Steamed Chicken and Roast Duck Talk
I took the Greyhound bus up to visit my parents for the weekend. Now that I’d returned from across the country to Ohio for graduate school, I had no excuse not to take the short two hour trip home. When I did, mom came to me and dragged my dad along. I hated the Greyhound experience. There were two types of buses: the older ones with the ragged seats and sticky surfaces and the newer ones with plugs between the seats that never worked. There were more than two types of passengers: those who talked on the phone the whole ride, college students, actual children, loud sleepers. After the first Greyhound trip, my knees ached by the time we pulled into the station and I caught a minor cold, which I attributed to dozing off with my mouth open. Every subsequent trip had me locking my jaw in addition to my knees.
I had already lost count of what number trip this was. It had been another late afternoon departure; stepping off the bus full of dead air and body heat, I wrapped my coat tighter around my body. It was an early spring night in Cleveland. I learned from the very first trip to only pack essentials in a backpack. Any duffle bag or suitcase would extend my time at the station while the whole bus stood waiting for the driver to unload piece by piece. I left the mob behind and entered the building.
The Cleveland Greyhound Bus Depot, with its nautical Streamline Moderne style, is in the United States National Register of Historic Places. It was a place my parents never brought me to when I was a child. Objectively, we had the typical suburban two-car garage setup and had no real need to take the Greyhound. My parents enjoyed driving enough that any drivable distance was done in-house. But after dark, the bus depot was just like any other place where my mother could conjure up nebulous danger that would make a beeline to her baby chick; at only five foot, I was not inspiring much confidence in her. She texted me frantically while I was still in Columbus to remind me to stay inside the terminal until the family car arrived and pulled up to the doors. A follow-up text came soon after I alerted her that I’d arrived - my dad would be the one picking me up, as it was on the way from his office to the restaurant where we would have dinner. He was maybe ten minutes away.
I came to a stop in the middle of the waiting area and surveyed my options. There were seats available, but other riders had respected the every-other-seat spacing and had loaded the separators with their coats and bags. I would not be waiting for my ride for as long as they would be, so shedding my jacket and bag wasn’t a priority. I had been sitting for two and a half hours anyway.
Out of the corner of my eye, a shorter figure was quickly approaching me. I turned to meet the person’s eyes. It was an older Asian woman, pulling along a little rolling bag and dressed in classic Chinese auntie clothes: monocolor polyester vest, old-fashioned floral patterned sweater underneath. “Do you speak Chinese?” she asked me, in Cantonese.
While I spoke my mother tongue exclusively after birth with my parents and maternal grandmother, I had English beaten into me to enter preschool and my first language deteriorated from there. My mother tried to teach me how to read and write afterwards, but the damage was done. I spoke Cantonese so sparingly at that point that the repetitive exercises and my mother’s critical emphasis toward correct tones and pronunciations made it a hated chore. My younger sister and I had a short-lived stint in Saturday Chinese school. I signed up for Mandarin Chinese as my high school and college’s required language courses, but of course none of it stuck. My mother knew some Mandarin from her schoolgirl days; my father knew none at all.
I rarely thought about my limited Cantonese, but I could not ignore it during family trips to Hong Kong. I looked just like my cousins, but when my paternal grandparents spoke to my sister and I, we were silent. Where my parents could maintain conversation, I could barely complete a sentence without pausing to remember vocabulary, spoken with the thick accent of a Westernized Chinese. I had to wonder if I was losing a part of my fundamental self.
“A little,” I told the woman in Cantonese.
“Oh thank goodness,” the woman gushed. “I was worried I’d be stuck here forever.” I began to regret not responding in English. This surely was a precursor to asking for directions, and while my bad Chinese was one thing, I hadn’t lived in Cleveland for years and knew the area even less. I couldn’t even help an English speaker navigate without my phone. “I’m trying to get to [a location name],” she said. “Do you know how to get there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what that is.”
The woman sighed impatiently. “It’s a restaurant. I’m not from this city, I’m visiting my friends. They said they would meet me there.”
“Can’t one of them drive you?”
“They don’t have cars.”
So far, so good. Besides the restaurant name, which I remembered vaguely now that she had identified it as a restaurant, I was keeping good pace with the conversation and responding accordingly in slow but serviceable Cantonese. “What direction is it, at least?” she asked. “Tell me, so I can go in that direction.”
The cardinal directions weren’t in my immediate vocabulary list, but I could definitely say left or right. “Wait,” I stammered, pulling out my phone. “Let me look it up. I don’t know where it is right now.” My fingers were shaking. I could feel sweat on my back. My parents could eventually decipher my rambling Chinese, but this was someone else’s livelihood in my hands. I didn’t want to steer this auntie wrong. My stomach sank as I looked at the distance between the station and the restaurant; it was not a straight shot in one direction.
“Look,” I said, holding my phone up helplessly. “You...you need to go here, and then walk on this other street-”
“I can’t read English,” the woman said bluntly.
