In the Space Between Do Jeh and M’Goi

I’m still discombobulated from my travels and trying to get back into the Hong Kong swing. The computers I used while in India didn’t have Chinese character fonts loaded, so I experienced pretty much of a local news blackout. But now, after a week of total immersion in Apple Daily and TVB, I’m catching up.

It’s amazing what you risk missing by being out of town. This week, for instance, I learned that last Thursday’s televised Q and A between Chief Executive Donald Tsang and Don Quixote Alan Leong was as important an event for Hong Kong as America’s Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. (Only one little difference, really. Americans could actually vote for the candidate of their choice. Hong Kong citizens just get to read public opinion surveys and watch boring sound bites over and over on Cable TV news).

And now today, on Apple Daily’s front page, right below a horrible account of a bus crash that killed five Chinese in India, I see a headline that chills me to the bone:

Lo Seui Sihk Mat Ji Ngaam. How can it be? That delicious, rich brown stewing sauce that infuses tofu with a delicate fragrance, and turns a humble roast goose into a dish fit for emperors in bow ties…causes cancer?! But the Apple Daily report states a Taiwanese research study says this is so, and the newspaper has made this alarming news their Sunday edition lede. So it must be true.

Or it must be a really, really slow news day.

Either way, I’m screwed. Not because I love lo seui stewed food (which I do), but because this is yet another piece of information that will be used as ammunition against me in the ongoing struggle known as Get Leung Kwok Hung to Quit Smoking.

I know that this is a campaign that has even less chance of success than Alan Leong’s candidacy. But still I persist, along with many of Long Hair’s other friends and colleagues. The problem is that Leung has an answer for every objection you raise to his deadly habit, and most of them have to do with food.

“Smoking isn’t so bad. Do you know you can die from eating too much siu yeh? Barbecue causes cancer.”

“Smoking isn’t so bad. Do you know you can die from eating cha siu bau?

..etc., etc. And, sigh, now lo seui will go into Leung’s mix, thanks to the efforts of Hong Kong’s number one pro-democracy newspaper.

I’m not the only one concerned about Leung Kwok Hung’s health and well being, it seems. Just the other day, a few hours after Long Hair was tackled to the ground by the security goons at the Great Chief Executive Debate for pointing out (loudly and accurately) that the whole event is a sham, he received a phone call from CE Donald Tsang. Tsang was calling to enquire solicitously if Long Hair was hurt.

I know about this not because Long Hair told me, but because this information, and an account of the phone conversation that supposedly followed, appeared in Donald Tsang’s own campaign blog.

How did you know Tsang Yam Kuen called me? Long Hair sounded surprised when I called to ask him if it really happened. I told him that I read it in the paper (all the Chinese press dutifully copied the tidbit from Donald’s blog). But I didn’t tell anybody about it  he said. And no reporter called to check the story with me.

Long Hair said the first part of Donald’s account was true. But the conversation was very short. Long Hair told the CE that he wasn’t hurt, mouh sih, that it was nothing. And then he added, Yauh sam, yauh sam, yauh sam..” Which means, literally, “(You) have heart.”

“Have heart” is one of those lovely Cantonese expressions of politeness. In this situation, “yauh sam” is perfect–it is exactly what you are supposed to reply when anyone enquires about your health or your family. You let them know what a nice person they are for thinking about you. It’s a typically Chinese politeness strategy, to deflect a kind word away from oneself by sending a compliment back to the other person. I think I learned yauh sam in the second or third chapter of “Speak Cantonese, Book One.”

Cantonese has a rich vocabulary of politeness, but it is slipping away in Hong Kong. Things move too fast, nobody has time for such roundabout, back and forth chit chat. Long Hair, who was raised in the 1960s, still has the old ways. It says a lot to me about his character that his immediate reflex is to say yauh sam even to his sworn enemy.

It also says a lot about Donald Tsang that his immediate reflex, after making a kindly private gesture, is to inform the public about it on his campaign blog.

So, I am in the middle of telling all this to my friend Anh-thu while we’re riding a taxi to Causeway Bay to have lunch, and then the cab pulls up to the curb. I don’t have any small change, so Anh-thu whips out a couple of spanking new post-Chinese New Year’s $10 bills (there’s a glut of small change circulating in Hong Kong at the moment, because of all those crisp $10 and $20 slipped into millions of red lai see packets).

And as she collects the change, she says to the driver, “Do jeh.”

Anh-thu is Vietnamese-American, raised in Portland. She speaks fluent Mandarin, and has picked up lots of Cantonese from living in Hong Kong. She’s not bad at all, and has a good accent, and I’m happy to hear her speaking Cantonese because sometimes she’s a little shy about it.

So I hesitate for a moment before telling her about her goof.

“Anh-thu, you don’t say do jeh when you’re collecting change from a taxi driver.”

Really? It’s an m’goi? But he’s giving you money.

Yeah, I say, but it is your money he’s handing back. So it’s a “m’goi situtation”.

Now that all of you non-Cantonese speakers are completely bewildered, let me explain: One of the big differences between Cantonese and Mandarin is that Cantonese has two ways of saying thank you. Actually, Cantonese may be one of a handful of languages on the planet where a single “thank you” phrase, like the Mandarin shieh shieh will not work in every circumstance.

There are two ways of thanking people in Cantonese, and figuring out which one to use in which situation is one of the hardest things to get right, because the usage depends on culture and context, not on anything you can study and learn. I suppose it is similar to knowing when and how to use the “tu”, or familiar form in a Romance language.

Anyway, I have the basics down. Sort of. Do jeh is a formal expression of gratitude. It should rise to your lips instantly the minute someone hands you a present. It is required, as well, whenever anyone hands you money (unless it is your money already, as in the cab driver scenario above). When a clerk at 7 11 takes your $20 bill payment for a bottle of iced tea, he must say “do jeh”.

But when he hands you the change, you should answer with the other Cantonese thank you word, m’goi.

is a “Thank You Lite”. It literally means, “no need”, it’s nothing, really. Just to confuse the issue, m’goi can also be used in an active manner wher
e it morphs into something like a “please”–you can use the phrase to politely call for the waiter at a restaurant.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Do jeh for presents and money (but not change collecting), m’goi for everything else.

Unfortunately, there is a vast and uncharted sea between do jeh and m’goi and I am usually adrift in this Bermuda Triangle of politeness.

For instance, what do you do with intangible gifts, like a compliment? I used to say m’goi, because do jeh seemed to be so wrapped up with the material (presents, money). Then I noticed other Cantonese would say do jeh when I’d tell them how nice they looked that day.

Whoops. So compliments went into the  do jeh column.

I’m still totally at sea, however, about what to say when people go out of their way to help you, or do kind things for you. If my friend reviews my composition for errors, should I do jeh him? If David comes over to fix my sink, will he be offended if I just say m’goi?

And if the Chief Executive’s security goons tackle me to the ground when I stand up to remind everyone that Hong Kong’s “election” is a farce, and then the CE calls me later to find out if I got hurt, should I do jeh or m’goi? (Or write about it on my blog?)

It’s a lonely and confusing place to be, lost between a thank you and a thank you. But, thanks (m’goi?) to Long Hair, at least I know exactly how to handle this last linguistic situation with confidence: Mr. Chief Executive, yauh sam!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s