Literally, “Have you eaten rice yet?” [sihk jó faahn meih a? 食咗飯未呀?] is a common greeting, the equivalent of “how are you?” in English.
It is not exclusive to Hong Kong Cantonese. Across Asia, where food – in particular, rice – is central to the culture, and where one’s well-being is traditionally contingent on the community’s sustenance, one finds the same traditional “have you eaten (rice) yet/already?” greeting: in Burmese (sa: pi: bi: la:?), Chiuchow (jia bung meh ?), Khmer (nham bay howie nov ?), Korean (bap meogeosseoyo ?), Malay (sudah makan ?), Malayalam (cho¯rrun . t. o¯?), Putonghua (ch I ¯ fàn le ma?), Sinhalese (bath kavatha?), Tagalog (kumain ka na ba?), Taiwanese (jia˘ bà bua¯i?), Thai (thaan khâo láew re¯u yang?), Vietnamese (a˘n co ’ m chu ’ a?).
However, different cultures, or speech communities, have different norms. Recognising that such a formula is a greeting, part of phatic communication, rather than a request for detailed information or an actual invitation to dine, is part of communicative competence – our ability to connect with others on the basis of shared cultural norms and familiarity with social context and conventions. The same goes for the English “how are you?” being understood as a greeting and not a question about the details of one’s health. Cultural differences also abound in the response: in the Philippines, this formulaic greeting can still lead to a meal together.
The flow of cultural influences is multidirectional. On the one hand, such patterns of cultural discourse have influenced some Asian Englishes, with greetings of “Eat already?” widely used in Singapore and “Have you eaten na ba?” in the Philippines, and leave-taking phrases, such as “I’ll go and come”, translated from Sinhalese, as part of Sri Lankan English. “Have you eaten?” expressions are so ubiquitous in Asian cultures that they have in recent years been used as titles of television series and themes for art exhibitions.
Conversely, traditional “have you eaten?” greetings are starting to give way to translations of “good morning”, “good afternoon”, “good evening” and “how are you?” uttered in the local language: ní ha˘o? means “how are you?” in modern standard Chinese. While often deemed by locals as odd or stilted, these newer expressions are gaining ground, and it remains to be seen whether “have you eaten?” will continue to be used by younger generations.
For now, I’ll go and come!