Chinatown: Its Own Little World

Chinatown is by far my favorite place in San Francisco. It’s huge, it’s dense, and it’s diverse. You heard me. I called it diverse. Not just because you’ll find an international tourist on every other corner, but because the Chinese people themselves vary so significantly. Mandarin vs. Cantonese: A Quick LessonMandarin comes from Beijing and is the official language of China. Cantonese comes from Hong Kong and is the dominant language of most American Chinatowns. While they’re both “dialects” of Chinese, they’re entirely seperate languages. A speaker of one can’t understand a speaker of the other, but they can write to each other in Chinese characters. I study Mandarin. Cantonese goes right over my head.San Francisco Chinese Linguistics: A Quick LessonA century ago, nearly all of San Francisco’s Chinese households spoke Cantonese. Now, about 50% speak Cantonese, with the other half speaking Mandarin. Cantonese still dominates Chinatown, but most shopkeepers know enough Mandarin to do business with that population. Really, all Chinatown employees and business owners need to be trilingual to get by. In addition to Mandarin and Cantonese, they obviously need a little English in their bag of tricks.For most tourists, Chinatown is a slice of China. For me, it’s a mecca of multiculturalism. I hear various forms of Chinglish, interspersed with both Mandarin and Cantonese. Speakers switch between languages seamlessly. The older generations use loud, heavily accented Chinese, throwing in the occasional “okay” and “bye-bye.” The younger generations lean on their English, but switch to Chinese whenever the need arises. Throw in some multicultural locals, add a handful of African, European, Asian, and American tourists (who just have to see Chinatown while they’re in the city), and you have the very definition of diversity.

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2 Responses to “Chinatown: Its Own Little World”

  1. Jai Says:

    Sounds a lot like HongKong and Macau these days. Since the PRC made Mandarin the official language, and since Chinese tourism to HK (and especially Macau) increased after 1997/9, everyone here speaks Cantonese by default, and Mandarin as a fallback, and a little English Just In Case (more English in HK, obviously).

    In fact, when it becomes obvious that my Cantonese is pretty woeful, a lot of Macanese switch to Mandarin with me. I’m not sure why, given that I’m a white Australian, but my Mandarin is, amusingly, slightly better than my Cantonese. How do they know!?

    Anyway. Ni hao! I found you here via rivetpepsquad on LJ, and immediately clicked on the “Chinese” juice bucket, hence replying to 2 year old posts.


  2. sarah Says:

    Hi! Ni hao! Thanks for commenting — I’m happy to meet new people. :)