In the Space Between Do Jeh and M'Goi

I'm still discombobulated from my travels and trying to get back into the Hong Kong swing. The computers I used while in India didn't have Chinese character fonts loaded, so I experienced pretty much of a local news blackout. But now, after a week of total immersion in Apple Daily and TVB, I'm catching up.

It's amazing what you risk missing by being out of town. This week, for instance, I learned that last Thursday's televised Q and A between Chief Executive Donald Tsang and Don Quixote Alan Leong was as important an event for Hong Kong as America's Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. (Only one little difference, really. Americans could actually vote for the candidate of their choice. Hong Kong citizens just get to read public opinion surveys and watch boring sound bites over and over on Cable TV news).

And now today, on Apple Daily's front page, right below a horrible account of a bus crash that killed five Chinese in India, I see a headline that chills me to the bone:

Lo Seui Sihk Mat Ji Ngaam. How can it be? That delicious, rich brown stewing sauce that infuses tofu with a delicate fragrance, and turns a humble roast goose into a dish fit for emperors in bow ties...causes cancer?! But the Apple Daily report states a Taiwanese research study says this is so, and the newspaper has made this alarming news their Sunday edition lede. So it must be true.

Or it must be a really, really slow news day.

Either way, I'm screwed. Not because I love lo seui stewed food (which I do), but because this is yet another piece of information that will be used as ammunition against me in the ongoing struggle known as Get Leung Kwok Hung to Quit Smoking.

I know that this is a campaign that has even less chance of success than Alan Leong's candidacy. But still I persist, along with many of Long Hair's other friends and colleagues. The problem is that Leung has an answer for every objection you raise to his deadly habit, and most of them have to do with food.

"Smoking isn't so bad. Do you know you can die from eating too much siu yeh? Barbecue causes cancer."

"Smoking isn't so bad. Do you know you can die from eating
cha siu bau?

..etc., etc. And, sigh, now lo seui will go into Leung's mix, thanks to the efforts of Hong Kong's number one pro-democracy newspaper.

I'm not the only one concerned about Leung Kwok Hung's health and well being, it seems. Just the other day, a few hours after Long Hair was tackled to the ground by the security goons at the Great Chief Executive Debate for pointing out (loudly and accurately) that the whole event is a sham, he received a phone call from CE Donald Tsang. Tsang was calling to enquire solicitously if Long Hair was hurt.

I know about this not because Long Hair told me, but because this information, and an account of the phone conversation that supposedly followed, appeared in Donald Tsang's own campaign blog.

How did you know Tsang Yam Kuen called me? Long Hair sounded surprised when I called to ask him if it really happened. I told him that I read it in the paper (all the Chinese press dutifully copied the tidbit from Donald's blog). But I didn't tell anybody about it  he said. And no reporter called to check the story with me.

Long Hair said the first part of Donald's account was true. But the conversation was very short. Long Hair told the CE that he wasn't hurt, mouh sih, that it was nothing. And then he added, Yauh sam, yauh sam, yauh sam.." Which means, literally, "(You) have heart."

"Have heart" is one of those lovely Cantonese expressions of politeness. In this situation, "yauh sam" is perfect--it is exactly what you are supposed to reply when anyone enquires about your health or your family. You let them know what a nice person they are for thinking about you. It's a typically Chinese politeness strategy, to deflect a kind word away from oneself by sending a compliment back to the other person. I think I learned yauh sam in the second or third chapter of "Speak Cantonese, Book One."

Cantonese has a rich vocabulary of politeness, but it is slipping away in Hong Kong. Things move too fast, nobody has time for such roundabout, back and forth chit chat. Long Hair, who was raised in the 1960s, still has the old ways. It says a lot to me about his character that his immediate reflex is to say yauh sam even to his sworn enemy.

It also says a lot about Donald Tsang that his immediate reflex, after making a kindly private gesture, is to inform the public about it on his campaign blog.

So, I am in the middle of telling all this to my friend Anh-thu while we're riding a taxi to Causeway Bay to have lunch, and then the cab pulls up to th
e curb. I don't have any small change, so Anh-thu whips out a couple of spanking new post-Chinese New Year's $10 bills (there's a glut of small change circulating in Hong Kong at the moment, because of all those crisp $10 and $20 slipped into millions of red lai see packets).

And as she collects the change, she says to the driver, "Do jeh."

Anh-thu is Vietnamese-American, raised in Portland. She speaks fluent Mandarin, and has picked up lots of Cantonese from living in Hong Kong. She's not bad at all, and has a good accent, and I'm happy to hear her speaking Cantonese because sometimes she's a little shy about it.

So I hesitate for a moment before telling her about her goof.

"Anh-thu, you don't say do jeh when you're collecting change from a taxi driver."

