Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Passing as Chinese

Today Southern Man and I ate at a new Chinese restaurant we recently discovered. It is now our new favorite Chinese restaurant in the area (this is no small feat because remember, I am in THE SOUTH--and yes, I'm being snobby, but I grew up going to Oakland Chinatown every Sunday and my mother is a mean cook in her own right, so my standards for Chinese food are quite high).

Anyway, we wanted to order pea shoots (which are on the menu) only to be told by our waitress that they aren't available (seasonal--which I should have known, but I thought just *maybe* they had a source on pea shoots in the fall). In trying to find a substitute green, I asked her about the "Chinese greens" on the menu, and our waitress immediately began talking to us (or to me, rather) in Mandarin, peppering her conversation with a few English words directed at Southern Man.

If it's not already clear, I do not speak Mandarin. Or Cantonese. Or any other Asian language. I took three years of college-level Spanish, but even then, I'm not sure I could order in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant either (although if we had been in a Mexican restaurant, I'd probably been able to understand more of what was being said than I was at this Chinese restaurant).

Here's the thing though: you can get a lot through tone, intonation, and context. Case in point: one of the words she used was "green beans," which signaled to us that while they did not have many Chinese greens, they did have green beans. So just at the point when I was going to tell her "I'm sorry--I don't speak Chinese," Southern Man nodded his head and said, "OK, I understand--we'll have the green beans." At which point she smiled at us and put our order in.

I have to admit that I enjoyed this brief moment of passing as Chinese--I mean passing as a fluent Mandarin speaker. Like someone who could read Chinese characters. All of which came to a crashing reality check when Southern Man asked her about a menu that was posted by the cash register--a menu written in Chinese. When he asked her about it (it looked like a special banquet menu) she turned to me with a puzzled look on her face, as if to say: "How come he's asking me? Can't you read?" at which point I fessed up and said, "Actually, I don't speak Chinese--sorry!"

Our waitress was very nice--she apologized to us for speaking in Chinese--to which we, of course, apologized for not speaking/understanding Chinese, and then she translated the menu for us (sounded really yummy!) and asked me where I was from. When I said California, she did something that most people don't do. She said, "Oh, OK" and again apologized for speaking to me in Chinese.

Southern Man noted that unlike everyone else we've encountered, she didn't probe further--didn't ask about where my parents were from, didn't ask what my nationality, race, ethnicity was. Didn't make me feel bad for not being fluent in Chinese. She just smiled, said, "OK" and then told us to have a nice day.

This place is DEFINITELY my new favorite Chinese restaurant!


Eurasian Sensation said...

Hehe, I can relate to this. Because of my fairly racially amiguous look (I have white Australian and Indonesian parents), I get addressed in all kinds of languages by various people - Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Mauritian Creole. Never in Indonesian though!

Jennifer said...

Hi Eurasian Sensation,
Sorry for being remiss in responding. I appreciate you writing in and saying you can relate. I'm usually mistaken for Korean and Filipino when on the West Coast--not sure why. My cousin, who is mixed, like you has been mistaken for a host of ethnicities from South America to Southern Europe to Asia and the Pacific Islands and the Middle East.