Breakfast in Cantonese

The Most Important Meal of the Day Is Also an Important Lesson in Linguistics

HONG KONG — I know where to get the best dim sum. I've printed out listings of swanky restaurants. I'm dreaming of street meat and cheap pastries, Portuguese egg tarts and piles of fresh seafood. And after a 4-hour flight from New York to San Francisco, a layover, a 13-hour flight, and a subway ride, I arrive in Hong Kong. I've never been here before, I have no family here, and I'm traveling alone. I have one week to eat and sightsee my brains out. It is 6 p.m. local time. I stumble into the humidity of the rainy season, clutching a map and dragging my tiny suitcase through a crush of shoppers and booths hawking jade pendants and salted octopi. The streets swell with the alien tones of Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese pretty much indecipherable to Mandarin speakers. I take a taxi to my friend's briskly air-conditioned apartment, do some sightseeing, and fall asleep at 11 p.m. Wake up at 6 a.m. The travel gods are smiling on me: no jet lag, and the weather is gorgeous. The first order of business is a real breakfast. No Starbucks coffee and definitely no Egg McMuffins. I want to eat in places where the chairs don't match and the menus are on the verge of falling apart. To me, nothing says authenticity like being mildly concerned about food safety. After wandering around the Admiralty district, I found myself in one of the countless hole-in-the-wall local eateries which served up breakfast for the requisite 16-22 HKD ($2-3). I tried out my Mandarin on the waitress. "Ni hui shuo yingyu huo shi putonghua ma?" I asked. Do you speak English or Mandarin? She replied in Mandarin. My ability to read Chinese was already poor, and all I could pick out was some choice vocabulary like "cow" and "noodles." "I can't really read," I try to explain to the waitress, who looks like she's smelled something foul. "Could you help me out?" She barks a few words out and just points to the options on the menu, then to some pictures. I'm not sure what corresponds to what. I give up on figuring out exactly what I'm ordering and relent to being surprised with whatever she slams down in front of me. The first is a tin cup of scalding, watery Ovaltine, followed by my surprise breakfast: a bowl of elbow pasta and beef swimming in a spicy broth studded with cabbage and salted vegetables. This is the quintessential Hong Kong breakfast. Even McDonald's and KFC serve noodle soups, usually with an inexplicable hunk of meat dropped in the mix. Instead of eggs and toast, you'd be more likely to have ramen with a hot dog thrown in. I leave happy and satiated, although unnerved by the waitress. Maybe she's just cranky, or maybe it's like France. As I wander around the city by foot, I stop at most restaurants to look at their menus. One waiter talks me out of ordering "pork cooked blood congee." ("Awful! Horrible!" he shudders.) From the ground, the city sometimes reminds me of Flushing, Queens, the less commercial sister of Manhattan's Chinatown, with bronze roast geese hanging by their necks in shop windows and improbable animals awaiting slaughter. But then, two blocks over, I wander into a mall and am suddenly lost between the Chanel store and Sephora. All of it is presented in incredible density: from Victoria Peak, you can see just how impossibly tiny the Hong Kong Island urban jungle is. Central's twinkling strip of tenements and skyscrapers line one bank of Victoria Bay while Tsim Sha Tsui, on the far side, is Central's equally slender but less dramatic companion. The manmade portion of Hong Kong is merely two shimmering halves of a wafer-thin cookie engulfed in mountains of green. On the third morning, I try breakfast again, ordering in Mandarin. Like the first waitress, this one glares and unhelpfully points to menus I can't read when I ask for help; she rolls her eyes when I ask for water, and she drops down my food with a tension that hangs in the air like the subtropical humidity here. I again give up on figuring out the menu, agree to something I don't understand, and end up with bowl of Ramen and pork chops. I wash it down with a painfully cloying iced tea. When I have a question in the bill, the employees seem to barely suppress the urge to explode at me. All romantic notions of lingering to sip and chat are gone. I pay my bill and leave, unsettled. What did I do? It becomes clearer on Saturday, when I end up at a yacht club party of professionals in their late twenties, mostly expats working in finance. After I get to the party, a group of us end up talking about languages. "I have one friend who always orders in English at restaurants, even though she speaks Mandarin," one woman recounted. "I asked her why, and she said it's because the service is noticeably better." "They hate it when you speak Mandarin to them," another person agrees. It dawns on me: the wait staff thinks I'm a local at first. Then I open my mouth, and they think I'm from mainland China, not hearing enough Mandarin to realize no native would speak with such atrocious grammar. It was something my travel guide hadn't prepared me for, that Hong Kongers don't view mainlanders too favorably. The next morning, I walk into another restaurant. I talk to the waitress in English. "Do you have an English menu?" I ask. They do. It's a peaceful breakfast. —Lingbo Li '11, a Crimson news editor, is a resident of Quincy House.