CLAIRE: US Pacific-Northwest-born Heather Diamond’s self-described “rebellious streak and itchy feet” led to unusually diverse experiences, including her marriage into a big Hong Kong Chinese family. Before writing her memoir, Rabbit in the Moon, she was a bookseller, a college teacher of multiculturalism and American folklore, and—when I first met her—the curator of Honolulu’s ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States.
HEATHER: My intercultural marriage is never dull, but parts of it are mired in translation.
My husband was born and raised in Hong Kong, educated in London and the USA, and spent most of his adult life in America. He is multilingual: Cantonese, Mandarin, a couple of dialects from his grandparents, English, and a smattering of French, German, and Korean (mostly food words—he loves to eat). I grew up in a white, suburban town in the USA. I speak English and a little high school Spanish. Here in Hong Kong, where we moved four years ago, it’s embarrassing to be me.
He’s an ethnomusicologist, and I’m a folklorist, which translates to two culture geeks fascinated by everyday stuff most people don’t find important, like folk songs, superstitions, and proverbs. And because we’re both teachers, we’ve each benefitted from having a personal guide to the other’s culture. Or at least that was how I saw it when he was the foreigner on my home turf and I was the expert. Now the tables are turned, and I’m more linguistically handicapped than he’s ever been.
I ask a lot of questions, and if I had a Hong Kong dollar, which isn’t worth much, for every time his answer started with There’s a Chinese saying for that, I’d be able to shop at the expat grocery store without flinching at the cost. Apparently, there is a Chinese saying for everything. It’s become a running joke between us that sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a fortune cookie.
Let me give you an example. The other day when I missed seeing something obvious, he laughed and said, “Your eyes are too big.” When I looked at him blankly with my big eyes, he explained, “There’s a Chinese saying that your eyes are so big you can’t see.” Extended blank look from me.
“Wouldn’t big eyes make it more likely I’d see?” I asked. “Is that the same as you can’t see the forest for the trees?”
“That’s the point, your eyes are too big! It makes sense to Chinese.” We probably continued in this vein, and I can assure you that if we did, we got nowhere. To get the last word, I may have added, “If it was a snake, it would have bit me.”
The linguistic tangles work in both directions. My husband is a master of Cantonese slang, swearing, and proverbs. He’s got American swearing and slang down for the most part, but proverbs are tricky. Once he tried to turn the tables on me in a playful spat by saying, “That’s the cow calling the cattle black.”
“What? You mean a kettle, not a cow.”
“No, a cow.”
“But not all cows are black.”
“But some of them are. Are all kettles black?”
You’ve got the idea and have probably guessed that his version is the one we now use. Marriages thrive on a shared language, even if it’s unintelligible to outsiders.
Shared jokes are one of the reasons I haven’t learned more than basic Cantonese. Well, that and an atrophied American brain faced with all those tones and too many seemingly innocent words that become obscene if you use the wrong one (a crab, a shoe, and a slur for a female body part are the same word in different tones—I rest my case). I also blame it on silly appropriations. If you hear us snickering in front of a window full of roasted ducks, you can bet we’re recycling our “duk m duk” joke, which is our inside wordplay on the way Cantonese ask if something is okay.
Some linguistic tangles I can only admire. If my husband trips, which he is prone to do, he says he P.K’d. P.K. is an abbreviated form of a Cantonese expletive that literally means to fall in the street, or, in English, to drop dead. Neither of us wants that to happen, but applying a Cantonese metaphor literally is enough to trip anyone who isn’t an insider pro.
I should probably question why it’s the insults and swear words I remember in Cantonese. While I recognize the equivalents to some rude expressions in English, others baffle me. Calling someone a lump of rice or a sweet potato? Saying it would be better to have given birth to barbecued pork? You have to pull your pants down to fart? Colorful, yes, but you obviously have to grow up in a language for full impact. To get a sense of how embedded these kinds of sayings are, take a look at “The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” produced by graphic designer Ah To and visually depicting eighty-one Cantonese proverbs. I got the gist only while the images alone had my husband guffawing.
Sometimes the gulf between cultural meanings is more serious. While I was finishing Rabbit in the Moon, my memoir about my intercultural marriage, I asked my husband if I should ask for his family’s permission to talk about them in the book. He said, “They already know you’re writing a book.”
“Shouldn’t I at least ask?”
“Only an outsider would ask. It’s like you’re saying you’re not part of the family.”
“I’m asking because I AM family, and I don’t want to offend them. I’m trying to show respect.”
“They trust you, so the way they see it, why would you write anything that would upset them? “They’ll see it as being gin ngoi.”
“It’s a Chinese saying. Gin ngoi means you’re seeing yourself as such an outsider you don’t even know you’re doing it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s a cultural thing.”
In other words, if I do what I think is the right thing, I end up wrong in ways I can’t even figure out. Even if I can pronounce gin ngoi perfectly, and I can, I’m too gin ngoi to get it.
We’ve been doing this translation/interpretation dance for twenty-plus years now. There are no gendered pronouns in Chinese, so the people in my husband’s stories in English often become gender fluid, and I am forever interrupting to ask if he means he or she. I’m a former English teacher, but when he asks me to explain the rules and exceptions of American grammar, I find myself looking up idioms and proverbs I’ve never questioned. We’re both forced to think after we talk, if not before, if we want to be understood.
It keeps things interesting even when we go in circles.
No doubt there’s a Chinese saying for that.
This article first appeared on heatherdiamondwriter.com in 2020.