Every time I chat with my family in China, they ask me how I’m adjusting to the American way of life. My answer is always positive, but I have trouble explaining to them that I still stumble at the wealth of choices Americans take for granted.
Not a single hour passes that I don’t need to make a choice. When I go out to eat, for example, I have to go through the process of listening and reading attentively and thinking real hard.
Waitress: Hi! My name is Pepper and I’ll be serving you. How’re you doing?
Waitress: What would you like to drink?
I immediately think to myself: Do I have to order a drink? What can I order? Am I supposed to know the choices without reading the drink list?
Me: Water please.
The first few times eating out, I kept ordering a soft drink because I didn’t know I can actually order free ice water. That’s quite like what Cantonese do in my hometown, Guangzhou—if it’s not free, try not to have it.
(After a few minutes, the waitress comes back.)
Waitress: Here’s your water. Are you ready to order now?
Me: Yes. I’d like a Caesar Salad, a cup of soup and Spaghetti Bolognese.
Waitress: OK. We have Chicken Noodle, Italian Wedding, French Onion, Broccoli Cheese and Beef Chili. Which one do you want?
To avoid surprises I like to order only dishes we have in China, but American soup names are new to me. If only the waitress could explain what the ingredients are in each kind of soup. I didn’t know that chicken plus noodles makes a soup; nor did I know a white wedding dress could turn into Italian style liquid. At first I thought Chicken Noodle was a bowl of noodle with chicken, like a Chinese-style main dish. Adding to my problem, the waitress gives me a fast rundown of the names like singing a rap song. I can hardly follow. So, I pick the one that resonates in my mind.
Me: I’ll have a Chicken Noodle.
Waitress: Ok. What kind of dressing for your salad?
Me: What do you have?
Again, I wonder: am I supposed to know all these choices before I come to the restaurant? What seems like common sense doesn’t apply to foreigners like me.
Waitress: We have Honey Ranch, Italian, Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Strawberry Vinaigrette and Creamy Caesar.
Me: Thousand Island.
My mind is bloated after hearing the list. I barely catch a word except Thousand Island which is familiar to me. The safest is to order something I know.
Waitress: Ok, your dinner comes with a side dish. What would you like?
What is a side dish? In China, a side dish means a small plate of condiment, such as soy sauce, chili sauce or mustard. Apparently, I didn’t read the menu carefully. The list of side dishes is likely stated on the menu in fine print. With the dim lighting in the restaurant, the list at the bottom of the page isn’t noticeable to me at all.
Me: What are the options?
Waitress: Cole Slaw, Black Beans, Home Fries, Mashed Potatoes, Baked Potatoes, Steamed Veggies, Apple Sauce and Hush Puppies.
Me: Steamed Veggies, please.
My brain is drained by now. I’ve never been through so many decisions before a meal in China. My biggest problem is I don’t know these foods. What are they? They aren’t in my English textbook!
I later asked the waitress named Pepper how long it took her to memorize such a long list of food. She said, five years. She had worked in the restaurant for five year, and I have only five seconds to listen to her rattle off the list and respond!