More Things That Are Ridiculously Easier in Your Own Language: Food!

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It made sense in Vancouver

 

The other day, we decided to order dinner in from a kebab shop in our neighbourhood here in Leicester. The menu was online, but it wasn’t linked to any of those nifty websites that also let you place your order and pay in advance.

I’d have to call the kebab shop directly. And, like, talk to people.

After over a decade in faraway countries, I’ve come to automatically gird my loins and quietly rehearse what I would need to say to whoever answered the phone at the other end and try to anticipate what they might say and how I might reply to that.

There was always a lot to think about and more often than not, I just avoided ordering on the phone altogether.

Then I remembered, hey, whoa, I can do this in English.

Because, like, England.

Mind blown.

And the fact that I can read menus in restaurants and the instructions and ingredients on food packets suddenly makes everything really clear and understandable (for better or for worse).

I had forgotten what it was like to know what’s going on.

A number of weeks ago, as you may recall, I noted that getting a haircut was remarkably easier to achieve when not having to constantly memorize key phrases in [insert language here].

And being the apparently half-assed/failed expat that I am, the list of other things that are gleefully easier to accomplish in my own language has grown to ridiculous lengths in my mind, making me wonder how on earth I didn’t have a two-decade long extended nervous breakdown due to having to do pretty much everything in languages I never fully mastered (or, in the case of Mandarin, never even got past elementary).

I swear, I’ve spent at least the past ten years feeling more or less constantly incompetent. It’s nice, for now, to realize that I’m not as oblivious or infantile as I’d felt.

Like with grocery shopping.

 

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Yigong, ssssssigisssi

 

I like food. I like cooking. I’m a huge fan of eating. I like to think I’m at least somewhat adventurous when it comes to grabbing jars of mystery paste from the store shelf, giving it a sniff, and attempting to make something with it.

With Turkish, at least I was literate so with time I was able to expand my culinary repertoire without too much confusion. Mandarin, however, was another story.

Like, the fact that Shanghainese was just different enough from standard textbook Mandarin that I was always coming across as a total moron with my local veggie purveyors.

Pardon me, could I please have two jin of tomatoes, that cabbage, and a few fragrant greens?” I’d ask, coming across unnecessarily formally because my language skills never extended to casual, normal human banter.

The veggie purveyor would nod and grunt and start assembling my purchase, then announce the total price in a distracted, hurried mumble, which I needed to repeatedly ask for clarification.

Like this price, which I dare you to decipher: sigisi.

Or, more accurately, Ssguhsssuh.

Which, it turns out, was 4.4 kuai. As in, Si kuai si, doncha know.

And then there was the fact that under duress, I regularly forgot the measure words for foodstuffs beyond the basic jin (about 500g or a pound), meaning I often walked home with half a kilo of cilantro for lack of vocabulary expressing, say, half or quarter or bundle and being too shy or embarrassed to try to incompetently explain in more detail.

I ended up doing a lot of mumbling of key words and miming, but it never got less stressful over the years, as I became increasingly aware of just how imprecise, insufficient and atonal my linguistic abilities were.

I blame my decade spent as a language teacher and examiner for this perpetual hyperbolic self criticism. A universal language assessment rubric has been burned into the back of my retinas through years of repetition.

 

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I shall just point to what I want then.

 

Shopping in Chinese supermarkets was a lot easier, as prices were marked and fixed and no one was staring at me, waiting for my decision, so I could take my time to figure out what I was dealing with.

Luckily, my ability to decipher written Chinese improved by leaps and bounds beyond my tone deaf attempts at spoken language.  By leaps and bounds, I mean that I generally could, with the help of various phone apps, figure out approximately what I was getting myself into, give or take a few characters whose roots couldn’t be parsed by Pleco

Sometimes those mystery characters were rather crucial and I ended up buying something unexpected.

Like that time I popped over to the local Hualian to stock up on our supply of Grumpy Grandma chili paste with fermented soy beans. I skimmed the ingredient list for fermented and bean but inexplicably missed the character for meat– one of the first characters I learned back in 2009. I ended up coming home with a big jar of chili paste studded with unexpected chunks of preserved pork.

Whoops.

 

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Yes, I could read this menu

 

And then there was the matter of ordering food in restaurants. This was easy in Shanghai as there were often English subtitles on menus that more or less corresponded to what was on offer so I could compare and contrast the deciphered description and hopefully add something new to my mental vocabulary list. For places where menus were either non existent or monolingual, it was trickier.

With time and study, I eventually could handle those massive wall menus, providing the fare on offer was covered in the Memrise vocabulary lists (like this one or this one) or could be parsed by Pleco. More often than not, however, there was a lot of guesswork and uncertainty. Chinese food descriptions can be, to say the least, poetically elusive.

There was this one time in Harbin, way back around the beginning of my time in China, before I had had the chance to seriously lay any language foundations, when I went from food place to food place, unable to figure out anything on the massive wall menus and lacking the vocabulary to really understand anyone’s replies should I ask what was available. I knew the words and characters for dumplings, noodles, eggplant, greens and cilantro and that’s what I ended up eating a lot of because I’m a lazy coward sometimes. Luckily, Dong Bei dumplings, eggplant and noodles are awesome.

 

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茄子!

 

And now, it’s all in English.

And in a weird way, I kind of miss the constant mental exercise of understanding my surroundings. Except when ordering by phone. I’m very happy to be doing that in English now.

I’m such a language wuss.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.