Hello from Hong Kong!
Here’s a brief tutorial on Cantonese, one of the spoken forms of the Chinese language. To say “good morning,” you say jóu-sàhn. But there’s no equivalent for “good afternoon” or “good evening.” Instead, one asks “have you eaten rice yet?”: sikh-faahn meih a. The answer may come in the affirmative or the negative, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s a formal convention, an empty question kind of like “how are you?” in the U.S. It’s such a placeholder that you can even ask it as you’re meeting someone for lunch or dinner!
With a range of six inflections and a character system that I haven’t studied before, Cantonese is a tall order. There are several places where I’ve found myself grasping at straws to make communication happen.
For instance, at a streetfood stall in the Mong Kok district, I tried to understand what was in a particular fried-ball-on-a-stick. I made fishgill hand motions on my neck and whatever else I could think of to communicate with the vendor. I’m still not 100% what was in that skewer, but it was tasty. Anyway, it hurts my left-brain pride to know that I won’t even scratch the surface of Cantonese before I leave Hong Kong.
However, there’s something comforting about immersion in an unknown tongue. The pressure is off to find the right word. Sometimes here it comes down to a handful of terms, some nods, pantomime and gesticulation. Gossip and smalltalk ebb away (Though of course they have their place. So friends and colleagues, please don’t be shy about sending gossip and smalltalk while I’m away!).
Here’s a picture from my ride on a double-decker tram, or a “ding-ding,” as they call it in Hong Kong. Named for the sound of its bell, the tram lines run east-west along the Central and Western districts, often tracing Hong Kong Island’s original shoreline, which is forever inching into the harbor thanks to insatiable developers. One ride costs under $0.33US, offering a reprieve for tired legs as well as a range of city views.
Until next time.
Wesley Beal is an associate professor of English at Lyon College. This fall he is serving as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar at the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches two courses in American literature and continues a study of the campus novel genre. Please reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have Hong Kong- or Fulbright-related questions for him to investigate. He’ll do his best to oblige in subsequent blog posts.
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