Thursday, July 4, 2013

Meals and Mistakes

"I'll just have water."

I didn't want to be any trouble. I was so grateful for everything they'd done for me. They were so kind and hospitable the weekend I visited their house- even though we couldn't really talk to each other because of the language barrier. See, I only spoke a few words of Chinese. Their daughter, my friend, translated for us.

So when they asked what I wanted to drink, I said, "I'll just have water." That's what you say in America if you want to not be any trouble.

Too bad we weren't in America...

I knew 水 (shuǐ) meant water. But after saying in English, "I'll just have water," I didn't say "水 (shuǐ)." I said "冰水 (bīng shuǐ)," or "cold water."

Because let me explain to you the biggest difference between the United States and China (okay, in my opinion...). In China, they drink hot water. Like, the same temperature as tea and coffee. Hot water and hot milk, and it really drove me crazy. So when you ask for water at a restaurant, they'll give you hot water, because that's the normal way to drink water in China.

So, upon arriving in China that summer, I had quickly learned that as an American, what I really wanted was not 水(shuǐ) but 冰水 (bīng shuǐ). Cold water.

WELL SUDDENLY IT WAS A REALLY BIG DEAL. THE BIGGEST DEAL EVER. I couldn't understand Chinese, but I knew they were all talking among themselves about how ridiculous this was. "冰水 (bīng shuǐ)? Really? Why does she want 冰水 (bīng shuǐ)? What are we going to do, where are we going to get 冰水 (bīng shuǐ)? Seriously? She wants 冰水 (bīng shuǐ)???"

My friend, her parents, and the waitress, all in confusion about what to do with my completely bizarre request. Oh geez. I was trying NOT to be trouble. If I had known it would be such a big deal, I would have asked for something else.

Eventually the waitress came out with a bottled water for me.

Four Americans went out to get lunch. None of us spoke Chinese.

The waitress tore a page off her pad of paper. The whole menu was printed on it, and we had a pen to check off the dishes we wanted. Yes, it was all in Chinese. No pictures. Normally the menus had pictures, and we just pointed to what we wanted! What would we do...?

I knew the Chinese character for cow (牛(niú), my favorite one because I love milk!) so I identified all the beef dishes. Beyond that, nobody had any idea. We guessed that the cheaper things were vegetables and the expensive ones were meat. Finally, after a long discussion and lots of laughing at ourselves, we just checked off a bunch of things and handed the paper to the waitress, who kept talking to the Asian-American member of our group, who didn't speak Chinese.

While waiting for our food to come, a nearby table was served. One of my friends looked over and said, "We should have ordered that!" I said, "Maybe we did."

As it turns out, we had ordered beef dumplings and soup. Everything went better than expected.

Homemade Chinese dinners were filled with so many delicious and strange foods. I was so happy. But I remember many times where I had no idea how to even eat the food- I had never seen it before. Maybe it was chicken with bones in it, and I wasn't sure what to do.

By this time, I had learned Chinese, and was talking with my friend and her parents a lot. I attempted to explain my confusion over how to eat the chicken- I said in Chinese that it was kind of hard to eat.

Huge mistake. I said it was "难吃(nán chī)," which doesn't mean "this is hard to eat because I don't know where to start." Nope, it means "hard to eat" as in "this food is terrible." And that's Chinese 101 stuff! I had learned "难吃(nán chī)" long before this- I just totally wasn't thinking when I said it.

Yeah so I actually did that on several occasions before I realized I was being terrible. Ohhhhh wow. That was really bad. From then on, I used the phrase "I don't know how to eat this" instead.

"Do you have this in America?" We were at the grocery store, picking out vegetables, and my friend's mother kept asking me, in Chinese, about which vegetables were available in America.

It was kind of surprising to me. I walk into the produce section and think, "This one is a completely weird vegetable I have never seen in my life. And that one is broccoli." But to her, all of them were normal. I guess it showed me how I subconsciously assume American is normal and is everyone's reference point when encountering non-American cultures. Haha. Nope.

Oh, China. All the food, all the meals, all the mistakes I made and the things I learned. I learned how little I know and how much I needed people to help me. What would I have done without all my Chinese friends who put up with all my misunderstandings and the odd things I said and did?

Oh, China. I'm moving back there as soon as I can.

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