Really? It's an m'goi? But he's giving you money.

Yeah, I say, but it is your money he's handing back. So it's a "m'goi situtation".

Now that all of you non-Cantonese speakers are completely bewildered, let me explain: One of the big differences between Cantonese and Mandarin is that Cantonese has two ways of saying thank you. Actually, Cantonese may be one of a handful of languages on the planet where a single "thank you" phrase, like the Mandarin shieh shieh will not work in every circumstance.

There are two ways of thanking people in Cantonese, and figuring out which one to use in which situation is one of the hardest things to get right, because the usage depends on culture and context, not on anything you can study and learn. I suppose it is similar to knowing when and how to use the "tu", or familiar form in a Romance language.

Anyway, I have the basics down. Sort of. Do jeh is a formal expression of gratitude. It should rise to your lips instantly the minute someone hands you a present. It is required, as well, whenever anyone hands you money (unless it is your money already, as in the cab driver scenario above). When a clerk at 7 11 takes your $20 bill payment for a bottle of iced tea, he must say "do jeh".

But when he hands you the change, you should answer with the other Cantonese thank you word, m'goi.

is a "Thank You Lite". It literally means, "no need", it's nothing, really. Just to confuse the issue, m'goi can also be used in an active manner wher
e it morphs into something like a "please"--you can use the phrase to politely call for the waiter at a restaurant.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Do jeh for presents and money (but not change collecting), m'goi for everything else.

Unfortunately, there is a vast and uncharted sea between do jeh and m'goi and I am usually adrift in this Bermuda Triangle of politeness.

For instance, what do you do with intangible gifts, like a compliment? I used to say m'goi, because do jeh seemed to be so wrapped up with the material (presents, money). Then I noticed other Cantonese would say do jeh when I'd tell them how nice they looked that day.

Whoops. So compliments went into the  do jeh column.

I'm still totally at sea, however, about what to say when people go out of their way to help you, or do kind things for you. If my friend reviews my composition for errors, should I do jeh him? If David comes over to fix my sink, will he be offended if I just say m'goi?

And if the Chief Executive's security goons tackle me to the ground when I stand up to remind everyone that Hong Kong's "election" is a farce, and then the CE calls me later to find out if I got hurt, should I do jeh or m'goi? (Or write about it on my blog?)

It's a lonely and confusing place to be, lost between a thank you and a thank you. But, thanks (m'goi?) to Long Hair, at least I know exactly how to handle this last linguistic situation with confidence: Mr. Chief Executive, yauh sam!

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  • 3/5/2007 5:00 PM spacehunt wrote:
    I think the m'goi/do jeh difference is a bit simpler than what you've described. It's more of a goods vs services rendered. m'goi is for thanking someone for a service, like thanking the driver for the taxi service; and do jeh is for thanking someone actually giving assets to you -- I chose not to say objects because as you've discovered, money and even information are do jeh situations.
    Reply to this
    1. 3/5/2007 5:43 PM dm wrote:
      Ah, the difference between the native speaker and the struggling outsider is that what seems completely simple and self evident to the former remains a mysterious puzzle to the latter!

      I like the distinction you make between services and assets. But what about the friend who does something for you completely beyond the call of duty--like saves your life? Do you just shrug and say, "m'goi saai, leih"?

      And, if information is an "asset", and therefore a "do jeh", then should I do jeh the stranger in the street who gives me directions to the MTR station?

      Like I said, this thank you stuff really separates the native speakers from the students.

      Reply to this
      1. 3/7/2007 3:27 AM spacehunt wrote:
        Hmmmm... you got me there. As a (not so) native speaker I indeed haven't given this topic much thought; and as Tholf observed we do act on instinct. Perhaps it really is about moral indebtedness.

        Just trying to come up with a reasonable theory is giving me a headache... ;)
        Reply to this
  • 3/6/2007 12:10 AM anh-thu wrote:
    nice entry, as usual. just want to say i'm far from fluent in mandarin, but at least there's only one thank you to contend with. :-)
    Reply to this
  • 3/6/2007 9:48 AM siu82 wrote:
    What a detailed and insightful explanation! You can make a very good Cantonese teacher! =P

    I agree that the doh-je and m-goi distinction is not as simple as one between giving assets and providing services. I'd say it's rather the question of entitlement to the nice things/service given to you. If it's something you are reasonably entitled to, you say "m-goi", like when you're being served as a customer, or handed back your own money. But if it's something you don't have a right to, like when you're given a gift or a compliment, you say "doh-je".

    Hope this helps.
    Reply to this
    1. 3/6/2007 11:37 AM dm wrote:
      Where I get confused is the service thing. There are different degrees of service. What do you say to someone, acquaintance or friend, who does a nice thing for you?

