HONG KONG – When gift-wrapped an opportunity to live in an exotic land, even for a limited period of time, I figure why not embrace the local culture as fully as possible. Well, perhaps I try too hard.
On my first Friday night back in Hong Kong, I just had to return to one of my favorite activities from last year: joining a small group of long-term expats in their Friday-night ritual of dining and drinking.
The best part of the ritual, aside from the company (of course) is the setting: a dai pai dong, the traditional outdoor street restaurant that are gradually fading from the Hong Kong scene. Even better, this one, located in the working-class district of Fo Tan, north of downtown, sets up shop at the end of the day in a bus station parking lot – and specializes in grilled pigeon.
The place is so authentic, so local, that even as he saw me stride across the lot to his tent-covered restaurant, the t-shirt-wearing host energetically motioned me toward where my party was sitting. He knew. We were the only Westerners in there, so how could he guess otherwise.
The gang was already into the Tsingtao and Yuengling beer, with a bowl of shelled, salty peanuts among them. I’ve already waxed poetic about my yen for chopsticks. In this case, I didn’t think twice to wield them to pluck peanuts, one by one. I hadn’t seen the group ringleader, Aussie John Patkin, since last year. My peanut-with-‘stick routine was too much for him to resist.
“Michael, you’re so gwailo,” he said with a laugh.
Spot on. Gwailo is a Cantonese term traced to the 16th century, which local Chinese used to describe the Westerners in their midst. It translates to “ghost man.” Or the more colorful foreign devil. Which is rather derogatory, I’m told. Kinda like when American blacks called whites “Honky.” From John, though, it was an incisive and witty observation: as if I’m acting “more Catholic than the Pope.” Going overboard. We laughed, and the merriment continued.
Later, as I made sure to pick clean every flavorsome plate – again, my opportunities for local cuisine are precious few – I saw the tastiest morsel remaining on our boiled fish. At least, that’s what the Chinese tell me is tastiest: the cheek. I dug in with my chopsticks, prying loose a coin-sized piece of pure white. Watching it all was John, smiling, shaking his head side to side.
“So gwailo,” he sighed.