Exile on Chinese People Street

Ping calls, and wants to know what I’ve been up to all these months in Hong Kong. Well, I say, for one thing, writing this blog. “Hey, you ought to write something about Cantonese insults,” he suggests. “We have such wonderful insults.” I say that I don’t think I know enough insults to fill a whole article, and he says, don’t worry, he knows some good ones, like:

“You starve your wife until she’s dead and her corpse stinks up the house!”

We arrange to meet for lunch in Chinatown, for further discussion.

It’s my first time back in C-town since my return. I’ve been a basket case this past week dealing with the fallout of my extended absence from New York–five months of accumulated mail, leaky faucets, broken appliances, an overdue jury duty notice. Way too exhausted to trek out to New York City’s Cantonese-speaking enclave. Besides, there’s another problem I have now with New York’s Chinatown. An unexpected one.

I discovered it the last time I came back to New York City in October. A friend was throwing a big birthday party and had taken over a small Cantonese restaurant for the occasion. It was, by New York standards, a good Cantonese restaurant.

But, at the banquet, my spirits sank lower with the arrival of each dish. The dao miu was way too haam, too salty. The sauces were shiny from too much added cornstarch. The noodles lacked that perfect chewy texture and resiliance that is the hallmark of the proudly handmade Hong Kong noodle.

Everybody at the banquet was raving about the food. Including–to my astonishment– the only other guest besides me who had just flown in from Hong Kong. Madame Tong is a society taai-taai, a perfectly-coiffed Hong Kong lady who always wears a string of pearls and re-applies her lipstick at the table between every other course. I’m acquainted with her because she’s part of a group of fanatical Hong Kong foodies. Really fanatical. They fly together to Tokyo on weekend eating junkets, and coordinate their travel schedules so they can meet up at fabuloso international restaurants with months-long waiting lists, like French Laundry in California, and El Bulli in Spain.

Some of my most memorable eating adventures in Hong Kong–like a visit to a private Shanghainese club dining room–have been courtesy of Madame Tong and her circle of gourmands. So when I saw her smiling and making approving comments about dishes that, in my opinion, would barely have passed muster at a Hong Kong cha chaan teng, I started wondering if I’d had a few too many glasses of baak jau.

Then I looked down at Madame Tong’s bowl. The noodles in it had been delicately re-arranged, and perhaps nibbled ever so slightly. If that. She was praising the food, but not eating it. Ah, but of course. Madame Tong’s manners are as impeccable as her coiffure and lipstick.

“Let’s face it, you’re spoiled,” laughs Ping, as we sit down to lunch. “You have been in Hong Kong for too long.”

“Yeah,” I say ruefully. “I can never eat Chinese food in this town again!”

That’s why Ping–who grew up in Chinatown– has taken me to a not-quite-Chinese restaurant. Talk about Asian fusion. The chef is from Toisan, menu is pan-Chinese, the waiter Thai, and we’re sitting next to a big, noisy party of Cantonese people having an American-style wedding shower.

The Thai waiter brings us a basket of cha siu bao. In place of the usual barbecue pork, the buns are filled with truffle-oil-laced fois gras. Each of the puffy white balls has a dusting of gold leaf pressed into the open X at the top.

I take a bite, and suddenly feel dizzy, lost and dislocated, like I’m falling backwards on a moving escalator. From the outside, the bun looks almost exactly the same as my favorite Hong Kong comfort food, but the filling tastes bizarre to me. It’s too dry, too salty, too…

“I like them,” says Ping, who has shared baskets of cha siu bao with me on Mott Street in Chinatown, and in Wan Chai in Hong Kong. He sees my discombobulated look, and chuckles. “What you have to do is let go of the idea that this is going to taste anything like the pork buns you know. Forget about those Hong Kong cha siu bao.

But I can’t. My Hong Kong life has forever changed my experience of Chinatown.

Five years ago, when I first started to study Cantonese, I spent most of my free time roaming around in Tong Yan Gaai–“Chinese People Street” is what Cantonese call Chinatown. Two or three times a week I’d climb the dusty stairs of a tenement on Grand Street to have classes with my teacher from Guangzhou, Mr. Wen. Afterwards, I’d hang around Chinatown and study my lessons in a cha chaan teng, order some naaih cha and eavesdrop on people’s conversations, wondering if the day would ever come when I could make sense of any of them.

And now, to my amazement, here’s the day. The woman at the bridal shower table is saying that her friend is going to be late. A child is whining for some ho lok, Coca Cola. I’m hearing all these things without trying, they just enter my ear and register in my brain. I’ve always liked the Cantonese expression for understanding a language. It is “sik teng”–a combination of the two words that mean “know” and “hear”.

I know how to hear Cantonese.

It’s a shock to realize this. Lately in Hong Kong, I‘ve been beating myself up about how my language skills have been sliding from bad to worse, especially since I’ve started to write these stories on the blog. The irony of writing about Cantonese is that the act of writing plunges me deeper and deeper into English. There’s no room for another language. And life, and conversation, moves so fast in Hong Kong. I grab onto the thread of a conversation, but the minute I relax my grip it runs away from me. The chatter in the streets speeds by in a blur, like scenery glimpsed from the window of a train.

Today, that’s not happening. I walk across Canal Street, down Mott, around Bayard and to the little park across the street from the ban yi gun, the row of Chinese funeral homes on Baxter Street. Not only can I sik teng–it’s like my ear has turned into a radio receiver with an extra-sensitive antenna. The two people in front of me, I know, are speaking in Shanghainese. The lady selling toys on the Mott Street sidewalk speaks gruffly, and I know her speech is in Mandarin. I order a milk tea to go from an old lady behind a shop counter and she says “naaih cha” in the proper way, with an “n” sound, instead of the lazy “l” sound of the modern Hong Kong accent.

Has my Cantonese ability suddenly taken a great leap forward now that I’m 8,000 miles from Hong Kong? No, I don’t think so. I think what’s happened is that I’ve entered a Cantonese language landscape that is closer to my learning level. In Hong Kong, my friends are all writers, politicians, artists. They speak Cantonese like I speak New York English–fast, sophisticated, wise-cracking, and laced throughout with local references and shorthand. I’ve been measuring my progress, or lack thereof, against a very high bar. No wonder I feel depressed about it most of the time.

The noodles here in Chinese People Street are second rate. But in Chinatown, I can read the menus, and hear the conversations. I’m not helplessly grasping at a moving target. And that’s a good thing, I think, as I press forward on the long march called Learning Cantonese.

I’m not going to forget about those Hong Kong cha siu bao. Anyway, I’ll have them back soon enough. In the meantime, maybe I should give those truffle fois gras buns another try.

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