      If a friend does me a big favor (like comes over to help me paint my flat, or recommends me for a job or other opportunity) then do I say "do jeh"? But if it is a small favor, like giving me some free software CDs they are no longer using, then is it just a "m'goi"?

      Reply to this
      1. 3/6/2007 1:02 PM siu82 wrote:
        I really had no idea Cantonese is so damn difficult until I read this entry. =D

        I'll just tell you what I'd say in those circumstances. But don't ask me why =P. I'd say "do-jeh-sai" to my friend who painted my flat, "ng-goi-sai" to the friends who recommend a job for me and give me free CDs they no longer use.

        Well... if I have to think of a generalising rule, it would be the same: If it's something that you can reasonably expect your friend to do as a friend, you say "m-goi", whereas if the favour is so big that it's outside his/her normal DUTY required by friendship, you say "doh-je". The same theory of "entitlement" applies.
        Reply to this
  • 3/6/2007 2:12 PM Tholf wrote:
    My approach is based on a balance sheet of moral indebtedness perspective:

    (i) if the act of the thankee creates some moral obligation of reciprocation on you (beyond that stated in (ii)), which may or may not require immediate reciprocation - dohhjeh

    (ii) if there is no moral obligation to the thankee beyond a polite "thanks" - m'goi.

    I've run this theory past my Cantonese fiance and her brother (both Australian raised but living in HK) and they think it works more or less, although they don't think of the distinction this way - they operate on instinct.

    I like this approach because it resonates with the face concept as I observe it in HK, but reality doesn't always neatly line up with neat theoretical constructs.
    Reply to this
  • 3/7/2007 5:54 AM Faisal wrote:

    Not directly related to today's post, but can you recommend where to get a few basics on the romantization of Cantonese? I can read pin yin but I don't know how to sound the extra 'h's and 'g's.

    Actually, maybe just a few examples would help too.

    Reply to this
  • 3/11/2007 10:55 AM chris wrote:
    ...Sorry, I'm coming late to this discussion: That's why I find "m'goi saai" (thank's very much) or even the more formal "m'goi saai neih" (thank you very much) a handy bridge between the two when I get stuck. I therefore keep "do jeh" for gifts or flattering compliments... and "do jeh" with raised clenched hands...and, well, add a quick nod and you're all there!
    Reply to this
  • 11/24/2007 10:35 AM Allen wrote:
    Cantonese is not alone in allowing two options of "thank you". Taiwanese, or South Fukienese, which is a variety of Chinese widely spoken in south China, Taiwan and SE Asian countries, and by the Chinese diaspora in parts of the US and Europe, has two ways of saying "thank you". Hui-hsin (費神) in Taiwanese is equivalent to m'goi in Cantonese; doh-hsia (多謝) or kam-hsia (感謝) in Taiwanese is equivalent to doh-jeh in Cantonese. So, within a single group of sub-languages of Chinese, there are at least two varieties -- Taiwanese and Cantonese -- that have more than one way of saying "thank you".
    Reply to this
    1. 11/24/2007 2:00 PM dm wrote:
      That's interesting, thanks for sharing that. I wonder if this is a trait of Southern Chinese languages? Does Chiu Chow or Fujianese have the same pattern?

      Reply to this
      1. 11/24/2007 3:07 PM Allen wrote:
        Chiu Chow is a sub-language under Taiwanese (or South Fukienese); what you call Fujianese is the same as (South) Fukienese, namely, what I call Taiwanese. You can tell that "Fujianese" and "Fukienese" are variant spellings of the same word.
        By the way, North Fukienese (or North Fujianese) is different from its South counterpart.
        Reply to this
  • 1/7/2008 11:12 PM TempsII wrote:
    Nice blog! I didn't even know that there were two thank yous... very interesting. I'll watch for more gold nuggets.
    Reply to this
  • 9/18/2008 7:27 PM Reese wrote:
    I have never heard before that "Have heart" is one of those lovely Cantonese expressions of politeness. In this situation, "yauh sam" is perfect--it is exactly what you are supposed to reply when anyone enquires about your health or your family. You let them know what a nice person they are for thinking about you. Thank you for useful information.
    Reply to this
  • 1/5/2009 5:49 AM P-Easy wrote:
    I'm Chinese myself and I still have a hard time deciding on either one.

    Here's an easy tip:

    Expected deeds - M'goi
    Unexpected ones - Do Jeh

    If people are doing an errand, favour, or job for you (which you had asked for it) you say "M'goi" to them. This is a sign of gratitude, aka a verbal tip.

    If people are giving you gifts, it's "Do Jie" (Translated to "Many thanks"). By saying that, you're showing your grateful appreciation to the giver.
    Reply to this
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