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The Six Tones of Cantonese 


A. Yang

“It sounds so angry all the time,” a student says, the frustration of repeating another page of exercises seeping into her tone.

How do I tell her that it sounds like my mother reminding me to cook rice, because she’ll be home in twenty, maybe thirty, minutes with traffic, staticky feedback scrambling her voice as she, along with half of the economy, navigates the freeway home?

How do I tell her that it sounds like the TV dramas that served as ambient music to each family gathering, bearing quiet witness to the controlled chaos that naturally accompanies three generations of hungry mouths, crammed around an oakwood table?

There’s too much to say and we’ve only got six minutes of allocated lesson time left, so I simply stay silent.


We are herded in, an eclectic group dressed in varying degrees of navy, grey and “business appropriate” floral print. A date between those who love to eat and those who are ready for any excuse to leave the office, encouraged by a faceless management team eager to capitalise on this year’s Lunar New Year festivities.

We are crammed around a small table and served tea. Ordering is a delicate balancing act between well-known favourites and a flash assessment of whether chicken feet will be welcomed by this crowd.

Each long that arrives at our table is accompanied by unsolicited commentary:

“Oh, I tried this in Hong Kong, I think- actually, maybe not… ”

“- this doesn’t have meat in it, does it?”

“...what is that?”

“Damn, that tastes better than it looks!”

Each is delivered in a tone of curiosity, punctuating the sound of porcelain, the spin of the lazy susan and the fumbling of fingers juggling chopsticks. Unwittingly, I recall a time when these dishes brought in a tepid thermos would be met with laughter and mocking that condemned me to a lunch seated alone, rather than elbow to elbow with my peers.

“I didn’t even know this place existed!” someone exclaims as we waddle back to the office.

I swallow the bitterness in my voice when I tell them that this place has been here for decades now.


I’m only 10 months when I’m flown back - or so my grandmother says, carefully pulling steamed eggs from the wok. I’ve come for another visit which I promised months ago.

The apologies spilling from my lips are met with warm arms and an expectation that I will stay for dinner.

Behind us, TV dramas play out in glorious HD.

I don’t remember much from that trip, but the photos tell a story that my grandmother completes in six tones, interspersed with English and an apologetic smile.

It serves as a reminder of opportunities missed.

She speaks of a time when our family tree straddled the ocean, held together with pre-purchased sim cards, bi-annual flights, shitty dial up and Skype. During each trip, well-wishing family members inform me in a mix of dialects that I’m simultaneously too dark and too light, before shoving a list of recommended products down my throat. 

At ten, twelve and fifteen, each flight felt like a mandatory sentence rather than a holiday. My silent rebellion can be tracked through the growth of my fringe; from its pre-dictated bowl-cut to its punk-emo inspired side swept fringe, layered as aggressively as my love for the boy-bands I had on repeat on my iPod.

“It was good back then,” she says, “maybe we can go back next year.” I look at the way her hands shake as she spoons soup from the stove, jade clacking against the side of the small ceramic bowl on the countertop.

I want to say no. My mind automatically conjures up a list of excuses dressed up as reasons, from the length of the flight - remember how crammed the airplane seats were on our last trip? - to the ache in her knees, her unashamed hatred of cold weather and the classic default excuse of how busy everyone would be.

But I have the heart of a coward and the Cantonese level equivalent to a three year old, so I avoid the question and ask her to start eating instead.


I leave the muted tones of suburbia for the artificial glow of neon lights, armed with the confidence with someone who has a university degree, little to no savings and the freedom to do whatever she wants. 

That is to say, not much confidence at all.

A few friends and I go shopping. We’re replicas of those around us - young, educated and browsing with empty hands and lighter pockets. I’m looking for a dress, a skirt, anything for next week’s event.

“Yellow isn't really your tone,” the shopkeeper says, gesturing me to another option.

It’s just a colour, I remind myself, chanting it like a mantra, as if it’ll stop me from shooting a glance at my reflection in the mirror. I wonder if the accent in my voice serves as a metaphor for the waves of migration in the past century, or whether it’s just another manifestation of my academic shortcomings. When did I accept the ambassadorial responsibility of every child of the diaspora; when did my every movement and interaction become a referendum on the merits of moving overseas?

