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Hunger games in Beijing, without subtitles

Updated: 2023-11-03 07:34 ( China Daily )
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Stir-fried bacon and mushroom at the eatery serving Hunan cuisine. [Photo by Moumita Mukherjee/China Daily]

The nose runs. Feet smell. English is a funny tongue, but it gets the job done. The only other language I speak fluently outside my country is body. And I was getting by until one day I made it to China.

Moumita Mukherjee [Photo provided to China Daily]

Sanskrit and Tamil, two of the world's oldest languages, are said to have significantly influenced the ancient Chinese language. Even today, the character ni in both Tamil and Chinese translates as "you", while the word Mandarin, which is China's official language, has its etymological roots in the Sanskrit word mantrin (royal counselors).Both the ancient Indian languages were part of my bachelor's course in comparative literature, but they didn't come in handy when my smattering of Chinese was met with blank stares at every fanguan (restaurant) and shangdian (shop).

The sheer futility of my efforts was exasperating, and I decided to fall back on my trusted body language. I was so convinced that this would work that I advised a colleague, who also hails from my hometown, to ditch her not-so-reliable translation apps and gesticulate instead. We quickly realized that playing dumb charades with the unsuspecting fuwuyuan (servers) wasn't exactly the smartest idea.

The two of us got chased down an alleyway for (inadvertently) not paying for our meal; were almost thrown out of a beer-and-barbecue joint for having seemingly shocking food preferences; and we definitely scarred for life our pepper-shy "Bong" taste buds.

For those uninitiated in Indian media terminology, "Bong" is a term fondly used to describe the colonized, cosmopolitan Bengali — the English-speaking, Continental food-craving native of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. Once a parochial label, "Bong" has now become a self-appellation of pride through a hint of humor and self-reflexive irony.

So, it was my birthday. My colleague, as generous as she is, decided to take me out for dinner and drinks. I watched with newfound admiration as an archetypal Bong girl, comfortable with only cash or card transactions, effortlessly scanned a QR code and ordered food at a restaurant during her first month in Beijing. She even got us cocktail refills with a synchronized set of gestures and facial expressions. Certain that she had paid for everything too, we walked out of the restaurant after our meal.

"Maidan, maidan," a waitress ran behind us screaming. My colleague was baffled, because maidan in our mother tongue — and in a few other Indian languages — means playground. Thanks to my few lessons in Chinese, I knew the waitress was asking us to clear the check. It turned out that the eatery, which had recently opened, was yet to integrate its ordering and payment systems, and customers were required to pay by scanning a separate QR code.

Once bitten, twice shy? Nah, not Bongs.

A couple of weeks after the faux pas, we decided to try out a Japanese-style yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant in Beijing. A waitress escorted us to our table and, using a voice translation app on her phone, inquired if we had dietary or religious restrictions. My colleague vigorously shook her head, drew imaginary circles with her hands and said, "We eat all meat." The waitress rolled her eyes, rushed to her fellow workers and showed them something on her phone. They chorused, "Meiyou, meiyou", suggesting that the restaurant didn't serve what we wanted, and gestured that we must leave. It took us a bewildering few minutes to understand that the app on the waitress' phone had translated "all meat" into gourou (dog meat), leaving everyone horrified.

My views about translation apps vindicated, we decided to hone our gesticulation skills before our next food adventure — gan la (dry and spicy) Hunan cuisine.

Now, in Bengal, the use of chili peppers is frugal. Any typical meat curry is prepared with two to four green or red chilies, depending on the quantity cooked and the flavor desired. By comparison, Hunan food is bold (when bold is a euphemism for your burning innards).We learned it the hard way. Our stir-fried bacon and mushroom came buried in ultrahot peppers, because — you guessed it — our animated hand movements and facial expressions were all unintelligible to the waitress.

It's about time we either take some serious lessons in Chinese, or someone invents a mind-reading pill.

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