Multilingual Birthday Songs

(Interviewer’s additions are in italics.)

Well, since my wife is from Hong Kong… a lot of times at birthdays, family birthdays… because, back when we lived in Mexico, for birthdays, we’d sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish… well, we’d sing “Las Mañanitas,” which is a Spanish birthday song… uh, but then we’d also sing “Happy Birthday” in Cantonese. [In traditional Chinese characters: 醒你生日快樂 ; pronounced in Cantonese, according to my informant’s wife, as “sing nei sung yuc fa lok.”] But since my wife was the only one who spoke Cantonese, we… we couldn’t get the words right, and to some of us it sounded like [to the tune of “Happy Birthday”], “La lasagna falló, la lasagna falló, la lasagna falló, la lasagna falló.” Which… in English, it means, “The lasagna failed.” And… it was just really funny, it made all our Mexican family laugh, it made the kids laugh… and so that’s how we always sang it… And we kept singing it this way until my sons started taking Chinese [Mandarin] classes in school… uh, we moved to Minnesota and they took Chinese [Mandarin] in school, Chinese immersion… and so they learned the Chinese [Mandarin] words to “Happy Birthday” [in simplified Chinese characters: 祝你生日快乐 ; pronounced in Mandarin as “zhu ni sheng ri kuai le”]… and for a while, we had them sing the Chinese [Mandarin] version of it… but then they, uh, they didn’t want to anymore… and now we usually just sing it in English, and… uh… and we still sing “Las Mañanitas” as well, but not any of the Chinese versions of it.



The inclusion of a Cantonese version of “Happy Birthday” at this family’s birthday parties reveals my informant and his family to value multiculturalism and want to include this part of his wife’s culture into their celebrations. Yet, the warping of the lyrics also shows the overpowering of the majority culture/language (Spanish, and its misunderstanding of the Cantonese lyrics) taking precedence over the minority culture/language (Cantonese), and the appropriation and ultimate replacement of this minority language for humorous purposes.