Thursday, May 25, 2006

China Stories Pt 3: I order noodles

I lived at Shao Yuan*, the foreign students' dormitories. Building number four, back and to the right. The facilities were, like the airport, rather spartan, and had an antiquated feel to them. The main building was four or five stories, U-shaped. The center housed offices and classrooms. The wings were dorm rooms. Behind the main building were three other buildings: two dormitories and a cafeteria.

The cafeteria was basically like any cafeteria-- a kitchen, some lines. Rows of tables. They didn't accept money. Rather, you had to buy "fan piao," literally, rice tickets, in varying denominations with which you could then "pay" for food. They were little plastic tickets about the size of a domino, and they had the denominations written on them in Chinese characters. I remember thinking that this was kind of cool- I mean, these little things were kind of like the ration tickets that people used to get for all their food-- one kind for rice, another for cooking oil, and so forth.

My first trip to the cafeteria was a little scary because it dawned on me that for the first time since I had started studying Chinese, I was about to have a transaction with someone who did not also speak some English. A moment of truth.

There were several different lines at the cafeteria-- a couple of lines for Chinese dishes, a line for "Western" food (a concession to the barbarians). (I later discovered that they also sold milk that came in bags, and freshly baked bread that was excellent.)

As I recall, I got in line for something I knew how to say: noodles. I would get a bowl of noodles. As the line inched forward, I became more nervous, and rehearsed the line in my head. I dreaded the idea that I might be forced to resort to pointing-- as a student of the language at Bei Da? Oh, the shame.

Finally, there I was, at the font of the line. I was face to face with this cook wearing a t-shirt and apron, both stained. He looked kind of sweaty, kind of greasy - like he'd been sauteed.

"Qing lai yi wan mian tiao," I managed to get out.

He turned and walked away from me, without saying anything. What happened? Did I fail? Could he tell how clueless I was?

A moment later he returned, and dropped a bowl of noodles on my tray. Then he spoke.

"Yi kuai ba," he said. Oh, crap. I hadn't really worked through any scenarios where I would have to comprehend his reply. I must have looked like an idiot, standing there with my noodles and my mouth hanging open.

"Yi kuai ba," he repeated. He looked at my hand. Where I was holding my meal tickets.

Oh right! I had to pay. He was saying how much it cost: 1.80. I gave him two 1 RMB coupons, and got a .20 back. I was off and running now.

*The literal translation of "Shao Yuan" is "spoon gardens," which we thought was meant as a little joke, since we barbarians didn't normally eat with chopsticks.


At 6:40 AM, Blogger Changeseeker said...

You're a good writer, Ish. I actually got tense with you as "we" approached the noodle line and couldn't immediately tell what the man was saying to "us." Nice work. I'm enjoying this.

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Kirin said...

Good posts.


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