We're making a slow cooked brisket in barbecue sauce. The slow cooker is small though, and we don't want to make too much, so I need to cut this big, frozen chunk of brisket in half (technically it's a quarter, the other half was used to make corned beef a while ago). It's pretty thick and I'm not gonna wait until the whole thing defrosts. I'm pretty sure it's not good for anything to defrost then refreeze. There's a knife I have that's perfect for this situation. It's tucked away underneath where we keep the oven mitt because it doesn't get used very much. I move the oven mitt out of the way and pull out the cleaver. It's got a round handle and thick, heavy blade.
I bought this thing in San Francisco Chinatown a few years back. It was in one of those stores that sells a bunch of household items and it probably had a name that had the words "Trading Company" in it. I knew I wanted to buy a cleaver because I didn't have one at the time, and that seems like a thing that I oughta have. They had three boxes of cleavers. Tiny, medium, and huge. I went with huge. At the time I probably had no business buying this thing, it's massive and way too heavy for day to day use. I'm the second customer in line. The lady at the register conducts business with the person in front of me in Cantonese. I approach and set the knife down, feeling a little bit silly, some combination of buyer's remorse and awkward shame. She rings it up and tells me the total. The woman behind her says in Cantonese, "What's this kid buying such a big knife for?"
I am Chinese American. My father was born in Guangdong (Hoi Ping to be more precise) and moved to Hong Kong when he was a child, during the Cultural Revolution. My mother's family is from Chiuchow, also in Guangdong, but they moved to Vietnam before the war happened. (Given these two things, I have a whole lot of weird feelings about Communism but that's another essay at some point.) When my dad's side of the family moved over he bounced around between the East, West, and island parts of the US before settling in San Francisco. My mother's family escaped during the war, holed up in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur for a while, before being taken in to the United States. They fought their way through immigrant life, both landing in finance.
I'm not fluent in Cantonese. I can understand more than I can speak more than I can read more than I can write. I'm not going to say that the history of my parents are the only reason for this, but it's probably part of it. By the time I was born both my parents had already been in this country long enough to have careers and the language skills necessary for those careers. The first language that I spoke was Cantonese, but when you're raised in a bilingual household and go to schools where only one of those languages is spoken, you're probably gonna speak that one. So here I am with my Chinese heritage, broken Cantonese, and parents who collectively speak: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese. Enter Sleeping Dogs.
Sleeping Dogs is a fantastic game and anybody who says otherwise clearly hasn't seen one Vinny Caravella play it. The combat is good, the vehicles are servicable, and the juxtaposition between normal life and near-comical brutal murder are fantastic. The story is a little by the book, especially if you've spent any time watching Hong Kong Triad movies, so I don't blame people for writing it off. In spite of that, Wei struck me in a way that no other character has.
How often do you get a character whose background is so similar to yours? Sure, the particulars are a little different. Wei Shen was born in Hong Kong, I was born in the US. Wei's father wasn't around because he walked out on their family, mine wasn't because he co-founded company when I was young (he's been around a little more as he's easing into retirement age, but he used to work 7AM to 11PM). Wei's a little older than me, gets out a lot more than me, etc. etc. Close enough though.
In a personality profile on Wei, he is described as having "chameleon-like" tendencies because he moved to the US as an adolescent and didn't have a strong father figure. It's not often that I experience a piece of media and reflect that back on myself, but here was a mirror staring me straight in the face. I don't keep friends very well, but I usually blend into a group pretty quickly. It describes him as using excessive violence and personal vendettas being a motivation. I'm not a violent person anymore and certainly never was enough for somebody to affix the word "excessive" in front of my actions, but my blood gets boiling pretty darn quick when I feel like somebody has wronged me.
So here's a character whose background is similar to mine, that I psychologically identify with a whole lot. Hey here's a weird thing, I don't ever remember Wei speaking Cantonese. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he doesn't for the entire game. Obviously there were concessions to be made here. There was probably a writer somewhere who was all "We have a Chinese main character in Hong Kong, he's gotta speak Cantonese!" and some business man was like "But you see, this chart says if the main character doesn't speak English for the whole game then we're going to sell this much less." Then the writer had to live with it, because that's how big games are made. Let's push that out of this world of fake Hong Kong though, and pretend that Wei is speaking English to everybody he talks to. What would his motivation?
When I need to speak Cantonese, it's like pouring water the wrong way through a funnel. Phrases, words, and colloquialisms that I've tried to grasp wash over me, and what comes out of my mouth is a stupid fraction of the thought that I started with. I love the idea of speaking it though, so every time I need to use it I go through the same cycle. I get excited at the prospect to finally use it in conversation, I pour water through the dumb end of a funnel, I bury my soul in shame and promise that I'll learn more and get better. This cycle was clearer than ever when my godparents came to visit last year. They're good friends of my dad's from his time in Hong Kong. I have a godmother, a godfather, and a god-grandmother. (I guess that's what you'd call your godmother's mother? I call her Kai Po.) This was the last time that my Kai Po is going to be able to visit America. I think she's in her 90's, and it's amazing that she was even able to make this trip. I promised myself I would get better at Cantonese so I could talk to her more this time. The water came down harder, a little more dribbled through, but that much more washed away. I knew enough to promise her that I would come visit her in Hong Kong though, and that a promise that I really hope I can make good on.
Maybe Wei feels something similar. Maybe he's ashamed at acting like he's integrating into this society that he's left behind, not even by his own choice. All the time knowing that to everybody else he's the obvious outsider trying to fit in with the cool kids. Speaking Cantonese makes him out to be a linguistic, cultural poser. So he just doesn't. When I went to Hong Kong on a family vacation a few years back, I sure as hell didn't.
I looked at the total on the register, she didn't even really have to tell me how much it was. The other lady says her piece. I take out some money and pay in cash. I thank them in the most clear, precise, enunciated Cantonese that I can muster, and I get out of there.