Foodie faux pas aren’t just for expat children, discovers our mum of the month – a long-suffering expat wife, and mother to several energetic, third culture children.
So because we’re stuck in Hong Kong for the summer, it turns out we’re somewhat of a sitting duck for all sorts of visitors who have seen the junk pictures on Facebook and want to come and experience life in the territory.
“One of those boat days would be marvellous!” I can hear my husband’s school friend chortling into the phone all the way from North Somerset. “Fantastic! So if you could tee one of those up, and maybe some golf, that would be ideal!”
I mutter darkly about the heat and typhoons and all of the children being at home. July is really not the best time of year. But before I can finish, my husband is already regaling his friend with tall tales of pool parties at the club and hot nights in Lan Kwai Fong.
And so an arrival date is set and I duly warn our helper to make up goodness how many extra beds. This means the Boy Child will have to sleep on our bedroom floor for the foreseeable. Since the air con isn’t working in the Tween Child’s room (very complicated apparently, I’m no Cantonese speaker but even I got the drift that it’s going to take a while to be fixed), she’s also on a mattress in our bedroom. But no matter, you do eventually get used to waking up to a snoring child every morning. And lots of pairs of pants and stray flip flops lying all over the floor.
Then I go through the usual prep with the children, which mostly involves a long and laborious speech about their non-existent table manners.
And this is something I don’t understand about expat life. Or maybe it’s just my complete inadequacy as a mother, but picking up a knife and fork, cutting up food, raising said food to one’s mouth and chewing it quietly seems to be quite beyond the capabilities of my small brood. I do realise they have a lot of varied cultural influences here. But for some unknown reason, they seem incapable of picking up British-style.
“Can you please cut that first?” I say to the Teen Child, as she mindlessly aims a large chunk of rib-eye hanging precariously from the end of her fork towards her mouth as she scrolls through Snapchat with her other hand.
“Eh?” she grunts, momentarily distracted from her 175-day streak.
“Cut. The meat. First,” I add without much conviction.
“Please try and eat with a knife and a fork,” I beg.
They all look at me as if I’ve just landed from the moon.
Anyway, arrival day dawns and I duly traipse to the airport to meet the excited visitors. “Wow, it’s pretty warm, isn’t it?” they cry as we hug in the arrivals hall. Urm, actually the terminal is fairly well air conditioned.
“Bloody hell!” they exclaim as we steam through the electric doors into the muggy embrace of Car Park 1.
Back home, I help them find space in the wardrobes for the inappropriate but oh-so-English packing – cardigans and hoodies “for the evenings”, cagoules “just in case”, jeans for “cooler days”. (I find you can explain Hong Kong summers until you’re blue in the face, but you really do need to experience it at first hand to fully appreciate what “really quite hot” actually means).
And so the holiday continues with the predictable daytrips, but it’s fun, the visitors are enthusiastic and it’s a good excuse to get out and about.
After days of burgers at the club and evening BBQs by the pool, on the last night we whisk them over to our favourite beachside seafood restaurant. It turns out our friends’ children “love” Chinese food and often dine courtesy of the Golden Wok Takeaway in their local village. We bounce our way over on the restaurant boat and order beers aplenty on arrival while the kids study the menus. I know the Boy Child will go for heaps of fried rice and garlic prawns. The Teen Child is a big fan of steamed fish with soy and ginger.
“Eh?” suddenly grunts the eldest visiting child. “I can’t find the Chop Suey. I always get Special Chop Suey and chips and curry gravy. Mum?” he appeals, wafting the menu in front of my friend’s face.
“What’s Chop Suey?” interrupts the Blonde Child. “And why is it special?”
“Or Chicken Chow Mein,” adds the visiting child’s sister. “And there’s no sausage and chips. Or tandoori chicken skewers. Mum?”
“I think,” my friend counters weakly. “I think things may be a little different when you’re actually in China.”
We order as best we can and then have to call the waitress back to ask for forks. And then the youngest visiting child wonders if she can have a banana fritter for pudding.
“What’s a fritter?” asks the Blonde Child.
“Sometimes they bring out fresh lychees for dessert,” the Boy Child adds helpfully. This draws another blank with the visiting children, who apparently have no idea what a lychee might be.
But at least they don’t think Spanish omelette and chips is the gold standard of a Chinese menu.
And then I look over at my brood as they pluck deftly at the bowls of food with chopsticks, sip their Chinese tea and explain what char siu bau is. They may be incapable of operating a knife and a fork simultaneously. They might assume spaghetti bolognese is there to be slurped rather than twirled. But at least they don’t think Spanish omelette and chips is the gold standard of a Chinese menu. All in all, I think I’m doing an ok job.