The Writing on the Wall: Ordering a Chinese Meal

With the holidays approaching, there’s going to be alot of getting together with friends over brunch, lunch and supper. So, I thought I’d post an article I wrote about ordering a meal in a Chinese restaurant that was published in the Oh Canada! column in the October 2002 issue of Canadian Living magazine.

Bon appétit! Or should I say Chin Chin!

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When my father was alive, we celebrated holidays and birthdays with family dinners in Chinatown. Combined with my older brother’s and sister’s families, we would commandeer the largest table at our favourite restaurant.

While we buried our heads in the menus, my father would sit back, cross his arms and seem to stare off into outer space. When the waiter arrived, we would shout out our favourite dishes by their numbers on the menu.

When it was my dad’s turn, he would ask about dishes that weren’t on the menu. The waiter would brief him on the delicate flavouring of duck tongue, fried intestines and stewed tripe. Any mention of bitter melon fermented with black beans would make my father’s mouth water. “But they would never eat it,” he would mourn with a nod in our direction, and sadly order something for us with beef, pork or chicken. After scribbling characters onto his notepad, the waiter would shuffle off to the kitchen. My dad would turn to us with a sigh of dismay, and say, “You don’t know how to eat!”

According to him, the best dishes were not printed on the stain-speckled plastic menus the waiter tossed onto the table; they were written on the white, pink or red sheets of paper that adorn the walls of many restaurants in Chinatown. Black brush strokes list delectable dishes that are unfamiliar to the North American palate. Being Canadian-born, I always felt that ordering a meal off the wall required special skills to crack the secret code – like Indiana Jones reading hieroglyphs. If only I had made it past Grade 1 in Chinese school.

When the waiter returned with part of our order carefully balanced along the length of one arm, my dad would lament the predictability of his Canadian-born children and grandchildren. Cantonese chow mein and lemon chicken were mainstays at our every meal. Oh, we enjoyed traditional dishes, such as Eight Enhancement Soup, chicken boiled in soy sauce and Cantonese lobster, but it was the writing on the wall that separated immigrant from Canadian-born Chinese.

“What is it?” I would ask when an unrecognizable dish found a spot on the crowded lazy Susan in the centre of our table.

“Oh, good stuff,” my dad would say, glowing in anticipation of eating his choice dish. “Nothing you like.”

I would eye it suspiciously and sniff its aroma. I would interrogate my father and the waiter on the ingredients. My dad would grunt his displeasure at my behaviour. Was this really just about the food, or had I missed the cultural boat by ordering from the wrong menu?

My Canadian-born Chinese friends also back away from the wall when we dine together. And if the waiter reads the specials off the wall in Cantonese or whatever is his native dialect that ultimately brings up another embarrassing point: we can’t understand Chinese either.

“Can’t read and can’t speak?” a waiter once exclaimed, echoing our parents’ disappointment. “Lemon chicken!” he sang out in heavily accented English as we slowly sank under the table in embarrassment.

My father passed away several years ago, and, though our families still gather for special dinners, the ones in Chinatown are less frequent. On those rare occasions, it’s my brother who – with the waiter’s help – ventures to order off the wall.

When an unfamiliar dish arrives, I still look at it with suspicion. But you know what? I really like lemon chicken.

Cultural Routes

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Montreal’s CN Station

The St-Jean Baptiste long weekend is coming up and many people will be planning a short getaway to enjoy the three-day-weekend. With the spirit of travel in mind, I’m posting an article I wrote about a train ride I took to Toronto that was first published in Canadian Living magazine, November 1997.

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As I waited to board the train from Montreal to Toronto, a Chinese man approached me and, speaking in broken English, asked if I were going to Union Station. Wary of strangers who ask about my travel plans, I hesitantly nodded yes. “Could you look after her?” he asked, gesturing toward a petite, well-dressed woman of about fifty. “She doesn’t speak any English.” Smiling shyly, she bowed.

“I don’t speak much Chinese,” I warned, realizing he’d chosen me because I was the only Oriental in line.

“It’s OK. Thank you,” he said, and left after a quick goodbye to the woman. We boarded the train and sat together. She slept. I read until the steward appeared pushing the lunch cart.

I’m bilingual: I speak both French and English, but my Chinese is very limited. Stumbling over my mother tongue, I asked if she wanted something to drink.

I understood her Cantonese reply, “Apple juice.” So far, so good. Then came the menus.

“Do they have rice?” she asked as I scanned the list.

“No rice,” was all I could manage. I ordered apple juice.

She pointed to a drawing of a pizza. “Bread?”

“Ye-e-ss.” What was the translation for tomato sauce? “It has tomatoes.” Picking up a pizza slice from the cart, I showed it to her. The thick sauce did not resemble tomatoes in the least. She frowned. I showed her the menu, hoping she would recognize something. Surely, “Chicken Sandwich” was universal. She pointed to another drawing. “Is that bread?”

“Un, no. It’s sweet. A ma-a-fin.” I regretted it the instant I said it. Saying muffin with a Chinese accent is as ludicrous as assuming a foreigner will understand English if it’s spoken slowly and loudly enough. The steward looked amused as he handed me a muffin for her inspection. “How about Pita Pockets?” he suggested.

“Oh, I couldn’t explain that in Chinese,” I groaned. Finally, she decided on pizza, insisting we share the large slice. Quiet settled between us as we ate. She cut the pizza into pieces and hesitantly tasted each one. After we finished, she pulled out a small bag containing toothpicks and offered me one. I accepted.

We attempted more conversation. I strained to understand as she talked about her visit to Canada. She giggled as I formed awkward phrases. We carried on this way and somehow it didn’t matter that I had forgotten so much Chinese. In the end, we understood each other perfectly.