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Language Barriers in Vancouver Restaurants


Jeffy Boy
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I had an interesting experience at a Chinese restaurant that got me thinking about the difficulties in operating a restaurant in two (or more) languages, and how well Vancouver's restaurants support our diverse population.

My experience:

I've been try to expose some willing co-workers to food they haven't experienced before, through occasional lunch hour "field trips". Yesterday we headed to Neptune Sharkfin Seafood Restaurant in Richmond, for dim sum. I'd been there before, and figured it would be a good first exposure for them to dim sum.

Everything is ordered off the menu, and you make your selections on a paper form with a pencil. The paper form has items #1 through 77, with only chinese character names. They also have a bound menu, with items #1 through 77, with chinese and english names. No problem - figure out what you want, note the number, and mark it off on the paper. We ordered about a dozen items (all pretty tame ones) for our group of 4.

First item up - radish cake. Tasty and hot, raves all round. Off to a good start. Two more dishes follow quickly. Hmmm, I think. These two don't look like anything we ordered. Look for waiter. Dish number 4 also dropped off, also not what we ordered. I'm thinking they must have got our table confused with another. Tell server, these dishes aren't what we ordered. Server's english is limited, but she understands there's a problem. Mister navy suit comes over. We explain the problem.

He calmly says "Oh, the menu doesn't match the order form. Didn't someone tell you that?". "Uh, no, they didn't", I reply, though I'm having difficulty processing what he's just told me. They have 77 numbered items, on two lists, but the numbers don't match. WTF??? He goes on to explain what's been brought to us. Apparently now trying to "sell" us the dishes that we "ordered".

No, we would like the items we picked out of the bound menu. It takes a while to get him to this point. The only way to now get what we want, is to tell him the item we want, then he finds it on the paper menu and marks it off.

He leaves, we talk about this, minds boggled. We check the menus against the form. Sure enough, the items don't match. Our first dish was a match by coincidence. Lotto 12/77! What amazed me the most, is that the restaurant was obviously aware of the mismatch, but weren't concerned enough to reprint either the menus or paper forms. Even chinese speakers/readers would get screwed up if one was reading the bound menu and was calling out numbers to someone else to transcribe.

The remaining dishes eventually come - all quite good.

I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the day he killed himself. - Johnny Carson
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I can totally sympathize, Jeffy Boy! There's a dim sum place on Alexandra Road that I often to go with my parents, and my mom has no trouble reading the Chinese characters on the order form. I took my bf there a few years ago, and it was almost impossible trying to figure out which item is which considering I can't read much Chinese. (I only know the basic words like "noodles" or "beef".)

It's kind of embarrassing getting a waiter to take down our order...so I don't often eat at Chinese restaurants if I know their dim sum order form only has Chinese characters.

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You've got me beat Ling, I don't even know that much but if the menu has both English and Chinese I can recognize a good handful.

This is part of the reason I don't have dim sum in Richmond. That and I think I'm being reversely discriminated against, being Chinese (born here actually) and not knowing how to read and write it. I've shamed my ancestors, I'm sure of it :raz:

Edited by plunk (log)
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I think that's why certain dim sum places don't get mentioned here. I think that the Kirin's restaurants have the best dim sum - especially the Richmond location. (Sorry Sun Sui Wah and Pink Pearl - but it's true)

Unfortunately - the further away you get from downtown the less English they seem to know. Cambie and 12th is still workable but by the time I get to the Richmond branch - I am reduced to pointing to the menu and then pointing to my mouth and making grunting noises.

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I am reduced to pointing to the menu and then pointing to my mouth and making grunting noises.

There's also the effective technique of frantically pointing at the food on other tables.

Sometimes (not always) the language barrier is the price you pay for authenticity. Of course, this is easy for me to say. I can usually decipher a Chinese menu based on my Japanese background.:biggrin:

Baker of "impaired" cakes...
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Always go for dim sum with Chinese speaking friends/colleagues! It is so much easier that way!

I wonder how much of a local problem this is versus global since we have such a plethora of asian restaurants ... I used to go to a Chinese place in Victoria and would always try to convince them to feed me some of what the staff were having ... hardly ever worked, but my regular table was always there and they would test recipes on me/my friends. Ok Ok, I've digressed.

The places that this has been a problem for me are only when travelling, like when in Florence we ended up with a raw artichoke on a plate served with a wedge of lemon. I refused to leave that raw artichoke alone, but man it was hard to choke back :blink:

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“Always go for dim sum with Chinese speaking friends/colleagues!”

This aphorism is worthy of entry into a book called “Life’s little instruction book” that came out in the early 90s. It should also be followed with:

“Learn to use chopsticks if you look Asian.”

