It’s only been a couple of days, but I’ve already spoken more Cantonese in my time here than in the last 8 years. I finally caved and bought some basic Cantonese textbooks this morning. I noticed that there are lots of little words that I don’t know: or, dollar, humid. I’ve been keeping a list to see if I can understand where these gaps in my listening comprehension and speaking vocabulary come from.
I’ve been eating a lot of the same foods since those are the only things I know how to order; cha siew mien and dong nai cha for days, literally, not that I mind. I could cave and resort to English to diversify my diet, but I realized that faking fluency allows me to pass as a local (for the most part). I can eat alone, seated across from a business man in a perfectly tailored suit, reading the South China Morning Post folded on top of his Dolce & Gabbana backpack, observing him and the other diners without a second glance. The second I speak English, my perfect American, distinctly Californian accent gives me away, drawing more than a couple stares.
I suspect that if I ate in more foreigner friendly places this wouldn’t happen, but I’ve been craving local Cantonese dishes, which also happen to be budget friendly. As a result, I often find that I am the only foreigner, to my knowledge, in these tiny little hole-in-the-wall joints. My fashion sense is a jumble of SoCal and NYC influences. Since I’m in Hong Kong, this isn’t an immediate tell of my American upbringing. Surprisingly my haircut isn’t drawing the double takes that it did in Italy. My height and build don’t either. Honestly, I was expecting my foreignness to be more visible than it’s been. But now that I realize it’s not as obvious as I assumed, I want to take advantage of my ability to pass as a Hong Konger.
It’s not that I’m self-conscious of not being a local, it’s just that people behave differently once they know I’m a foreign. For one, shopkeepers and waiters are significantly less helpful once they realize I can’t speak Cantonese fluently. Their speech, in English, becomes terse as they tell me they don’t have whatever I’m asking for, their eyes ready to roll back into their heads as I ask another inane question. However, when I’m able to use my extremely limited Canto and at least fake fluency, I’m always addressed as Miss, my order is taken efficiently without pressure to order additional items.
This hierarchy of languages is an interesting one, considering Hong Kong’s colonial past. Cantonese is by far the most helpful, followed by English. If you can speak Mandarin, I wouldn’t recommend using it; you’re probably better off speaking in English. Mandarin gives a distinctly “mainlander” impression which doesn’t earn you the respect or friendliness of locals. I don’t necessarily support this behavior, but it’s true that the older generations often don’t speak English, much less Mandarin. As a tourist, a little bit of Cantonese can get you a lot farther than you expect, especially if you find yourself stuck in a less touristy/expat-dominated neighborhood.