Since moving last month, we’ve had to find new places to eat. Our new neighborhood has fewer western options than our old one, so that means trying some new cuisines. (This is not to say that we relied on the western restaurants, but now that we’re without them it takes a bit more thought when we decide what we’re hungry for.) In our marriage, new cuisine means 1) I get to try to indicate what we want in my limited Chinese and 2) I have to play taste tester for Andy because of his many food allergies.
This has gone exceedingly well, surprisingly, and I’m pleased to report that we now have several reliable, really delicious choices near our new apartment. Our favorite, though, is the noodle place.
One Friday night, we walked around a new plaza nearby to see what restaurants were available. After sitting down in a Cantonese place and finding we couldn’t understand most of the menu, we left. We wandered back to a noodle place we saw earlier on our walk.
When we try a new Chinese place for the first time, we only eat vegetarian dishes. This is because we want to be sure we’re eating the animal the menu says… and because in general it’s easier to tell the quality of a restaurant by the quality of its vegetarian dishes. (I.e., do they follow instructions? Does this dish really not contain meat?) We aren’t vegetarians in our daily lives, but ordering only vegetarian dishes on our first visit has been a reliable way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
So we began by asking the man at the cash register for vegetarian food: 这里有素菜吗？(zhe li you shu cai ma? / Do you have vegetarian food?)
My question was met with confusion and lots of rapid-fire Chinese. (Herein lies the peril of correctly executing questions in a foreign language: the response!) I should point out that not wanting meat is somewhat puzzling to most Chinese people. In my experience, this has to do with their concept of what creates a healthy diet as much as their country’s and culture’s not-so-distant experience with malnutrition and starvation.
I reiterated: 我不要肉。(wo bu yao rou. / I don’t want meat.)
After several minutes of me fumbling for words I recognized and him pointing and miming at things, we made it back to the cash register. But I guess he still wasn’t sure if he was meeting our needs. He pulled out his smartphone and called a friend, saying: “我的朋友知道英语。” (wo de peng you zhi dao ying yu. / My friend knows English.)
He literally phoned a friend.
I talked with his friend for a minute (in English), and then handed the phone back to the Noodle Man. We did this three times until he was absolutely sure he knew what we wanted.
At this point, I whispered to Andy that we are now officially vegetarian at this restaurant.
Our soup arrived and it was incredible. Truly the best noodles I’ve had in China (and the best noodles I’ve had since Japan in 2015!). We ate everything and got up to leave. Before we left, Noodle Man got our attention and then showed me a phrase translated from Chinese on his smartphone: “Thank you, please come again.”
We smiled and laughed and said 谢谢 (xie xie / thank you). I was trying to stifle exactly how touched I was by his efforts to communicate with us. I basically said “awww!” the whole walk home.
Fast forward to last night. We made our way back to the noodle place. At first, Noodle Man wasn’t there. We ordered from the chefs, waited, and we found forks in our bowls of soup this time. I made a nearly inaudible “awww!” because the gesture was so kind. Usually it’s chopsticks or nothing at local places.
We had begun to eat our delicious noodles by the time Noodle Man arrived. He greeted us with a huge smile, and then approached me with his smartphone.
He opened an application and then spoke “你好” (ni hao / hello) into the microphone. The phone then said in English “Hello.” He had downloaded a voice translator.
He mimed for me to try it, so I did. I held down the recorder button and said “Hello,” to which the application replied, “你好.”
Everyone–Noodle Man, Andy, me, chefs, and other patrons–whooped in delight.
Noodle Man quickly took his phone back and spoke into the translator again: “And that’s what we will use in the future,” the translator said for him as he grinned.
Again, I had to stifle the “awww!” that was bubbling to the surface in my heart.
We finished our meal, talking the whole time about how kind and sweet it is that Noodle Man went above and beyond to communicate with us.
I made it out the door before I emitted an “awww!” to beat all awwws. We love Noodle Man and his noodles. Thank you, we will come again.