pun Chaaye!!
That's when I knew where *that* came from!
In general, I've found in many places around the world, that if people see you - as an outsider - trying hard to speak their
language, and mucking it up ever so slightly in the process, they will love you for it. One of the sweetest smiles I ever got was from this girl behind the sandwich counter at the Eurostar station in supposedly-rude Paris, when I tried to ask her to add a few extras on my sandwich -- just enough to use up all the francs I was carrying. One of my wildest airport experiences was being caught up in a long and personal conversation in fractured Gujarati (fractured from my end, Gujarati from his) with a septuagenerian named Patel, passport-checker at Newark Liberty International, while about a hundred people waited in the queue behind wondering why this guy was slapping me on my back so enthusiastically (I'd told him I've visited Ahmedabad, and that I have a PhD).
Come to think of it, carrying the original pun further, "aap" in Gujarati means "give". There's nothing like giving, says Nazia Hassan. There's no one like you, respectfully, says the person with the smile. And there's nothing like roast duck.
And with that, here's the last thought for the day. Almost half the year round, someone, somewhere, is having a happy new year. Think about it -- Gujjus in Oct-Nov, Caucasians in Dec-Jan, Bongs in March-April. Right now in Feb-March it's my employers, and I take the opportunity to go underground to a place I hope is really cool for the next few days. I hope to have an interesting update for y'all when I return. Then again somewhere along the line this blog turned a year old, and it's also time to give it a little breather, so till then, quack quack.