I nearly went hungry in Gulangyu.
I was feeling rather peckish so I wandered into a local restaurant. It was full so I assumed it must be good.
I took a seat and perused the menu and thanked my lucky stars that the menu contained pinyin and I could read the letters, instead of having to just guess at the meaning of the Chinese characters.
By this stage of my journey through China I had learned to point at a menu and say
“Wo yao Zhege”
“I want this”.
When I did this with menus comprised entirely of characters, I had no idea what I’d ordered and I was served some interesting dishes. To this day I still don’t know what I ate.
It’s one reason I sought out the Uighur restaurants in China. No, not out of political motives. It was because these restaurants served heaped plates of cheap, tasty food, and because they had numbered pictures on the wall which I could point to and say,
“Wo yao Zhege”
At one of these restaurants, the friendly young son showed me his homeland on a world map, and I showed him where I had travelled from. Then he explained that he didn’t actually speak much mandarin, as it was not his first language.
“Tha’s ok,” I replied, “neither do I”
At this particular restaurant in Gulangyu, however, I was confident that I would know what I had ordered and was about to consume.
Would I opt for jirou or nuirou?
It was normally a choice between chicken or beef, much like meals on a plane. At least, it was for someone as linguistically hampered as I.
Having decided on the chicken, I now had to get the attention of the waitress. I’ve never been very good at this and still feel a little uncomfortable doing it, no matter where in the world I find myself. But, my stomach was calling, so it had to be done.
I knew that it was uncommon to signal with the hand or a raised arm in China. I thus tried to meet her eye. This was hard in a restaurant full of hungry visitors who had her running this way and that, taking multiple orders at a time – and not writing them down. She raced between tables and to and from the kitchen and appeared to be the only staff member on duty. Most likely, she was the only family member on duty.
I tried to politely and subtly catch her attention and order my lunch, but it wasn’t working, and with every passing minute my stomach rumbled more impatiently.
Then it occurred to me. The only way to complete my order was to do what everyone else was doing – just yell it at her. Shout your order across the room, over the din of a busy restaurant, even with a mouth full of food. There is little time for niceties in a country of one billion people.
But how was I to do this?
How could I make myself understood with my rudimentary vocabulary and stunted pronunciation? How would she even hear me?
I was devising a strategy when she approached my table to take my order. I think she either felt sorry for the ‘weiguoren’ who had been sitting dumbfounded for at least ten minutes without ordering – or she wanted the table for someone else. After all, if I wasn’t eating, I was costing the owners money.
Thus she approached my table and frantically asked me what I wanted, while three other tables were demanding more food and ‘pijou’ – beer. I stuttered and stumbled through a few words of mandarin but she didn’t understand. She asked again and I couldn’t make myself understood any more clearly.
Then she walked away.
My third attempt was no better than the first two and she simply couldn’t wait. It wasn’t her job to guide me through my Chinese language learning journey with patience and understanding. It was her job to serve the surrounding patrons who were yelling orders at her with growing frequency and impatience.
Now what do I do?
Will I go hungry?
If I can’t order a meal, how do I eat?
Do I go to another restaurant and risk the same outcome?
Do I got to a corner store and buy a packet of biscuits or two-minute noodles? If I bought noodles, how would I heat them?
My mind was racing and my stomach rumbling.
Just then, my saviour arrived. A young Korean woman arrived at the table and observed my plight.
“Do you speak English?” she asked
“Do you need some help?”
So, a young Korean woman took my order in English then translated it into Chinese, and I did manage to eat. I also had some company for my meal.
I felt inadequate and embarrassed. Not just because I’d failed to order a simple meal, but also because I had to be saved by a Korean who used her second and third languages to order for me.
I enjoyed my meal because my new found friend had managed to order a particular sauce as well as the ‘ji rou’ and ‘fan’ – chicken and rice. On a previous occasion, I had ordered beef and rice, and had received just that – strips of beef and white rice. It was bland to say the least.
I didn’t go hungry and enjoyed a tasty meal in good company.
Without the language of the host country or region, it is possible to travel, but it does detract from the experience. If I hadn’t been saved by a friendly Korean, I think I would have found some way to eat – I hope so.
It did make me wonder, without a mastery of mandarin, what is one to do in Gulangyu?
One would most likely wander the pedestrian only island and admire the mix of Chinese and European architecture which distinguishes this small island from other cities in China.
Gulangyu was actually an international settlement and became a busy, open port in 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium Wars. Today it is more heavily populated with interntational tourists and locals, who pop across for a day trip or a weekend on the ferry from Xiamen.
The warm weather and salty air also lend the island a distinct atmosphere, and it is pleasant to wander around the island and watch the fisherman at work, and appreciate the role of the sea in supporting the people who have lived here for thousands of years.
An ascent to one of the lookout points affords a view of the island back to the skyscrapers of Xiamen.