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Nam Long

My cousin Dianne and I grew up together in Chinatown, San Francisco.  The same age, we went though school together, both public and Chinese schools.  Our families were from the same part of China and spoke a dialect that was not common among Cantonese speakers in San Francisco.  In recent years, as we were getting older, we decided to meet and practice speaking our village dialect, Nam Long.  In time, we found more fellow speakers and invited them to join our conversation.  Our group has grown to five—George, Elberta, Joel, Dianne and me—and we meet regularly over lunch or on ZOOM to practice speaking Nam Long as much as possible.  I have to confess that we speak more English than Nam Long; but we give it a go!

The last time I visited our family village, Ho Chung, was in 2004.  That trip was the culmination of my sabbatical.  With funding from a Lilly Sabbatical Grant, I was able to take my children on their first ever trip to China.  We took in the usual tourist sites on the first leg of the trip–the Great Wall, Beijing and Shanghai, the Terra Cotta soldiers in Xian, the river boat ride down the famous Li River in Guilin, etc.  The trip to our family village departed from Hong Kong, on a jet ferry to Macao; and then a bus ride to Ho Chung.  On the previous trips to China, the visit to the family village had been the highlight.  This time it was no different; and maybe more so because I was looking forward to introducing my children to their Chinese heritage, their ancestral roots.  

My introduction to China was in 1983, on a trip I took with my mother and youngest brother, Alton.  That trip was especially significant and special because it was my mother’s first trip home since she left China in 1939.  Growing up, whenever China came up in conversations, in particular about traveling to China, the phrase that was commonly used was “going home.”  We didn’t say “visit China” or “trip to China” or “going to China”; it was always “going home.”  So when this opportunity to “go home” arrived, I jumped at the chance; nothing was going to prevent me from going, especially to be introduced to China through my mother’s eyes and stories.  As a child, her many stories about China–the relatives, the food, the conditions–piqued my curiosity and interest.  Growing up in Chinatown, I went to many family association banquets.  I loved the food; but aside from the surprised discoveries of which of my classmates were in fact distant relatives speaking the same dialect, they were boring affairs.  

As an adult, I received yet another invitation to a family association banquet.  This time, I gladly accepted  because there was a very special speaker for the occasion.  President Richard Nixon’s State Visit in 1972 had opened the doors to China after the many years of Communist rule under Mao Tse Tung.  The banquet speaker for the evening had just returned from a trip to our family village in China; and he had slides to go along with his talk.  For the first time in my life, I could see with my own eyes what my native home looked like.  His presentation came after dinner.  So for the first time ever, I wanted to get past the food as quickly as possible; it was not the highlight of the evening for me.  Finally, with the tables cleared, the banquet hall lights dimmed.  The first slide came up on the screen.  Tears immediately flowed down my cheeks.  Even though what I saw on that first slide was a rural scene that could have been taken anywhere in the world, tears flowed because it was the home of my parents; and it was my home.   From that evening program, I wanted to go home and to experience for myself life in the ancestral village.

In those early days of travel to China, all travelers had to book their trip with a tour company.  And all travel was restricted to major tourist sites.  Even on that very first trip, I was willing to see the tourist sites first just to have a chance to visit our ancestral home afterwards.  We were on our own to arrange travel to the village, however.  At the end of the tour, we hired a private cab and driver to make the pilgrimage to Ho Chung.  From Macao, we headed North; and the closer we got to the village, the language started to change.  It sounded more and more strangely familiar.  I had never experienced anything like it.  The closer we got to the village, I suddenly realized that everyone was speaking Nam Long, everyone!  I was overwhelmed, amazed.  For the first time in my life, Nam Long was the primary, dominant language everywhere you turned.  I had arrived; and I had come home!  It was hard to contain myself; I wanted to talk to everyone I met.  As far as I was concern, no one was a stranger; they were all family.

After that first trip in 1983, I went home again in 1987 and 1989.  The trip in 2004 with my children was my fourth trip home.  In that 15 year span since the last trip, I was shocked by how China had changed.  Arriving in Macao from Hong Kong, Macao was no longer the quiet town I remembered; it had been transformed into a huge and cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong, dominated by casinos.  Once we boarded the bus in Macao, a bus that took us to the village, I excitedly told my children to listen carefully, to listen carefully to the language spoken.  I had been on this road previously, 3 times.  Yet, I did not recognize where I was.  A four lane highway had replaced the single lane road.  High rise hotels and apartment buildings stood where rice paddies use to be.  I couldn’t even tell when we had arrived in Ho Chung.  In my shock, I didn’t even realize that not a word in Nam Long had been spoken even in the village.  When I met my cousin, my first question to him was, “Why isn’t anyone speaking our dialect, Nam Long?”  He shrugged his shoulders and said, “There is no point in speaking it; all commerce is conducted in Mandarin or Sam Yup.”   

I no longer have the sense of need and urgency to go home again.  Ho Chung did not feel like home on that last trip.  Lunch with my cousin Dianne, where we try to speak only Nam Long, feels more like home.  Since mom died in 2007, I have rarely spoken our village dialect.  I have to seek out speakers.  One day, a year after mom’s death, I awoke to the realization that I had not spoken a word of Nam Long; so I drove out to the cemetery and had a chat with her, telling her how much I missed her and how I missed having someone to speak Nam Long with.These days, I still look forward to “going home“; and it occurs whenever our Nam Long lunch group meets.

3 thoughts on “Nam Long”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Cal.
    You made so many China trips you may have confused one detail. In 1983, we hired a car that took us from Guangzhou over several car ferries in the Pearl River delta to reach Namlong.
    It was an amazing trip, with vivid memories.
    I remember our mother’s muttered rejoinder when a tour guide at a Beijing museum explained that the Nationalists stole valuable art works from China when they fled to Taiwan: “They didn’t take them from China. China moved.”

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