It will save you all the contempt that they reserve for people asking for fork in Asian restaurants.

Gato ming gato miao busca la vida para comer

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Sometimes the language barrier is on purpose. I went to a Japanese butcher and everything was in Japanese and English except for one items. The character looked like "horse" and the butcher was laughing before I could get the question out.

I am assuming that selling and eating horsemeat is legal in Vancouver. I remember seeing horse sashimi on the menu at Sakae not too too long ago.

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Ok, I have been looking at this post for a couple of days. It does say horror stories. I have a feeling that this will be the final post of this thread because how do you follow up this.

Last summer, we had a Japanese tourist have a heart attack and die. I was a surreal situation. In the summer, we would do multiple series of tour groups, sometimes getting them as they got off of the plane, before they got to the hotel.

People would fall asleep at the table all of the time. Long story short, my waiter says to me, " I think we have a problem on table 12 " , I look over and the chap looks like he is sleeping. I finish the 40 meals that I have in front of me and proceed over to the table. At this point, his wife has placed a napkin over his face, and everybody quietly continues to eat. The tour guide is outside, talking on the phone. I zip out to her and ask what is going on . She is calling the office for instructions, I tell her to call an ambulance.

I go back inside ( the restuarant is full and I am the cook today ) , I check his pulse ( He has one, strong and steady ) and try and make him more comfortable. I check his airway for any blockages. Nothing. Everybody is quietly eating but becoming more uncomfortable. A minute goes by and the tour guide is still on the phone. I pick up my phone and dial 911.

I need an ambulance !

Is this the Hamilton Street Grill ? I feel relief wash over me as help must be on the way !

Yes, I reply, do you have one on the way ?

No.

Why not !!!!!

No one has called us . ( I guess everybody back at the office were freaking out and did not know what to do )

I quickly explain the situation

Now the ambulance was on the way. I go back to the table and try and figure out what is going on. I ask for any medication he has, what is his condition etc. You have to realize that this is a three way conversation between me, the tour guide and the wife. They hand me a bag of medication but everything is in Japanese and no on could tell me what it says. No problem. " What is wrong with him ? Why does he have this medication ?

" His hands shake but he can drive" was the response. This was going from bad to worse. I was living "lost in translation" Everybody was quietly eating, but a few tears are falling.

Ambulance attendants arrive, etc. Five of them in total. They lay him out on the floor and go to work. Everybody in the restaurant carries on eating, watching this whole scene take place. The three way conversation becomes a four way between me and ambulance to tour guide to wife. It was very, very weird. Waiters were asking me what to do with other peoples ( non tour groups bills ), I did not care, don't pay, whatever, couldn't you see I was busy !!!

It was crazy. People insisted on paying, everybody had a look as they walked out the door. I kicked the tour group out without them getting to finish their lunch. It was too crowded with emotions running very high. Outwardly I was calm and firm, but I was really screaming inside my head. The tour group had to wait out front for about 30 minutes as their bus driver had taken off, ambulances clogging the street etc. They cart the man off in the ambulance to the hospital where he passed away later that day. The sad thing was the wife had to go in a seperate ambulance, without the benefit of the tour guide. She looked so terrified. The ambulance guys said that the hospital had translators so not to worry.

This was the worse day I have ever had, all cooking things aside, this is the real deal. There is more to the story as the family arrives a couple of days later etc, but that is not really important at this point.

There you go. Horror story.

Neil Wyles

Hamilton Street Grill

www.hamiltonstreetgrill.com

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Yikes, Neil...sounds like a rough day.

I once was serving the Italian trade federation in Toronto, a group of 25.

Serious language barrier.

I served the first course and before I did a quality check I asked the sous chef, who was from Calabria, how to say"How is everything?" in Italian. He said something like "Que catso fie" in response.

I turned on my heel and repeated it to the table with a smile.

They all giggle and gaped at me with a few sniggers.

I asked an Italian waiter what it meant and he said "It means: what the fuck are you doing?"

Thank god for autograts.

Edited by editor@waiterblog (log)

Andrew Morrison

Food Columnist | The Westender

Editor & Publisher | Scout Magazine

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I always ask for a fork when ordering noodles and I end up sitting with a bowl of steaming noodles in front of me without a fork. I find this occurs more often in Vietnamese restaurants. Don't know why.

One time, my family hosted a dinner of twenty people at Pelican restaurant on Hastings and Victoria. I asked for a set of knives and forks for the kids table (about 10 set) and they didn't have enough forks in the entire restaurant. Mind you, we were the only ones using forks in the entire restaurant. Go figure.

