(This post is authored by Simon Hu as a contributor as a part of the “Hong Kong as an Expat” series. If you are interested in contributing guest posts, please contact the blog owner, Jin Wong, with your details)
When I first came to Hong Kong, I thought that it would be an excellent opportunity to practice my Cantonese. I was proud that unlike other foreigners, I could find all of the hidden gems of Hong Kong. I spoke slowly with an American accent and my strange word choice made me unintentionally hilarious, but I could share all of my thoughts with a reasonable amount of precision and only a moderate amount of embarrassment.
As I started exploring Hong Kong, I found myself asking locals for directions in Cantonese all the time. Hong Kong is an ever-evolving city with constant construction. Streets were paved one after another without a coordinated plan. Worse, Hong Kong was built on rough terrain and to get anywhere, you have to walk up and down hills topped with concrete stairs. Often times, the fastest way to get from point A to point B is through a shopping mall. Sometimes, the only way to get where you need to go is a “sky bridge” overlooking a busy highway. As a result, I found myself lost all the time.
I thought that being lost would be the perfect opportunity to practice Cantonese, but as I happily asked for directions, locals would only offer vague answers and dirty looks. I was confused. Why was this happening? Was I being rude? Did they just not know the answer? Did I look ungrateful? Did I have bad breath? Why was everyone so very unhelpful?
Around the same time, I started dating a girl from Hong Kong. When we met up for dinner, I would often call her for directions. After around the sixth time, she got fairly annoyed.
“You have been in Hong Kong for months already. Why don’t you just use Google Maps?”
“I only have a BlackBerry and the streets are confusing.”
“That is no excuse and this is unacceptable. You need to stop asking me for directions every time we go out.”
Of course, she was right. I should have been more self-reliant. Around this time, I realized that everyone else probably had the same complaint, “Why are you asking me for directions when you could have looked it up yourself? You have been here for so long!” The fact that the streets were confusing was no real excuse. I was to blame. But wait! How did they know that I’ve been in Hong Kong for a while? Oh. That’s right. I spoke Cantonese.
I decided to test this. Maybe if I didn’t speak Cantonese, the expectations would be different and people would be helpful. Lo and behold! When I started asking people for directions in English, all of a sudden, everyone realized that I was pretty much a moron. They understood and sympathized with my situation. Not only would they provide slow, detailed answers, but they were also flattered! By asking them for directions, I was implying that they looked like they knew English. “Excuse me sir. You are incredibly well-dressed with a real sense of refinement. As a confused American, I believe that I could rely on you as an authority.” They happily obliged.
Of course, when I realized this, I also became good enough with maps and sky bridges that I stopped asking for directions. Nonetheless, the lesson was clear. In Hong Kong, the language that you speak is an important indication of who you are and what you can get away with. As my girlfriend kindly reminds me, “Please don’t speak English. They’re going to charge us more.”