A well-dressed lady approaches me as we leave the store empty handed. She asks for the fastest way to Mong Kok station, phone in one hand and quilted handbag in the other.

“I don’t speak Chinese,” I say in Chinese, the syllables falling from my lips, heavy and unfamiliar.

She looks at me quizzically before turning sharply on her heels, leaving my crisis in her wake.


She nags from the front door to the driver’s seat. As with most outings, an invite to the movies turns into an impromptu drop-in to three other houses before we make it to our destination. The soft curves of her vowels, transitioning effortlessly between Cantonese, Mandarin and English - a simple melody that’s confusing to anyone outside of the family tree. To me, it’s the sound of long drives to school, piano lessons and to uncle-so-and-so’s house. 

Have I been drinking leung cha?

Your skin’s breaking out - I’ll get some aloe vera for you.

Did you hear about James?

I heard that Ann’s married now. 

Why didn’t you take that street?

I grip the steering wheel, as if it’ll somehow steer me out of this feedback loop of guilt, envy and frustration that I thought I had grown out of. My mind supplies me with the usual taunt of, “you should have learned Chinese”, “you should have continued piano” and variations of “why did you give up?”.

The commands of the internal drill sergeant leading the camp of comparison that I’ve been conscripted to since birth.

On screen, the protagonist parrots accented Cantonese back at me.

“Just like you,” my mum laughs, backseat driving on the way home.

It’s the first time I see myself on the silver screen. 


I want to say that I’m better at recognising the question from miles away.

It usually comes after pleasantries have been exchanged, and both speakers have endured the excruciating awkwardness that we, collectively as a society, have accepted as the cost of doing business. Sometimes it’s the opening line to the polite, socially acceptable small talk that we’ve agreed to as the torturous prelude to any networking event.

I didn’t this time.

Admittedly, I’m easily distracted by the canapes progressing in an Elizabethean dance around the room, wondering whether they’re avoiding me in some elaborate conspiracy. It blindsides me during my mission to eat back every cent I’ve paid to be squeezed into this plastic excuse of a dress like a human sausage, heels like toothpicks spearing into my spine.

“So how long have you been in Australia?”

“Did you grow up here?”

“Your English is pretty good.”

“Have I seen you here before?”

I almost spit out the six dollar meatball topped with some fancy cream sauce (the name of which I didn’t quite catch) over Mr Hi-I’m-a-consultant’s perfectly pressed suit that probably cost more than my monthly pay.

“Well there’s nothing wrong with asking that,” a friend says afterwards, her voice garbled by the tinny speakers of my university laptop. She waves her hand dismissively; a flash of grainy pixels jolts across the screen. “He’s just curious - did you get his number?”

I fail to articulate the anger that flares reflexively at her tone. My skin curls. I resist the urge to yell. It’s the same tone my supervisor used the other week when she called me “a quiet achiever, but reserved”, like an implicit accusation; a backhanded compliment.

On one hand, it’s a step up from the blatant “where are you from” that dogged many of my childhood interactions. 

On the other hand, I am hesitant to label these questions as progress, as doing so seems like a betrayal to the very meaning of the word, another concession in a string of concessions which I make on a daily basis to appease my deep-seated desire for approval.

After all, is it progress to have a seat in the set of a corporate dystopia, in which a cast pulled straight from a recruitment poster in the early 2000s speak about inclusivity, empowerment and diversity in the same measured tones they use to discuss KPIs, billable hours and “client expectations”? Is it progress when heads around a mahogany conference table swivel automatically to me, the moment “community engagement” is raised?

I answer her in the same tone that my mother uses to scold; the tone that my grandmother uses to offer food and the tone my aunts use to offer ill-informed WeChat sanctioned health advice.

The same tone that has been described as too harsh, too ugly and simply just “too much”.

The tone of progress.

One syllable at a time. 

A.Yang is an Australian based writer living with her dog and colossal student debt. She loves exploring creative projects which explore the intersection between food, identity and cross-cultural exchange. Her work has been featured in Capsule Stories and Porridge Magazine.

ig @vegemitecongee

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