Food Challenged In China

To say that I have felt challenged since arriving to China would be an understatement.

Since I landed here, I have gotten lost, been unable to communicate, and been unable to find any WIFI spot outside of my place. But the biggest challenge of them all was the language barrier in China, at a time where I needed to communicate the most…..lunch time.

Contrary to most countries I have travelled to before, the number of people I have encountered in China who could actually speak English has been close to none. Finding someone who could speak a bit of English has been as hard as finding a working public WIFI network. This might be because Changchun is not quite the tourist destination in China….oh well.

But nothing has been more challenging than getting food and knowing what I’m getting beforehand. With my Chinese and Mandarin being quite terrible, my understanding of menus and whatever I grab at the grocery store has been nothing less than a nightmare.

choosing food in China

My First Grocery

The first order of business on my very first day after arriving was to get some food into my fridge. After all, if I was going to make this place my new home for the next while, I would need to have food to cook for myself. So I walk myself to the nearest grocery store.

It was only once at the grocery store that I realized that things were more complicated than I thought they would be. My lack of Chinese combined to the lack of English on products made this a clusterfuck of an experience.

Picking up detergent. Which one is the detergent and which one is the fabric softener???

Getting snacks. Is that a squid on the package???

Getting milk. Why is it not in a fridge???

Picking up eggs. Why are there so many colors?!?!?!

Even though I did end up finding most of what I wanted, I still picked up many things I’m still unsure about. Time to google how to cook ramen noodles I guess.

It was a squid on the package…

My First Restaurant

Saturday night comes and I felt like going out. Better yet, I felt like treating myself, so I take myself out to dinner.

As I walk past some restaurants, I come face-to-face with the brutal realization that Chinese is hard…..not that I didn’t know that already.

Every single sign on every door is written in Chinese! Besides a few fast-food joints and a bar, there was no sign of whether a place was a restaurant, or what type of food they served.

After walking aimlessly for over 30 minutes, I finally took my courage with both hands and walked inside one of them. Once at a table, my waitress comes in:

Ni Hao, I say to her.
“Ni Hao”.

Awkward 3 second pause…..

Menu please.

One minute later, she came back with THIS:

language barrier in China

Embarrassed, I thought nothing better than to say xièxiè (thank you).

I looked around me, trying to make out what other people were eating so I could easily point at their plate and order the same thing. Nothing.

The waitress came back two minutes later.

Beef?, I ask.
She sends a confused look in response.

Chicken, you have?
She replies something in Chinese.

In a state of panic and no longer wanting to look foolish, I point at an item on the menu and hope for the best.

Don’t get me wrong, all food is food, and I’m of a mentality that you gotta try everything at least once before deciding to not like it. But that night I was not feeling very adventurous.

I should have, because what came next was something I could not imagined ever asking for, not even on a day I’d feel adventurous.

I received a platter of fried fat…..

Which animal?

I’m not sure, so I pointed at the fridge and made a drinking motion with my hand so I could get a beer.

To my surprise, the taste of fried fat was not at all too bad. I ate about half the plate until images of that time I got food poisoning in India came back to mind.

And Now

At this time, my first times doing pretty much anything have been hard. The language barrier in China is harder than I thought; however, even though it poses a challenge, I am loving every minute of it.

After all, it is for this feeling of new and of discovery, this feeling of being lost, that attracted me to China.

Ever been challenged by the language barrier? Tell your story!

2 thoughts on “Food Challenged In China

  1. Hi there 🙂

    I live for 1.5 years in China, but I’d been learning Chinese for 3.5 years when I arrived. So it was overall ok, even though I noticed that 1) accents!, 2) some expressions/words we learned were not used by Chinese people, at all (same experience with British English/American English though).
    I could more or less order what I wanted.

    But here are the tips I used when unsure:
    1) Ask them “zhi shi shenme?” when at the restaurant (if this is some kind of food station with someone to serve you, or if you see something of interest passing by). Granted, you sound like a 5 year old -at best- but at least, you can make sure what this food is, and if it happens that you like it, you will be able to re-order it in the future 🙂
    2) For reading the menu (or for anything), download Pleco on your phone! Seriously, this app is a life-savior, no matter what your level in Chinese is. You can draw the Chinese character and it will be translated into English. Or you can type English words, that will be translated to Chinese (and if unsure on how to pronounce them, there is a feature to read it out-loud for you: one of my friend who spoke no Chinese at all did that, and it worked pretty good!).
    3) Try to learn some ‘key’: like “meat” “pork”… If you really have no phone/no battery/no alternative, you can try to guess what is written on the menu.

    Hope it helps!


    • Hey Pauline!!! Thank you for the amazing tips!!!
      I gave Pleco a try and yes! Wha an amazing app!!! Now I just have to improve my hand-writing… I’m a month in already and already picking up some words. Although yesterday I wanted to order rice and ended up with a soup :s. Accents!!!

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