But the pointing method seems to work the best. I mention the item number and the item name as I run my finger along the menu.

Some Chinese restaurants have a different menu printed only in Chinese which is different from the duo-language menu most English readers see. The food in this former menu is more exotic and sometimes offer better deals.

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Wow, Neil. I can still hear the trauma in your voice.

I do want to hear the rest of the story, though. If you ever get the time or the motivation. When his family arrived, did they come into the restaurant and see you?

s

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In Hong Kong, in the mid 1980's, a story appeared in the South China Morning Post that may be appropriate in this thread.

An English solicitor (working in Hong Kong), his wife and their terrier spent a long Sunday afternoon walking in the hills in the New Territories behind Kowloon - as English expatriates in Hong Kong are wont to do. On the way back to their home on Hong Kong island that evening they stopped for dinner at a small restaurant on the Kowloon side. Mr. & Mrs Solicitor ordered their meals by pointing at the English translations on the Chinese menu - there being no commonality of language between Mr & Mrs S. and either their server or anyone else in the restaurant in which they had chosen to dine.

The terrier was thirsty, and Mr. S, in full mime mode after ordering the menu, got the waiters attention and alternately pointed at the terrier - and then his own mouth - intending to convey the notion that the dog was thirsty.

The waiter, ever solicitous, nodded his understanding and beckoned the terrier to follow him into the kitchen for some water. Mr & Mrs S. meanwhile got stuck into their frosty Tsingtao's.

As is often the case in Hong Kong, Mr. & Mrs. S had a long and splendid dinner, consuming far too much food and drink. When they went to pay the cheque and inquired after their dog .... well, and no surprises here, it turned out that they had consumed their dog at some point between the steamed garoupa and the water convolvulus sauteed in garlic.

Now this tale has since assumed the status of an urban legend in Hong Kong - but I can attest to reading the original article in the SCMP when it first appeared - although, it has to be said, the SCMP has about the same reporting standards as our very own "Province".

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  • 2 weeks later...

Restaurants need to look outside the box. We should bench mark with the asian community in order to get a better understanding of each of the different cultures.

Approach college profs who specialize in this area and have them come in and talk to the staff. Put this in your manuals, and make it part of training.

Just an idea,

Leonard

C GM

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I'm reading this thread for the first time...I really sympathize with you, Neil. As my husband is Japanese, I've been involved in all kinds of situations where not only is the language a barrier, but the customs or way of thinking. I have a real good idea what happened when your J diners came back...as this might be a sensitive subject for you, I'll await your reply or no reply.

One of the funniest wasn't in a restaurant. It was when I first started cooking, my husband said, "I'll be your marmot." He meant "I'll be your guinea pig." but in his Japanese-English dictionary, the word was translated as marmot.

"One chocolate truffle is more satisfying than a dozen artificially flavored dessert cakes." Darra Goldstein, Gastronomica Journal, Spring 2005 Edition

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I'm reading this thread for the first time...I really sympathize with you, Neil. As my husband is Japanese, I've been involved in all kinds of situations where not only is the language a barrier, but the customs or way of thinking. I have a real good idea what happened when your J diners came back...as this might be a sensitive subject for you, I'll await your reply or no reply.

One of the funniest wasn't in a restaurant. It was when I first started cooking, my husband said, "I'll be your marmot." He meant "I'll be your guinea pig." but in his Japanese-English dictionary, the word was translated as marmot.

Thank goodness. My translation book says "wolverine".

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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  • 2 weeks later...
You've got me beat Ling, I don't even know that much but if the menu has both English and Chinese I can recognize a good handful.

This is part of the reason I don't have dim sum in Richmond. That and I think I'm being reversely discriminated against, being Chinese (born here actually) and not knowing how to read and write it. I've shamed my ancestors, I'm sure of it  :raz:

Same boat. Cantonese was my first language, but I lost most of it when I started school. Reading and writing - none. Stares from Chinese-Chinese people - many.

Here's an interesting method my brother developed: when you find dim sum order forms with both Chinese and English, keep the form. You can use is as kind of a cheat sheet for when you find yourself in those Chinese-only menu situations. A variation: go to the restaurant first with a Chinese reader. Make notes on the form of what you actually ate. Reuse form as required.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I just wanted to pick up this thread again, because I walk by the Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood all the time, and I wish I knew more about them. I read lately about a book you can get that has the Chinese characters for food items-someone in New York was writing about it, I think. My mind's a sieve. Does anyone know about this book? Why don't we all have one? Where is the guide to eating Chinese food in Vancouver?

