Hot pot panic

Slight panic was visible in the eyes of the waitresses as I entered the restaurant well past dinner time. The restaurant was nearly empty, just one group of expensively dressed Chinese men was still there.

Both waitresses rushed at me, directing me to a seat and holding back a chair for me, which I promptly tripped over. A good start. A menu was set down before me with both waitresses bent over me to see what I would choose. The menu had a few photo’s, and even fewer English descriptions.

While I was leafing back and forth through the menu, the older waitress pushed her phone in my face. “Hot pot or fried rice” emerged from the phone’s speaker in digital English. I gestured with my hands, pointing at my head, the menu and putting on a questioning expression while shaking my head, trying to make clear that I was still thinking. The waitress was insistent though, she kept her phone in my face and kept playing her ‘hotpot or fried rice’ soundbyte. Her friend emphasized the question by repeating it verbally in somewhat cutish English.

I felt a little bit overwhelmed. Just let me consider my options in peace, tjeez! I grabbed my phone to try and make it clear to them but as soon as I did I saw them look a bit scared, probably reacted to my agitated expression. So, I put down my phone again and decided to go with the flow: ‘hotpot!’.

This prompted some discussion between the two ladies, who didn’t seem very reassured by my choice. Then I saw why as one of them produced a large sheet with just Chinese script on it, and a lot of checkboxes. Fairly hefty prices on the sheet too, for Chinese standards at least. It was obvious to me what needed to be done: choose which things would go into the hotpot. But with about 60 choices available, how would we going to cover them all?

We started at the top. ‘Yak’, no. ‘Chicken?’ yes! ‘Rice?’ yes! The ladies where happy and rushed off. One them came back with a pot of tea and I poured myself a cup while waiting for the ‘hotpot surprise’.

Yak Wanderers

Why do Yaks in China just wander around unattended? I mean, they are mich like cows, and farmers wouldn’t  trust their cows to just wander around. How much is a Yak even worth? Is there not any danger of Yak-napping? Do they always return to their owner after wandering? I just don’t understand why none of the Yaks are ever fenced in. China is kind of a busy place after all.

Several minutes later a huge copper dish with sizzling broth inside was brought to my table and put down on a huge burner. The dish seemed a little empty to me. I grabbed the spoon to test the broth while the waitresses, now numbering three, stood beside me with fear showing on their faces. To my disappointment the broth seemed to contain just random floating chicken body parts, but little else. This wasn’t exactly what I intended, I wanted some vegetables too and not just chicken feet, hearts, heads and whatnot.

I gestured about, trying to ask if there was any more ingredients were forthcoming. I of course realized that they had not checked any more ingredients on the paper, but I had sort of hoped they would give me a typical hot pot at least. I tried to communicate that I expected some vegetables too, but my gesturing was largely ineffective. Then I simply showed them a photo of a previous hotpot dinner, with plenty of vegetables. After some discussion between them they gave me the checkbox sheet again, which of course, I still couldn’t read.

Phones were drawn and a translations app battle ensued, with me asking them just to recommend me something, or give me something typical, and if this huge hotpot was really for one person. I tried to explain there was no need for me to make detailed choices, as I didn’t understand the choices anyway. But alas, asking them to make a choice for me was not an option here. I was the customer after all. I also didn’t want to check a number of random boxes, since the price (and quantity) was already on the high side.

Unable to resolve the issue, I was getting a bit agitated by their constant stressing and anxious faces. One of them rushed off at some point and came back with a small plate with looked like large leaves of lettuce with a look of fright on her face, barely daring to put down the plate.

The third girl, who until now had been largely standing to the side now took control of the situation while the other two gave up. She actually spoke a little bit of English! After some back and forth and more app use, we sort of understood each other. Phew.

I haven’t had any problems in China with ordering food until this night. Everything always went smoothly despite lack of English menus or language skills. But this was perhaps the most expensive place I went where they didn’t speak English. Their willingness to cater to my whims and do exactly as I wanted, while my inability to communicate and their anxiety when they didn’t understand me contributed to the whole disaster.

After I finished my dinner (no I didn’t eat everything: see photo), they thanked me a dozen time and said sorry a similar amount of times. I roughly did the same, trying to indicate that they should not feel sorry. But alas, I still wasn’t able to get the message across.

Lesson learned: if both parties intend to cooperate and are flexible then a lack of a shared languages isn’t that big of a barrier. However, if people expect to follow orders, then it turns into a huge problem.

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