The question most of my students of Cantonese ask me after "How much per lesson?" is "How long will it take to learn the language?" That's like asking "How long is a piece of string?", because, obviously, it varies greatly, depending on the attitude, aptitude and thick skin of the learner.

I tell them it normally takes more than a month, which frightens many. Still, the language is so easy you can learn an amazing amount in only a couple of hours. For the jet-setting, frequent-traveller expat I have devised a collection of crash courses in topics such as "Small Talk with Your Neighbour", "Drinking in Bars" and "Arguing with Taxi Drivers", craftily packing all of the grammar into the first page.

"Ordering beer by saying, 'One beer, please', isn't that rude?" my students want to know. I'm sometimes amazed at certain nationalities' ability to turn any given situation into an etiquette minefield. "No, it's OK; waiters and barmen expect to be asked - in Cantonese - to serve beer," I explain. "But there are so few words, I want to say, 'Could I possibly trouble you to …'" they insist.

Maybe "one beer, please" is rude in English, but it certainly isn't in Cantonese. It's just how the language is: succinct, terse and requiring four words to express what you'd need 20 words for in English. Politeness, like humour, doesn't really translate.

Having said that, when I arrived in China from reserved, undemonstrative and unprofuse Norway in 1988, I did find some aspects of social interaction baffling. Baffling, but wonderful. For example, wherever I went, people would gather around me and gawp as if I were a rock star. "Heh, this is great," I thought, although I didn't find people crowding around me to watch me eat quite as appealing.

I also found it … culturally different … when people came up and took a good look, not to say rummage around, in my handbag. It wasn't that they were trying to take things from me, you understand (stealing from foreigners was severely frowned upon in the 1980s, to the point where restaurant staff would come running after you with any tip you may have left), they just wanted to check it out. They also asked me how much money I made, how old I was and how much I weighed.

Gone are the days when people would crowd around a foreigner, unfortunately. Luckily, I have the Cantonese language to fall back on. That's still good for a good gather-and-gawp, in China and Hong Kong.