The Great Adventure of Lunch in Haikou

by Jason -- November 12, 2009


Eating out here is always an “experience”. People rarely speak English and if they do, it’s typically very limited. I just came back from lunch and while today’s lunch experience is pretty standard, I thought it’d be fun to share today’s adventure.

With my English-to-Mandarin translation book in hand, I ventured out on my own to lunch. Sharon wasn’t feeling well and asked that I bring something back. Between someone usually speaking a little English and us pointing at phrases in our translation book we typically can get by at a restaurant. We’ve essentially given up trying to speak Mandarin or Cantonese, and rather just point to the Chinese characters in our book. The percentage of times they understand what we try to say is near zero.

There’s a block of restaurants just outside our hostel, so I randomly chose one. As I walked up to the door, two nice women open both doors as if I’m royalty and begin singing a little jingle-that’s a little strange, even for here. I give them my standard blank stare, hold up one finger and say “one” quietly to myself. (I know the Chinese word for “two”, but I couldn’t remember “one”). One of the door opening women, who for some reason is holding a fly swatter, immediately begins chuckling to herself as she escorts me into the restaurant. Awesome, great start.

She brings me to the other side of the restaurant where they point to a refrigerator full of drinks. At this point only 3 people are helping me. I point to a can and say “Sprite”. The lady with the fly swatter again laughs at me. A couple more waitresses have now come over to watch “help”. After handing me the Sprite, they all look at me in anticipation and I look back blankly at them, not sure what to do next. It’s a sit-down restaurant, but they haven’t given me a menu, nor shown me to my table. I give it a couple more seconds and then dig into my pocket for my translation book, looking for the word “menu”. I find it, point to it and they finally hand me a menu in full Chinese. Thankfully on the last page, there are 8 pictures of food. One of the 6 people helping me (I’m not exaggerating), points to one and I assume she tells me that it’s good, so I give her the thumbs up and ordered it.

I’m then shown to my table, where they also give me tea to-go along with my Sprite. I sit drinking my tea and Sprite while waitresses walk by and stare at me. They talk to themselves, giggle, look at me, talk to themselves again and repeat. This has become very standard for me by now, it doesn’t offend me, it’s pretty normal here.

I get my food, order some rice and begin eating-it’s good. Some sort of potato and eggplant dish. With Sharon not feeling well, I decide to be adventurous and try to order some soup to-go. I look up and find one of the waitresses staring at me and signal her over. I first point to the word “soup”. Then I say wait one moment and point to the phrase “to-go”. I think she understands me, she smiles, nods and walks away. A minute later, an older lady walks up and I do it again, the first lady obviously didn’t understand me. She takes my translation book, I don’t think she gets it. A crowd of 5 or 6 gather around me again. I point to some other words—“noodles”, “hot and sour” and “soup” and “to-go” again. I think they’re starting to get it, because they’re repeating some of the words. Finally, I think they get it and they all walk away.

I begin eating again, when I of course spill my tea all over the table. Two staring waitresses rush over and try to clean it up. I think at this point, they station one waitress to my left to constantly stare at me. Kind of awkward, but okay, maybe they think I’m special. I continue eating and I almost spill my rice bowl. Staring waitress flinches, but I catch it-everything’s okay.

I’m getting ready to finish my meal and the lady brings me a small cup of what looks like Chicken broth, in a standard ceramic soup bowl-not a to-go bowl. Sweet.  With one final effort, I hold up a finger, pull out my translation book again, point to the soup and then to the “to-go” phrase again. She doesn’t get it and calls over the older waitress again. She brings a couple additional people and again I have 4 people around my table. I point to the soup and the “to-go” phrase again and the older waitress shakes her head and says something in Chinese. I say “no?” and shake my head and then I believe she says no again. I take back my book and say thanks, “Xie Xie”. Disappointed that I failed, I decide to try the soup, even though I’m full. It’s not very good. It tastes like a gravy broth that would be good to eat with Turkey on Thanksgiving. No noodles, no veggies, definitely not hot and sour. I finish my food, grab the bill and pay.

The good news was it was only $18RMB for the meal ~ $2.60-despite my ordering “soup”, a Sprite, rice and a dish that said $28 next to it. Maybe they felt bad for me…

Can’t wait for dinner!

Be awesome and help us share:

12 Responses to “The Great Adventure of Lunch in Haikou”

  1. omg. this is so funny! Jason, your time in China has made me feel like im watching my new favorite sitcom! I really wish you guys had a film crew so I could watch! I hope our little shaylong gets better! Did you end up finding a “to-go” soup for her?

  2. You have started my day with a wonderful laugh.I could see the tea all over the table! A great post.Hope Sharon is feeling better. Have fun at the beach. Love mom

  3. Should have been a Seinfeld adventure. Too funny!

  4. 我希望你把这个足够的智慧谷歌-我有一个信念教育在圣克鲁斯…这是一个生动的故事-吃简单的午餐,现在仍然是这样一个伟大的冒险的一些困难。此外,很明显,中文和英文不很好的转化为彼此:-)。

  5. Thanks Holly! And yes, I was able to find her some soup :-). I got her a cup-of-noodles from the grocery store, a guaranteed way of getting soup to-go. Cup-of-noodles here isn’t like it is there, there are like a hundred different varieties and they’re all much nicer. So, she still enjoyed her soup!

  6. Harris the magnificent,

    Here’s what Google gave me:

    I hope you put this wise enough to Google - I have a belief that education in the Santa Cruz … this is a vivid story - just eat a simple lunch, and still is such a great adventure with some difficulties. In addition, it is clear, Chinese and English do not translate well to each other :-)

    I’m glad you believe in the Santa Cruz education system! Your English could use some work though, I’m having doubts now about Maryland, I hope you don’t normally write so poorly, it’s very choppy.

  7. poor jason! after going through all that, coudn’t get soup to go? may be they don’t have such a thing as ‘to go’.? how big or small is this town? hope sharon gets better soon!!

  8. In case you ever need to order soup to-go again and the phrases in your book doesn’t help:
    (and you manage to either remember this or print it out)

    soup = tang 汤
    to-go = dai zou 带走
    I want a bowl of soup, to go. = wo yao yi wan tang, dai zou. 我要一碗汤,带走。

  9. Awesome! Thanks Vivian! Now if I could just get them to understand me when I try to speak…

  10. That is sooo funny!! Honestly, I think they are amussed by you as you are by them, maybe that’s the wrong word for your feelings of them but I’m sure they find you interesting :) Do you feel it was a different experience since you went alone oppose to going with Sharon?? I had a dream you called me last night.. it made me excited hehe I loveee you!!

  11. The trick is the get the tones right and it’s very hard for non-native speakers. Also most people you’ve been talking to are not Mandarin speakers, so they have trouble understanding Mandarin, not you. In case of emergency tutoring, you can always check me on Skype: S20090828.

  12. Good to hear!!!! This is such a well writen blog btw :)

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