“When you go outside, turn left and then...walk five streets? And then turn left?” I was losing her. She was staring at me, trying desperately to keep up. Despite her nodding to my words, I could tell from the blankness in her eyes that I would have to repeat myself over and over, and it would still spin her around and around. My limited Cantonese meant there was just no other way for me to explain. “You can’t get someone to pick you up?” I asked again.
“No, they don’t have cars. How long is the walk? How far away is it?”
“Ten...minutes?” I had no reference point. My parents drove me everywhere at home, and I certainly made no effort to time our trips. I tried again to explain the general direction and path to take, but the woman - tired from her own bus ride and my inability to give her a clear answer - interrupted me, confused.
Suddenly, I received a text from my dad. He was five minutes away. It was so simple. “Wait a moment,” I told the woman. “Let me call my dad. He is coming to pick me up. Maybe he can help you.”
My dad tried to parse through my panic. “Just tell me about it when I arrive,” he said in firm Cantonese.
When my dad pulled up to the curb, I ran over, leaving the woman to follow me. “Dad,” I said, in relieved English. “This woman...she needs to go somewhere. To that restaurant in that one plaza, I think.”
My dad glanced behind me and rolled down the backseat window. “What’s wrong?” he asked the woman in Chinese. She repeated her request to meet her friends at a restaurant in Chinatown.
“See?” I said, still in English. “Where should she go?”
“Get in,” my dad said to the woman in Chinese. “I’ll drive you.”
As I slipped into the passenger’s seat, the woman exclaimed happily as my dad went and helped her, and her bag, into the backseat. “I must tell my friends,” she said. “I’ve got to tell them I’m coming!” She proceeded to call her friends, loudly and cheerfully sharing that she was okay and was on her way. I began to drown her out as she began using words I wasn’t familiar with. When she finished her call, she began to chat with my dad, asking him how long we had been in the city and other pleasantries now that she could see the end of her night in sight. My dad responded in short affirmatives. He was usually quite chatty with other native Cantonese speakers, but he was also a reserved man who saved his extroversion for his family - maybe he was tired from a long day of work and didn’t feel like fully engaging with a stranger.
The restaurant wasn’t far, barely enough time for me to text my mother my novel about the whole ordeal. The woman got out of the car, saying something that I couldn’t understand, but I nodded along and bid her farewell.
My mother was waiting at another Chinese restaurant fifteen minutes away. As my father drove out of the plaza parking lot, I let out a long breath. “Ah, that was so stressful,” I said in English.
“How did that even happen to you?” he asked in Chinese.
“I don’t even know. She just came up to me and started talking to me. It’s a good thing I could understand and answer her. But anything harder and I’d have to give up. Like I called you, because I couldn’t figure out how to guide her.”
“You understood her?” my dad said. “She was speaking Taishanese.”
Guangzhou, or Canton, is the biggest and most populous city in Guangdong Province along the Pearl River. It is the origin of the Cantonese dialect. Taishan is a county in the southwest part of Guangdong Province along the coast of the South China Sea. It is the origin of the Taishan dialect, and the region where my paternal grandmother is from. My paternal grandparents survived the Second World War and eventually made their way to Hong Kong, where they raised their five kids and still live with most of my extended family. While the Canton and Taishan dialects are both underneath the umbrella of Yue Chinese, Taishanese speakers are able to generally understand Cantonese speakers but Taishanese is different enough that my grandmother can converse with old friends and it sounds just as unintelligible to me as Mandarin. My dad loves to claim that while he can’t speak a lick of Taishanese, he can totally understand when he hears it.
“Was she?” I said.
“Yes. Just like your grandma...my mom.”
“Oh.” I had understood most everything in the exchange at the Greyhound station - I thought I did. Sure, there had been moments when she had used terms I didn’t know, but I knew what she had asked me. Had she been switching between the dialects since I had responded in Cantonese, and then used Taishanese exclusively whilst in the car with us? My brain, already in overdrive, could not tell for sure. “But I understood her. I know I did.”
My dad shrugged. We were now pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant my mom was waiting at. “Maybe you got my genes, can understand Taishanese. A little bit.” If my ears could take a dialect and translate it into something intelligible before it reached my brain, I also needed an upgrade where my thoughts in English could come out in perfect Cantonese. “She was telling her friends that fortune was shining on her since you were there.”
Inside, my mom was sitting at a table alone, waiting with hot tea. Maybe I had bumbled that conversation and my dad was right, that the lady and I were like the Chinese saying: a duck and a goose talking. Normally, the phrase implied that some people, through the metaphor of the different types of fowl, could converse and would still never be able to really understand each other. But it had to mean something that the duck and goose still tried, uttering sounds the other didn’t recognize but somehow connecting over the act of communicating. I preferred the idea that I understood her, whether she had really spoken in Cantonese or not. She was now enjoying a meal with her friends, and I was about to sit down to a hearty meal of my own. “Mom,” I said. “Let me tell you what happened.”
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Stephanie Yu is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. Her roots are from Hong Kong, but she is more or less in the "sik tang msik gong" community.