Perhaps this sounds familiar: a man fumbles with an English to Spanish dictionary, struggling to communicate. Shenanigans ensue, and the man calls a local’s mother a dog while trying to ask him where the bathroom is. It is a standard gag in travel-related comedy.
Well, you are smart. I am sure you have a vague idea of what comes next in this post.
There are countries were you can blend in as a foreigner and then there are countries where you cannot. In China, standing over six feet with a smooth cover of beard, I cannot. While I do not mind the eyes of strangers following me as I pass, there are times when I do not want to be ogled.
Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner.
I am a ‘ritualistic’ eater. I do not care for company. I do not care for conversation to slow the progress of food from plate to mouth. I will sit beside an open door or window or I will find somewhere else to eat. And I do not care for staff to hover over me while I am eating, wondering how, as with most places in Huadu (around GDCP), the first foreigner they have ever met manages with Chinese food.
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Huadu was find a place I could become a regular, where the sight of a six foot tall bearded American could become regular. I found this place in a semi-large (by Huadu standards) dumpling store.
The staff (two older men and women, not husband and wife, and a young girl, not their daughter) are exceedingly kind. Over the month, the older woman has learned some English, mostly hello’s and goodbye’s. She often demands that I have these exchanges in English instead of Cantonese.
I am, once again, a ‘ritualistic’ eater and often order the same things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To some extent I have been taught (and learned) their names and tones without issue.
To an extent.
I became friendly enough with the staff that the older man began inviting me to drink with him. I do not drink, but I understand that drinking is an enormously important ritual in Chinese relationships. There are cases of men drinking themselves to death trying to foster good guānxi. One drinks even if they do not like to drink in China. As such, I have taken to informing those who invite me to drink that, “Jīdūjiào”.
Jīdūjiào is Christian in Chinese. While most Christians can drink, and I am not some Pentecostal who cannot, merely informing someone in China that you are a Christian is enough to put a stop to any attempts to get you to drink. I have also been warned against pork, the staff believing Jīdūjiào cannot eat pork. As I do not care for pork aside from bacon, I have not corrected the misunderstanding.
Now, one of my favorite items at this dumpling store is, surprise surprise, dumplings, or jiăozi. Remember, Jīdūjiào and jiăozi.
One day, I had ordered a bowl of noodles and was left unsatisfied. Gesturing to the older woman, I asked for dumplings. The woman looked to me with a slight smile, expressing her discomfort. It was clear that I had mispronounced dumplings, and so I repeated ‘dumplings’ over and over with whatever combination of tones I could think of.
She answered me in Cantonese or Chinese, I cannot say, but I have no idea what her words meant. I move the finished bowl of noodles to the side, making room for another plate and asked for dumplings once more. She replies, and I am able to make out a negative, possibly ‘no’ or ‘don’t’. My immediate thought is that the older man is not awake, and he alone makes the dumplings.
I accept this for the space of ten seconds before I turn around and find him sitting at one of the chairs a little ways behind me. “Perhaps they understood and are just being slow,” I think next. One of the problems with becoming familiar with a restaurant is their service tends to lighten after they see you as a locked-down customer.
It became apparent rather quickly this was not the case either. The three, without any other customers, lounged about the front of the restaurant, none making for the kitchen.
Annoyed (for I had made the order a dozen times before), I resort to the most base form of communication (and in this case the most effective): hand gestures. Catching the older woman’s attention, I repeat dumplings and mime holding a bowl and shoveling food into my mouth (a basic gesture for chī fàn, to eat).
She watches with a furrowed brow before slowly asking, “…jiăozi?”
I blink and realize I had been saying “gee doe jow” (Christian) instead of “gen jow” (dumpling). Both, you must understand, would have been mispronounced incorrectly (by me). The woman, God Bless Her, did not laugh or smirk, but rather ferried the order to the kitchen and back as quickly as possible.
I cannot say the same for the young girl. For the duration of my meal, she pointed to the dumplings, a triumphant smirk atop her face, and asked, “gee doe jow?” before laughing hysterically and scampering off a few feet. Eventually the older woman joined in, explaining that, “you don’t eat Christians; you eat dumplings!”
I can only imagine how uncomfortable they had been prior to the understanding, as I spent three minutes parroting “Christian! Christian! Christian!”