The Chinese New Year is upon us! It’s the year of the snake, which probably means that a lot of people in China will eat some sort of snake dish to celebrate (couldn’t do that last year with the year of the dragon).
During my first summer in China, my parents came to visit for a two-week tour. It was my job to handle the navigation and restaurants on our trip–it was great practice for my fledgling Mandarin skills. One of our stops was in Chengdu.
Unlike Beijing and Xi’an, Chengdu did not have as much English help to navigate the city, which meant we had to rely on the skills I acquired during the previous nine months. Unfortunately, my skill for reading characters was not that good.
At one restaurant outside the rather touristy Jinli Street, I attempted to order a light, spicy lunch. Since my mom only eats chicken and fish, I had to be careful what meats were in the dishes. I pointed to an item in the menu and asked the waitress in Chinese, “Does this dish have meat?” She replied in English, “Yes,” she paused a moment, “but it’s fish.”
When the food arrived, that particular dish didn’t look like it had fish in it. “What’s this?” I asked in Chinese. “Fish,” she replied in English. “It doesn’t look like fish,” I said. “It’s a kind of fish,” she said. “It looks like snake,” I commented. “Yes,” she nodded. I smacked my head and laughed.
It wasn’t the first menu mishap I encountered in China, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Ordering became easier as I learned to read characters. I have the opposite problem in the US–I know the Chinese names of dishes, but don’t know the menu translations.