Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ordering Food At a Chinese Restaurant - Part One

One of the best ways to learn a language is to use it.  Even if you aren't sure you're speaking correctly, just go ahead and go for it.  While your Chinese speaking friends are laughing at you, you'll have plenty of time to plan your revenge, and then you'll move on and be none the worse for wear.  Let's be logical.  I don't know a single native English speaker who has never made a verbal error.  In fact, some of my friends make them all the time (and I probably hold the all time record...)!  Some people have even made a sport out of it (think Clark Griswold...).  There's no reason to be afraid of making mistakes.  Quite often, those most successful at learning foreign languages have one thing in common - the ability to speak fearlessly whether they can speak perfectly or not.  Fortunately, we can choose to speak fearlessly whether we're really on the verge of panic or not.  No one will really know what you're thinking, and foreign language learner or not, that's often for the best.

Now that you're no longer afraid of speaking Chinese (think positive - I always do, especially when using jumper cables - the results have been nothing short of spectacular), the best thing you can do is to find a place to use your Chinese.  A Chinese restaurant is a great option.  Even if you're still nervous, you can take solace in the fact that none of the waiters know you and that if you embarrass yourself beyond repair, you can switch to sushi restaurants for the foreseeable future.  You may be surprised to find that when you start speaking to a person in his own native tongue, he is usually very gracious and flattered that you're even making an effort to learn.  I've usually found this to be the case.  I can't tell you how many times I've just said hello to someone in their native language and ended up talking to them for a good 15 minutes about why I know how to say hello in their language and why I care (e.g. if the Soviet Union ever rises again I'd like to be able to complain about it in Russian).  No, you won't get very far in China if the only word you know is "hello", but you'll get a much better response than you would if you just ran around asking for help in English as if everyone should know it.  You'll usually get the same response from people living in the U.S. who aren't native English speakers.  Hearing one's native language can be very comforting to a person living abroad, so when you take the plunge and start speaking another language to someone, focus on the fact that they're probably too busy being glad to hear their own language to waste time calculating all the times you said "eggplant" when you meant to say "mustache".  In fact, I'm already much more concerned with the fact that your first attempts at speaking Chinese to a native Chinese person could possibly involve the word "mustache", but I digress.

Let's get to the words of the day, shall we?  If you're going to be ordering food at a Chinese restaurant, you should probably know what to call yourself.  After all, we want to make sure that the waiter knows that this food is in fact for you, and not for the people sitting at the table next to you or the busboy who made eyes at you when you walked in.  The word for "I" is "wǒ" (我).  It's pronounced "whoa", as in, "Whoa, I (wǒ) can't believe we didn't discuss this word in an earlier blog post."   The word "wǒ" also means "me", as in "Maybe you should leave the writing to me (wǒ)."

Now let's suppose that you're eating out with a friend.  You don't want your friend to feel neglected, so lets assume you'll be ordering for her as well.  Speaking to the waiter in Chinese while your friend sits there looking confused is also a perk that should motivate you to keep up your language learning, so take some time to enjoy the moment.  When you order for your friend, you'll need to know the word "her", which is "tā" (她).  "Tā" also means "she", so you can say things like, "She (tā) has offered to pay the bill.  Isn't that generous of her (tā)?" You can then gesture politely towards your friend, who, not wanting to be left out, will smile and nod at the waiter as if she understood everything you were saying.  If by chance your friend happens to be male (hopefully you've known all along), then you'll be happy to know that "tā" also means "he" or "him", so you're also free to say "He (tā) was the one who hit that car in the parking lot.  Feel free to have a few words with him (tā) on our way out."  I will point out, however, that when the word "tā" means "he" or "him", it's written "他" though when it means "she" or "her", it's written "她".

The next word you'll need to know is "want", which is "yào" (要).  Add this to what we've learned so far, and you can say "Wǒ yào..." (I want...).  Now we're getting somewhere.  In my next post I'll tell you what you want and maybe even why you want it, but I (wǒ) think for now we'll review today's words and give you some time to curl up in the fetal position chanting them.  Until next time.

1.   wǒ (我) I, me
I (wǒ) hope your friend likes tofu.

2.   tā (她) she, her
I'm going to ask the waiter to bring her (tā) some.

3.   tā (他) he, him
He (tā) might not charge you for it - if you're nice. 

4.   yào (要) want
I want (yào) lunch now.  Perhaps I (wǒ) should have eaten before writing this blog.

This post is part one of a two part series.  For part two, click here.

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For help learning to pronounce Mandarin Chinese words, click here.

Photo courtesy of Eric Chan

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