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Breaking the silence, or, How to travel without language

Yes, I realize the most recent post on this blog is now more than a month old.

I've kept you in suspense long enough about my China trip.

It's the first time I've ever been wandering around a country whose language I couldn't at least make out a few words of. When I got there, I also realized that I'm not very good at reading the faces of people in Asian cultures. In other words, I'm not sure I could have even pantomimed my way through ordering a meal at a restaurant. Even with a pictorial menu.

My friend met me at the airport. She'd given me detailed instructions on what to do once touching down on Chinese tarmac (which is the same as American tarmac) -- follow the crowd to the customs kiosks, hand over your documents and basically just wait there. I wouldn't have to say anything, she said, and she was right. The signs were even in English in addition to Chinese.

Past the "Foreigners" sign at "Immigration," I just followed the hallways (and even a shuttle-train! the things you see at a huge airport!) to the exit. She and I found each other as soon as all of us airplane passengers emerged into the big waiting area -- for which I was grateful.

She helped me get some Chinese cash from an ATM and I got my first glimpe of "kwai" -- in 100-kwai bills, bright red and worth about $16 each. I kid you not, these looked like the money I used to play with as a child when I pretended to be an expert spy.

After a bus ride and a walk outside the Beijing West train/rail station (I think), we bopped into a restaurant that served pretty typical Chinese fare, as my friend described it. She wanted to get me her favorite dish -- green beans and red pepper things all tossed together and fried in some sort of vegetable oil, called gan bian dou jiao. Thank goodness she did the ordering. I sat there with a silly grin on my face, just glad to be alive and at my destination, while she handled the menu -- yes, with big, clear photographs of the dishes, like a paper Pinterest board -- pointing to what we wanted and saying "this" in Chinese (which to me sounded like "jigga.")

I don't have pictures from my first meal, but this is a later family-style one.
We ate family style, with little plates for us, seated opposite each other in a booth that felt like it could be at home in a Burger King or McDonald's, and the three big platters of food in the middle of the table. I was glad I'd already had some practice with chopsticks -- it's just not Chinese if you eat it with a fork, and some places probably wouldn't have had forks to give poor un-chopstick-coordinated foreigners anyway.

Germophobes beware. Family style means you pick your food off the platters with your chopsticks, sometimes including the rice, and when you finish the little bit you started with on your tiny personal plate, you pick up some more food. With the same chopsticks you bit from moments before. It's not quite as gross as it sounds but I do know friends who might not have been able to bring themselves to do so. From the first day on, nearly every meal out was family-style.

She paid for the meal with one of those 100-kwai bills, even though it totaled to only about 43 kwai, or roughly $7.


Abby said…
is that a can of Sprite?
Sarah E said…
You betcha! Not mine, though; an acquaintance of Kathryn's dined with us that day, and brought along her adorable baby boy. (To clarify, the Sprite belonged to the woman, not her boy. haha.)

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