15 August 2011

how to say takeout (打包)

When you’re speaking Chinese in China you have to not mind blathering on in front of wide-eyed strangers all focused on you like you’re the one monkey at the zoo. You have to not mind because within that group of people is the one person who may eventually figure out the riddle of what you’re trying to say. When it starts happening you can feel the tilt of understanding tip in your favor: she’s crazy… she’s crazy… she’s crazy… wait a minute, I think she means fish-fragrant eggplant! And with that discovery the crazy evaporates and they invite you inside.

It’s a wonderful moment, and you have to work for it – and wait for it – because it doesn’t come easy. But once it does, once that communal light bulb goes on in all of your heads, the butchering of the language and the over-sized pantomime is worth it. You’ve communicated.

In fact, a few days ago I was standing outside a restaurant doing this very thing, and once the group of seven or so restaurant staff finally figured out I was trying to order take-out we were really rolling. It only took five more minutes, along with the help of a translation app on my iPhone and the restaurant's picture menu, to figure out what I wanted to eat. In my personal China this is defined as success – and I say that without a single note of sarcasm.

Once the food was ordered I was invited inside to wait while it was prepared. I’m convinced this is because at the time I was sweating more than anyone else in Chengdu and they were worried I might die. So I followed their suggestion and sat down in front of an air conditioner which they so nicely pointed right at me. I was presented with hot tea and one of the staff talked to me about how much he loves watching American wrestling. I understood at least half of what he was saying which by my current standards of communication is pretty awesome.

And the food… the food was incredible. The top layer of the crispy duck rice (脆皮糯米鸭) was perfectly crisped rice, below that was a chewier rice layer and at the very bottom was the rich bacon-y layer of soft smoky duck, with its crisped skin facing bottom. The fish fragrant eggplant(鱼香 茄子)was all sour and hot and sweet, with ginger, chives, pepper, and garlic swarming over silky eggplant, the flavors building to a molasses-tinged burn.

It’s these kinds of things – the guessing, the wrestling, the eggplant – that can really teach you Chinese.

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