Lost in Translation

With the suggestion of our hostess Irene, we went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner after we arrived in Lexington, Massachusetts. It has been always a headache for me to have Mexican food. Not because that I don’t like the taste but because I can never understand the menus. What are the differences among tacos, burritos, fajitas and many other names ended with either –as or –os? The English subtitles usually help little except telling me the ingredients in each dish. I need visual indication. What does the food look like?

My American friends are usually patient enough to go through the Mexican food 101 with me. This lesson needs to be repeated every time before I order. But the more I listen, the more confused I am. I can’t imagine the way the food is made and the way we are supposed to eat it. The culture in another continent is indeed tremendously different. To a Chinese, Mexican food involves many ways of wrapping. It’s like Chinese cuisine. We can make rice in dozens of ways. Mexicans use corn and beans widely.

I don’t remember I ran into big difficulty in the restaurants in Montreal even though French is the predominant language there. During our stay there, we dined in a couple of restaurants. The menus were in both French and in English, including the one in a Spanish restaurant. I was at ease reading the menus. Even though I came across strange words on a French cuisine menu, I was unfazed. Because I could guess what the dish may look like. For instance, escargot is a fancy word for snail; veau sounds like veal and I guess it must be veal. I can recognize “entrée” and “dessert” even though they’re in French. On the contrary, I was completely lost when reading a Mexican food menu.

It’s not uncommon that when we come to a new country, we want to try the local food. My American friends often laugh when they hear the first-time visitors to America looking for American food. I guess Americans aren’t as proud of their burgers and hotdogs as they are of cuisines from other cultures. Mexican food certainly is popular in the States. Among several times I had potluck dinner at American homes, the hosts often serve tortilla chips dip as an appetizer. They seem to like chips very much. But I find the yellow triangle chips too dry. To be courteous, I do as the Americans do.

When my family in China asks about my being in America, I often reply in confidence that I am doing well simply because I don’t have a language barrier. But apparently my presumption doesn’t fit the circumstance of dealing with Mexican food. If Spanish speakers outnumber English speakers in the States, I will be helplessly lost in translation.


Filed under: Prose, Songyi Zhang's America