Language barrier, incapability of using chopsticks and being a vegetarian are the most common problems for Europeans and all westerners in China. Even ‘carnivores’ can be shocked looking at packed chicken legs laying next to the box of candies.

Whereas ordering food at the street food stalls is not a problem – you can see what is in rather small menu – it can be quite a challenge in restaurants. Waiters who scream Hello! When they see you might look like knowing English, but most often – they don’t. It happened in a restaurant in Xi’ an. After very brief courtesy exchange it started to get complicated, but finally we got the menu. After living for a week in China, it wasn’t a shock for us that everything was written in Chinese. We asked for something vegetarian. Response was in Chinese, so it was actually useless. But then, luckily, the waiter ‘via sign language’ said that we can use the voice translator. I said: vegetarian. The waiter showed me the screen: Did you mean: The Dutch Veteran? What?! Really?! After so many years of learning English, incredibly boring phonetics classes, talks with native speakers, now I can’t pronounce a simple word?! After few minutes of laughs and misunderstandings, I’ve been shown the column in the menu with vegetarian dishes. It wasn’t much, but still… After pointing finger at one of dishes in menu, the waiter said egg. Well, great! I’ll have it! He forgot to tell that it’s an egg with chili peppers, or rather chilies with a few pieces of scrambled egg.

Staring at people’s plates is much easier, but uncomfortable way. Literally, you have to look around the restaurants and spot something which looks tasty and point the finger at it. Sometimes tasty look is not everything…

One time in Beijing we went to the restaurant, where the menu had pictures of dishes. What a relief! One looked like a bowl full of yummy, warm noodles with vegetables. That’s what I need – I thought. Unfortunately it happened to be as spicy as the whole Asia vegetable salad with long, white, funny looking mushrooms.

It’s important to add, that if you are used to western cutlery, you’re going to be so disappointed in China. We haven’t seen them anywhere. If you don’t know how to use chopsticks, you’re going to starve, or eat instant soups.

Before going to China, I recommend to go on a quick training and learn how to use chopsticks, don’t be deceived by sound bites and always think twice before ordering food.

(JZ)

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