Monday, September 3, 2007

Linguistic Misadventures at The Prawn Palace Restaurant

Floyd and I have been in Taiwan for a little over four weeks now, and honestly, it feels like months. In many ways we really feel at home here, and we are confident that this is where we belong right now. We love life in this part of the world and thank the Lord for bringing us here!

 Life isn't without its struggles, though. One of our biggest has been regarding the language. Most people here speak little or no English, and we speak little or no Chinese. That's not a good combination!  We have been taking "survival Chinese" lessons, but it's so hard to remember the words with their confusing tones. I actually find it easier to learn some of the simple characters and their English meanings than to speak or understand spoken Chinese. It's the other way around for Floyd.

A funny example of our struggles to communicate with those around us was when we tried to go out for dinner a couple of weeks ago. We knew there are a lot of little restaurants in our neighborhood, so we set off walking without any particular destination to see what good Chinese food we could find. The first few places we looked at had all-Chinese menus, and we were getting pretty tired and hungry by the time we came to a crowded, partly open-air corner restaurant that we had seen in passing before. As Floyd pointed out, if it's that crowded, the food must be pretty good, so we decided to eat there whether there was an English menu or not. Sure enough, there wasn't one, and we stared helplessly at the page full of Chinese characters that a waiter handed us.
People at the tables all around us were eating happily, but we had no idea what any of the options on the paper in front of us were. Eventually the waiter came back to take our order. He said things in Chinese that we couldn't understand, and we said things in English that he couldn't understand, and all three of us were getting frustrated and hungry (at least Floyd and I were hungry). Finally Floyd remembered how to say "kung pao chicken" in Chinese, and he said it, and the waiter brightened up and replied happily, pointing to something on the menu. Then Floyd said the word for "rice" and randomly pointed to another menu item, and the waiter went off leaving us wondering exactly what we would get.

Service in the restaurants here tends to be pretty fast no matter how crowded it is. They bring out one dish at a time as the food is ready, instead of waiting to bring the whole meal at once like in America. So first our rice was delivered, and then the waiter brought the kung pao chicken, which was excellent. Half way through that, he brought our mystery item, which turned out to be a dish of prawns. Floyd was totally delighted, as those are one of his all-time favorites. So we had a great meal, including some delicious guava juice. (There's a cooler full of drinks, and you just go and get what you want, and they add it to your bill at the end.)
Anyway, the total for the meal came to the equivalent of about seven US dollars for the two of us. Not bad, huh?!  (Thank goodness they write their numbers the same way we do, so we had no problem reading how much we had to pay.)

Well, a few days later we felt like eating out again (with prices like that, we can afford to go out for dinner a lot more often here than back in the States!). So we headed back to the same restaurant, which had we nicknamed the "Prawn Palace" since we still have no idea what its real name is. This time I had come prepared: I looked through our notebook of "survival Chinese" materials, and found a section about ordering in restaurants. I had carefully copied out the characters for pork, beef, chicken, fish, rice, noodles, and a few other basic items, along with their English pronunciations. I figured that way we can choose something on the menu and at least have a reasonably close idea of what we'll be getting.

We walked right in and were seated in the same area as before, and the same waiter was assigned to us. He took one look at us and said something to his supervisor that probably meant, "Aw, come on, boss, please don't make me serve these guys again! They don't even know how to communicate!" But he came over with the menu anyway, and I proudly pulled out my handy-dandy little paper with the characters to see what we could order. But unfortunately it wasn't as easy as I had expected. Every dish on the menu was written with at least three or four characters, and I couldn't even find the one that meant chicken, though I knew it had to be there. Finally the waiter came back to take our order, and we still hadn't figured anything out yet. We tried to tell him so, and he tried to tell us something, and then he saw my little paper. Before I could stop him, he took it from me and read the characters I'd written, and I think he thought I had had someone help me write the things we wanted to order. I kept saying, "No, wait, that's not what we want," but he pointed at various things on the menu and said who-knows-what, and finally gave the paper back and left with the menu. Floyd and I were left looking at each other like, "Yikes, what did we just order?"
Well, apparently we had ordered some kind of spicy chicken dish, because that was the first thing the waiter brought. We discovered a big pot where we were supposed to serve ourselves rice, so we were enjoying our chicken and rice with the pride of those who have triumphed over cultural and linguistic barriers, when the waiter brought a dish of prawns. We hadn't realized we had ordered two items, but that was okay. You always have room for a few good prawns, even if they interspersed with chili peppers. We decided the waiter must have remembered our taste for prawns from last time, though perhaps he thought we needed them spiced up a little now.

Well, about half way through our meal, along came another dish. This one was a platter of boiled cabbage in a beef broth. We had ordered cabbage?! Well, okay. It was pretty tasty, as cabbage goes, and being the only non-spicy item on the table, it was a nice change for our taste buds.

Just when we thought we were about done, the waiter came back with yet another dish: very spicy chopped beef with peppers and vegetables. We couldn't believe all the things we were getting, and wondered what our bill was going to come to this time, but at least we were enjoying a great meal.

As we sat back in satisfaction, surrounded by our leftovers and feeling that we were doing pretty well at this restaurant, we happened to notice the crowd of people nearby on the sidewalk. Idly we wondered what they were doing or if there was some event about to take place. Then we suddenly saw a waiter handing out menus to them, and realized they were waiting their turn to be seated. Just as that realization hit us both, so did the one that we had just walked right in to our table! You can imagine our feelings of embarrassment, that we had cut to the front of the line and marched in as though we deserved to be seated immediately, while people too polite to call us on it were probably watching in indignation, waiting patiently for their turns. But of course there was nothing we could do about it at that point except vow not to be so ignorant and culturally insensitive next time.

I won't go in to the story of what it took to get a bag for our leftovers (which they do all the time here but we didn't know where to get or how to ask for).  Suffice to say that finally we left full and embarrassed, with our wallet only about $10 lighter.  We still love the Prawn Palace, but I think next time we'll find a friend who speaks Chinese to come with us!

To read more about the Prawn Palace and other eateries Floyd and I like in Taiwan, click here to read my blog post "Some of our Favorite Restaurants".

Or, click here to read about our further dining linguistic misadventures!

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