Even though the island is just a stonesthrow from mainland China, I cannot underestimate how different it has been living in Hong Kong the past 2 days. The thriving metropolis bustles with a with an energetic international crowd; salesmen offering tailor made suit coupons, a diverse selection of cuisines, and the occasionally overheard English comment constantly remind us that we are no longer in China. Although the city’s release back to China in 1997 and subsequent partial autonomy are considered the official end of the British Empire, the cultural ties interwoven over time have not been broken and continue to be expressed through the vibrant city. The economic foundation of the city, finances and banking, were initially propelled by the British’s use of Hong Kong for importation and exportation during a period of extreme industrialization in China during the 1950’s. Not to mention, they still drive on the left side of the road.
But just because they have not relinquished their English ties, does not mean that they are any less Chinese. The official languages are English and Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese often revered as being unchanged by western influence, as Mandarin was. Although I have been a student of Mandarin for years and known that the two languages differed verbally, I did not imagine that would be so disparate. The foreign syllables and tones of Cantonese sound far more similar to Vietnamese than Mandarin. With this in mind I hoped that I would at least be able to read the written characters that the two languages share; to my dismay the characters plastered throughout Hong Kong are written primarily in Traditional, as opposed to Simplified, Chinese, reducing my lingual capabilities back to miming and English. If things weren’t confusing enough, during a visit today to the nearby Chinese gambling capital of Macau, an alternate set of colonial influences led us to communicating with our waiter with alternating turns of English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Portuguese.
Although the change in communication has proven slightly different, the various cultures available at our fingertips makes up for any trouble we’ve had so far. As it turns out, Rob and I are pretty good at English and that’s been working out just fine too.
– Alex Yeagle