-Submitted by Zac Schwartz, Abroad101′s Global Ambassador in Hong Kong
Let’s talk lingo. Hong Kong is a melting pot of different cultures and people, but when it comes down to the basics, there are three main spoken languages: English, Putonghua (Mandarin), and Cantonese. While the lingua franca is broken English, the language spoken by the majority of people here is Cantonese, which is also the main language in the Guangdong Province of Southern China. People who can speak Putonghua cannot necessarily understand people who can speak Cantonese, and vice-versa. The written languages are almost identical but the phonetic spoken languages are different. Cantonese is more difficult to speak, as it has nine tones, in comparison to Mandarin’s four tones.
For an expat living in HK, you do not need much knowledge of Cantonese to get by. There will be some times when you want to rip your hair out because the taxi driver does not know where to take you or the server brings you the incorrect dish. However, these minor inconveniences can be dealt with rationally on a case by case basis by simply recruiting an innocent local bystander to translate for you. I do not speak Cantonese, so I often find myself applying colorful sign language for the essentials: food, directions, and toilet. While my Asian language skills have not improved here in Hong Kong, my sign language skills have become rather advanced.
When I was living in Paris, France a few months ago, I wrote a blog post about my personal Français vocab essentials (see here). I now present to you my Cantonese linguistic essentials. They are far more logical than my French buzz phrases, most likely because my lifestyle in Hong Kong is far different from my lifestyle in France. Also, Cantonese is ridiculously difficult for a Westerner to speak, as it is a multi-toned language that sounds like the slow-motion roars a giraffe would let out if you dropkicked it from behind.
When thinking about the Cantonese language, one word and one word only comes to mind: mmgoy. This ubiquitous double-m term is used more times per capita than rice grains eaten per second (which in case you didn’t get the hint is A LOT). Mmgoy has a plethora of meanings, mainly thank-you, please, and excuse me. If you mimic sounds that a car exhaust pipe makes and add in ‘mmgoy’ every syllables, you might just be mistaken for a native Canto speaker! There are many occasions in which you can inject mmgoy into your daily vernacular. If you’re in a rush heading to the Hong Kong MTR subway and the crowds are moving slowly, then shout mmgoy and they will make way. If you are in a cha chaan teng restaurant for tea and toast, proclaim mmgoy to the waitress after she brings you your overly buttered bread. Finally, the most important usage of the term comes on the bus. On many Hong Kong mini busses, there is no way to tell the bus driver to stop unless you ask him in Cantonese. So, you must shout: ‘yau lok mmgoy!’ and he will know that he must stop at the next bus stop. If you can’t master this simple phrase, then be prepared for a very long ride to the end of the bus line, or a very expensive weekly cab bill. Not a cunning linguist? Then feel free to adapt the term to your every day life. For instance: “That mochi ice cream was delicious. Mmmmmmgoy!”
Besides ‘lei hou’ which means ‘hello,’ another Cantonese phrases that stand out to me is ‘sun hi ga?!’ This means ‘really?!’ It is always fun to startle a group of local Hong Kong people by exclaiming this phrase while they are in a deep Canto convo. It also freaks them out when they hear a waiguoren (foreigner) pick up a phone squeeling “WHY,” which is how Cantonese-speaking people answer the phone. If you are in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year, then don’t forget to say ‘kung hei fat choy’ to the locals, which means ‘Happy New Year!’ If you say this to a respected adult or newly married couple, then they will be forced to reward you with a small red envelope filled with a small sum of HKD cash.
So there you have it fellow travelers and travel enthusiasts, my Cantonese essentials, or ‘Cantictionary’ if you will. To read more about my travels, check out my personal travel blog: Le Dumpling