My son and I ate lunch at the Buddhist Vegetarian place on East Pender and I had bought him a workbook with Chinese characters for fun. The waitress was tickled pink and helped us figure out how to do it. I was touched at how eager she was to teach us about her culture. Why are we so seperated by our language?

I want someone to write that guide and I want to know where to get the best cook at your table hot pot in Vancouver. I'm also interested in literature that talks about Chinese food. I've been reading the mystery novels by Peter May set in Shanghai which have been inspiring me to learn more. There is a passage where a pregnant pathologist steams up lotus paste buns for breakfast-such a lovely simple domestic moment that had me buying some for my freezer right away!

Zuke

P.S. I went to Lyon, and with much false hubris regarding my grade twelve French proceeded to order a Salade Lyonnaise. My "salad" turned out to be a fried egg plunked on sweet breads-not good for jet lag. I've taken food guides on trips ever since!

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."

--Mae West

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I just wanted to pick up this thread again, because I walk by the Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood all the time, and I wish I knew more about them. I read lately about a book you can get that has the Chinese characters for food items-someone in New York was writing about it, I think. My mind's a sieve. Does anyone know about this book? Why don't we all have one? Where is the guide to eating Chinese food in Vancouver?

The book you are talkng about is "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters" by James McCawley. It's been around for ages. I have read the hardback version, but it's been reprinted in softcover. Have to admit, I'm too lazy to use it really well.

What I like about the (I think Vancouver?) system of checking off items on the sheet instead of having only carts come by, is that it makes it easier to order items when you want to eat it. For instance, when it's only carts, I invariably see the dessert lady before getting anything else. But if the translation is bad, it's such a pain in the ass to order sometimes.

Edited by jschyun (log)

I love cold Dinty Moore beef stew. It is like dog food! And I am like a dog.

--NeroW

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What I like about the (I think Vancouver?) system of checking off items on the sheet instead of having only carts come by, is that it makes it easier to order items when you want to eat it.  For instance, when it's only carts, I invariably see the dessert lady before getting anything else.  But if the translation is bad, it's such a pain in the ass to order sometimes.

I like the "check off" system too - the stuff comes out fresher and hotter. With the carts, you don't know how long they've been wheeling those things around for. But there's something mysterious and fun about having the cart come around, the lady saying something you don't understand in the least, and that moment when she lifts the top off one of the items to show you, and you look at your dining partner and try to telepathically decide whether you'll take one or not. :smile:

I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the day he killed himself. - Johnny Carson
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Swallowing Clouds

Oh jshyun, I'm so glad you knew the title and author of the book by James McCawley. I googled it, and of course, it's readily available on Amazon, along with several other relevant titles. There is only one copy of it in the library system in Vancouver, which is a shame, really. Although, it's probaby one of those books that comes back with pages stuck together, stained with soya sauce (and chocolate, if it's me). I'm going to request they buy a few more copies. There are even dim sum flash cards you can buy-which would be great for the kids! The book that came up that intrigued me the most is called Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine by A. Zee. The book is exactly what I was looking for. It is uncanny! I got it out from the library and it's just so inspiring. You have to listen to this: "Once, when I was at dinner with a well-known Chinese food critic and writer, someone mentioned this triad of food, fragrance, and taste. The elderly gentleman-gourmet responded that food writers, by constantly talking about these three characters, often miss the single character that summarizes the basic philosophy of Chinese cuisine. Naturally, we all wanted to know what that might be. He replied, to our surprise that it was [...] loosely translatable as 'intention', or 'meaning'. Seeing that we were puzzled, he went on to say, 'When someone invited you to dinner, it is his intention that gives the food meaning. Only by understanding his intentions can you understand the taste you experience. This is what the Chinese mean by [..]' (loosely, understanding and tasting the meaning behind the food.)" pg. 45. Zee goes on to say Chinese cuisine is the only one in the world you cannot enjoy by yourself.

Having taken a printing workshop with a Chinese calligrapher the other day, it occurred to me that I'd like to learn to write the characters as well as read them. I think I'm going to put together a food-related Chinese calligraphy class in my neighborhood for adults and kids. It would be fun to develop a little curriculum with some basic ideas around different types of Chinese cuisine. Then you could make a little workbook with photos and... well you could do lots with it. I have decided that this year, The Year of the Rooster, is going to be my year of action-although , I'm not a rooster, I'm a horse, as well as a Pisces, so my head is in the clouds and yes, while I'm up here, I might as well swallow a few.

The mountains were indeed swallowing the clouds today, and I had a lovely little culinary odyssey, but I'll save that for later.

Ciao Up and Ciao Down,

Zuke

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."

--Mae West

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