The first time you visit another country everything is new and notable. The sounds that chirp and chime at crosswalks are as foreign to your ears as the language. You find yourself laughing at signage that means something completely different at home than what the shopkeeper intended. But its a different experience when you are a repeat visitor. It’s easy to ignore what you’ve already seen before.
I explored a lot during my last visit. It gave me something to do. My visit this time is shorter and it is raining heavily. I am less compelled to go out and revisit the touristy spots I’ve seen before. But just because I am not walking around town doesn’t mean I am not adventuring. I am in Hong Kong after all. I just have to go out to a meal with a group of my colleagues to experience the great unknown.
A group of us went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. I was one of the very few Westerners present. My hosts eagerly scanned a menu written in characters I don’t understand. A waitress stopped by to take our order. I saw her look up at me with a raised eyebrow as my tablemates spoke in Cantonese. I heard several snickers. I consider myself an adventurous eater, but I will admit I grew a little suspicious at the exchange.
In Hong Kong, dishes are typically served as soon as they are ready, rather than waiting under a heat lamp until the whole order is completely. Each plate is designed to serve many in what we refer to in the US as family style. As the guest, you are expected to take your portion first while everyone else waits patiently. This can prove problematic if you aren’t exactly sure what it is you are expected to eat. What if it is supposed to only be a garnish? Oh you mean I am supposed to use that cup of water to wash my chopsticks instead of drinking it? To make matters worse, I hadn’t used chopsticks for awhile and my skills had grown rusty. The food would keep slipping back on the plate. I kept hoping that someone at the table would drop their good manners and dig in if only so that I could copy them, but as my luck would have it, they had all been raised properly.
Dish after dish arrived. Then I saw it. The dish I had suspected was coming was coming. Chicken feet. I pride myself on trying anything… once. But I’d already met that particular challenge and had no interest in repeating the experience. As I graciously declined one of my colleagues looked genuinely puzzled by my reaction. He asked me, “Don’t you live in the South? Isn’t this close to your cuisine?” I laughed thinking about things like gizzards and pickled pigs feet. For the record, I don’t eat those ‘delicacies’ either. Luckily there were plenty of other things on the table for me to try for the first time.
Gradually my chopstick skills came back to me and soon the majority of our plates were empty. I have no idea exactly what I ate today. I don’t tend to ask what the dish was unless it is something I would prefer to avoid in the future. I tend to find out I enjoy my meal more if I don’t have a preconception of the ingredients provided others are eating it with gusto as well. Included in the order had been food I’d never tried before, much of which was absolutely delicious. I may have been here before, and some of the novelty has worn off, but today I was able to try something new while being surrounded with good company. That is always an experience worth repeating, no matter how familiar the location.
- One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 3 – The Food Scene) (hongkongfong.com)
- Spoonbread: Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that (chicagoreader.com)
- How to Raise Adventurous Eaters (wnyc.org)