I’ve been eating at the same place everyday for lunch. It’s a full meal for only about $1.75, and there are two reasons why I am so loyal. First, I’m looking for any excuse to practice my dismal (but steadily improving) Chinese. As I’m sure you could guess, saying roughly the same thing, to the same people, day in and day out really does help me get a small handle on this daunting language. I clutch the handful of phrases I use, my knuckles hot-sun white, as if this phrase-bundle is the life-rope-harness, my sanity the quickly fleeing rescue helicopter, the ground racing below me the pure, unknown oblivion of a Southeast Asian jungle, and the twin observations that the movie is rated PG-13 and has already been going for 125 minutes my only hope that the happy ending is coming soon.
Secondly, the food is great.
My first week working at the office, I embarked on a daily search to find tasty, inexpensive street food nearby. On the second day, a coworker introduced me to the Noodle Shop (actual name in Chinese unknown), and I was initially very impressed. Due to my limited (aka nonexistent) Chinese, I initially found it extremely difficult to order food, especially alone. Prior to that day, I would just point at pictures of food and politely say “that”; if there were no pictures, my attempts at communication had generally resulted in a confusing exchange between the restaurant employee and I that ended with my awkward, silent shuffle out the door as they, puzzled, watched me leave and wondered to themselves why in the world I had decided they would surely know where I could find a giant horse made out of Legos. So, on the third day, when I returned to the (picture-less, mind you) Noodle Shop solo, I went to the small counter where you place the order and basically told the man “I’d like… beeef… and… noodles.” In the U.S., this is essentially equivalent to walking into a restaurant and saying, well, “I’d like… beeef… and… noodles.” They will look at you and cock their heads to one side, or do something with their eyebrows. Perhaps a better example would be walking into a Mexican restaurant (O, comida mexicana, mi corazon, ¡como me haces falta!) and saying you’d like something that includes a tortilla and maybe some beans, or going to an Italian place and asking for something with pasta and bread, or going to Sonic and asking for a beverage. There are approximately 13,482 combinations you could make with those ingredients at each respective establishment, and that’s just what you can do with a grape slush at Sonic. So, the guy asked me some clarifying questions, which I attempted to faithfully transcribe below:
Me: I like Beef (intonation disastrous) and Noodles (pronunciation horrid).
Man: (…Chinese Phrase 1…, …Chinese phrase 2…, possibly inquisitive)
Me: Shi. Yes. (nod. 50/50 I’ll answer correctly, I reason.)
Man: (a chuckle. …more Chinese…)
Man: (…short Chinese phrase…, a question)
Me: Bu shi. No. (shake head)
Man: (Chinese equivalent of Okay; then one more clarifying question…?)
Me: Shi. (confident nod of the head.)
I sat down. About ten minutes later, one of the employees walked out of the little kitchen with a metal bowl full of steaming soup, noodles, thin strips of beef, some vegetables, and peanuts, and set it down on my table. I could roll with the curveball of soup. It was perfect. Noodle Shop guy and I had a connection, I decided; I could Alley and he could Oop. And so I kept coming. Each day, my food-ordering-Chinese improved word by word and phrase by phrase. To my surprise, with time I became (dare I say?) a regular.
And this brings us to today. I walk in and rattle off my usual Chinese line. He confirms. I mention my usual plate of peanuts. He says ah, yes, yes, the peanuts. Of course. The usual. I walk outside, to the new place where I buy drinks. The woman does not understand me. She and I don’t have the connection, like my friend in Noodle Shop.
(WARNING TO OLDER, ESPECIALLY FEMALE, FAMILY MEMBERS: CONTINUE READING AT RISK OF INITIATING MATERNAL CONCERN/PROTECT MODE)
I bought a Sprite from her, because I was beginning to feel the onsets of a sickness, evidenced by that creeping, slight discomfort in the throat. Whenever I start to feel that, my brain triggers an absolute, unflinching compulsion to buy Sprite. My patronage of the beverage is wholly influenced by memories of my mum giving it to us whenever we were ill as kids. If you had a conversation with my brain around the time sickness was approaching, it would swear to you that Sprite would go inside your body, punch disease cells in the face, then leap out of your refreshed and beaming smile and cure everyone in the office and proceed to rally the newly refreshed and beaming populace to build an amusement park out of marshmallow clouds, swords, and magic complete with an unnecessary number of Sprite drinking fountains/swimming pools/basketball advertisements. (Conversations with the brain, when you catch it in a musing moment, are blatantly irrational, tend to meander rapidly, and will seldom lead to productive ends. Always best to abruptly end the talk before the marshmallow cloud amusement park comes up again. I mean, seriously; I don’t even like marshmallows that much (unless they are wrapped in the warm embrace of chocolate and a graham cracker). Wait. Was that a double parenthetical? A parenthetical-within-a-parenthetical? Aren’t we supposed to use brackets or something? What are the rules with this sort of thing? Can anything happen in here?!? Does (what happens) (stay)?)
(Absolutely it does.)