Learning Chinese | Restaurants and Unforgettable Foreigners
My Mandarin language study started off on the wrong foot, so to speak, when my teacher asked me if I had “some problem with your ear?”. Chinese is a tonal language, and well… I’m nearly tone-deaf (just listen to me sing). She insisted I couldn’t learn Chinese and suggested I try something easier like French or Spanish. My answer was “absolutely not”. I call it determination, although my husband might use a word like stubbornness. After all, in a country of 1.3 billion people certainly others suffer from tone deafness like me.
My A- in Beginning Chinese can only be attributed to my friend Natalie Zhaoying rescuing me from failure. She gave me great confidence in my ability (something she later regretted) that everywhere we went together I would practice a new sentence I’d learned, such as “Do you like American food or Chinese food” in a higher volume than our surroundings endorsed. (She still reminds me her embarrassment).
In August of 2008, I moved to China and would have told you, ”I can speak a little Chinese.”
Oh, I was wrong.
Acing Chinese tests did not even close to translate in country. I bumbled through the airport starring at the signs with a curious scowl. I was unable to read any other than the one with a picture of people running from a giant flame down the stairs or the one of a stick figure squatting over a hole in the ground. I attributed my illiteracy to a lack of sleep.
The cab driver opened his mouth to ask us where we wanted to go and out came what sounded like a string of vowels slurred together. I did not catch a single word. I spent one year of my life studying the language, but I didn’t cry just yet. I blamed my misunderstanding on jet lag.
I settled into my ‘luxurious’ apartment, started Chinese class, and began wondering if I would ever be able to understand the people surrounding me at every street corner– some touching my hair and face as if I was a life-size doll–and others pointing and elbowing their friends to look at the waiguoren foreigner. Waiguoren: that was at least one word I understood.
As I alluded to before, I am
stubborn determined by nature. I wasn’t about to give up. I said “ni hao” hello to almost every person I met on the street. I made friends with anyone who would put up with my smiling, nodding and nonsensical words. I listened to Chinese podcasts on crowded buses and on my bike rides to school.
And slowly, ever so slowly, my Chinese improved and people started to understand me. It felt magical, as if I’d entered JRR Tolkien’s the secret world of hobbits.
So there I was squatting on a stool at a local restaurant, my knees hanging over the top of the greasy table. Alone because I wanted to force myself to speak Chinese. I ordered 2 of my favorite foods: ”fish-flavored eggplant” and “empty-heart vegetable”. First step: success.
“Laobarrrr” [boss] I shouted over the Karaoke music coming from next door, raising my hand in the air to get the waitresses attention. I felt proud in learning the Chinese way of operating in a restaurant: raise your voice and yell what you want. No need for patience.
“Weishengjin,” I said, beaming I remembered the word for napkin.
She turned and looked at me and [much to my dismay] so did everyone else in the restaurant.
I looked around, considered the reason they were looking at me was probably because my Chinese was just THAT GOOD, and continued.
“Mafan ni dai wo weishengjin.” Could I trouble you to bring me some napkins?
The tiny woman’s cheeks flushed and she stated they did not have any wei-sheng-jin. Silence fell on the crowded restaurant. Each pair of eyes stayed on my nervous waiguoren self. I knew my pronunciation wasn’t perfect, but come on…can a girl get some napkins?
Then laughter started and I grew frustrated: “Weishenme ni pian waiguoren? Ni kending you weishengjin! Zhi shi fanguan!” Why are you messing with a foreigner? You definitely have napkins! This is a restaurant!
The waitress froze and laughter erupted rising like the billowing cigarette smoke and steam from the boiling water in the middle of the tables.
It wasn’t until much later…not seconds, not hours, but days later…when my Chinese friend told me just why they were laughing. I had demanded [in a loud voice] the waitress bring me menstrual pads.
“Why are you cheating a foreigner? You definitely have menstrual pads! Just bring me some. This is a restaurant, for goodness sake!”
I am most certain every person in that Chinese restaurant never forgot the “foreigner screaming for menstrual pads”. And it was only the beginning of my adventures in China. Oh I miss it!
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