Even if locals know that I am not Chinese, they tend to rattle off the language to me anyway. I don’t always make out what they’re saying, but some things stand out.
“Ni yao chi shenme?” (What do you want to eat?)
There it is again. Those who have grown up here know their way around it like the back of their hands. It’s a question that should have a straightforward reply.
But not this time. I dared to wander into a previously-untried restaurant with absolutely no idea of what cuisine they served. And with only my older son, who knows maybe ten words of Chinese. In our little party of two, I was the expert.
I attacked the menu, which was completely written in Chinese squiggles. I know several hundred characters, but they don’t all appear on a menu. However, I could make a few things out: beef, dry tofu, farm-style braised chicken.
The servers were so busy they practically ran back and forth between tables. One lady unceremoniously plopped down an order sheet and ball point pen on the table and instructed me to write down our order.
That was a first; not only did they assume I could read, they also thought I could write. Not wanting to disappoint, I tried to copy three items in my neatest handwriting: the I-have-no-idea-which-part-of-the-cow-this-is, the dry tofu something-or-other, and the farm-style braised chicken.
Feeling self-satisfied despite being already tired from the mental calisthenics, I smiled as I handed over our order. The waitress whizzed by our table because she needed to step out to puff on the lit cigarette she was holding while waiting the other tables. Yes, it was that kind of restaurant.
Soon, a different lady came by to read out my questionable handwriting. I just nodded along as she reeled off the items and asked if we liked spicy food. I said not too much. She said, “OK, not too spicy” and left. The other tables’ orders started coming out. Uh-oh. It dawned on us we were in a Sichuan restaurant.
When our own food came, I had to laugh. We got spicy beef, even spicier tofu, and the spiciest chicken. All the food looked the same, buried beneath tons of chillies and drowned in spicy oil. My son, normally a very adventurous eater, was not amused. He was hungry and wanted a real meal, not something that we would have to inhale instead of chew to prevent from burning our tongues and throats.
In the end, of course, we were on fire. My son managed to get full from all the rice he had to keep shoveling in his mouth to kill the spice. I promised he could choose the next place. The next time I asked “Ni yao chi shenme?” he opted for a sandwich from Starbucks.
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.