Ann Dinh is a writer based in Narrm (Melbourne) where she explores the topics of language, food and memory. She grew up bilingual and continues to expand her Cantonese vocabulary alongside new lifestages. Her work has appeared in Pencilled In and SBS Food online.
The New Toilet
On the odd weekend in my primary school years, my parents would take me to the Westend Market in Sunshine to stroll around the stalls of airbrushed t-shirts, wicker ware, sporting goods and comics.
One of those mornings, I tried out a purple bicycle with rainbow handlebar streamers. I glided along the smooth concrete of the covered carpark and imagined neighbourhood adventures on new wheels. When I rolled back to the stall, my parents politely returned the bike to the stallholder. They didn’t promise to make it a grand gift for my birthday. Instead, they guided me to a different part of the market and I fossicked around at a table of assorted toys. I found something wondrous to my 10-year-old self and my dad bought it with one of the shiny new 2-dollar coins.
Back at home, I pulled the toy from its cellophane wrapper and it fit snugly in my hand. A plastic, caramel-coloured ice cream cone with a small button near the top for my thumb. In place of a real strawberry scoop was a spring-loaded pink foam ball. When I pressed the button, the ball sailed into the air before falling and dangling to my knees on the end of a red string. I’d grab the squishy ball and click it back in place inside the cone. I loved watching it bounce against the sky, the coiled release making a twanging sound each time.
My mum watched me play and said, “Ah, the new toilet.”
We only spoke Cantonese at home so what I heard my mother say was, “Ah, sun si harng” – the new poo ditch.
I was shocked.
“This is not a poo ditch!” I declared.
“It’s a saying,” she laughed. “When something is new, people will want to use it all the time – even if it’s a new toilet. You’ll see, you’re having fun now but after ten minutes you’ll forget all about your ice cream and go off to play with something else.”
I imagined a crowd of excited, good-natured people lining up to use a new toilet. I giggled at the thought of a toilet being flushed over and over.
The foam ball was nestled back in the cone. I looked at it and felt it had been somehow besmirched.
While my mum’s language lesson made a deep impression on me, I have never used the saying “the new poo ditch”.
In the same year, my dad called me to our narrow little kitchen and said “jup woon tung”.
I knew the first two words were “clear dish”- but what was “tung”? I looked from the windowsill above the sink, to the stack of pots next to the stove, the lino floor and back to the sink.
He pointed to the dish rack and said it was called a “woon tung”.
What? The object had never had a name before and now I was expected to keep it tidy? The new word and new chore collided in my mind, creating a sense of confusion and rage.
I argued with my dad, refusing to accept that something could suddenly be called “woon tung” – as though if the name wasn’t real, the thing didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t need to do anything about it.
“If it’s always been called that, why haven’t I heard it before?” I demanded.
My dad replied patiently, “Because I’ve never asked you to empty it before, I’ve always done it. You’re old enough to learn to put the bowls and plates away.”
I struggled with the idea that basic knowledge about home could be kept from me – yet learning new names for things brought unwanted responsibilities. What else did my parents have in store for me?
I lifted the dishes from the white plastic rack holding them in place. I put them away in the cupboard very carefully and very reluctantly.
“Gorng Jung Mun”
Starting school is often the biggest challenge to keeping up a language other than English.
As a way for us to continue speaking Cantonese, my mum pretended to me and my siblings that she didn’t know any English.
One day my older brother, aged 8, asked, “If you don’t know how to speak English, what language do you speak at work?” The penny had dropped.
Without skipping a beat, my mum replied, “I speak English at work but at home we Gorng Jung Mun!”
This phrase – speak Chinese – was drilled into us throughout our childhood. My mum used it whenever she heard my brothers and I speaking English at home. We learned that home was a Cantonese-language zone and that our play areas, out of mum’s ear shot, were English-language zones.
To this day, I only speak Cantonese with my parents and only English with my brothers. Even though we all know how to speak both languages. Inexplicably, I feel uncomfortable when a Cantonese speaker uses English with my parents. It’s like an invisible line is being crossed.
Now, what language do my parents choose to use with my child? English.
After decades of instilling Cantonese in their children, they’ve passed on the baton. I’m old enough now to gift someone another language.
I don’t have the heart to remind my parents to Gorng Jung Mun with my child. Instead, I’ve delighted in hearing them use baby English, then toddler English and now primary-schooler English. It was a kind of English they didn’t get to experience with me and my brothers. They chose to teach us their mother tongue in a monolingual environment. They did it with humour, patience, and tenacity. I have immense gratitude and respect for their toil.
During their working lives in Australia, my parents chose to use English outside the home. Now English has become one of our home-languages.
I hear the Gong Gong and Po Po chats with a deep sense of foon hei. It means happiness and joy in Cantonese. In that opening fff sound, I experience it as the cresting and breaking of a big wave.
© Ann Dinh, 2022