Written by Kelsey, High School/Pre-College Student Correspondent for JSA Diplomat Program in Beijing, Summer 2018*
You see, I was in a bit of a predicament yesterday. For lunch we went to Beijing Union University’s cafeteria: a beautiful, four-level cornucopia of food containing every dumpling, noodle, and rice dish I didn’t yet know I wanted. I remember initially walking up to one of the windows where I could order food feeling very confident! Surely having four years of Mandarin classes under my belt would provide me with at least enough knowledge to get myself a bowl of those delicious, steaming noodles.
The thing about learning Mandarin is that while I may have learned some of the “food” characters on the menu, I didn’t learn ALL of them. So while I recognized the character “肉” for meat, or “鸡” for chicken here and there, the rest of the menu was… unreadable. Panic setting in, all of the confidence I had possessed earlier disappeared. How was I going to order myself something when I didn’t even know what was on the menu? Luckily Jason, CET’s Resident Director and the man who knows the answers to any and all of our problems, read me the menu. I ended up getting “hong xiao niu rou” noodles, which I think translates to something like soy sauce braised beef noodles.
It was EXCELLENT.
The thing is, though, it’s summer right now in Beijing. It was 100°F today and, as delicious as those noodles were, I was feeling pretty hot. Finished with my bowl, I was looking for something to cool me down. At the back of the cafeteria, I spotted a single juice machine! Walking up, I noticed there were four flavors: mango, strawberry, coconut, and blueberry. So… how does one say “mango” in Mandarin??? I had completely forgotten! The fruits unit was two years ago in school, and the only thing I retained was that “apple” was pronounced “ping guo”.
The attendant, oblivious to my internal panic, came over and (probably) asked me what I wanted, to which I said in English, “um, sorry?” Flailing a bit, I decided on pointing at the juice machine behind her, hoping that she might understand my spastic hand gestures. Nodding and conveying to me that she understood I lacked adequate Mandarin to tell her what juice flavor I wanted, she walked over to the machine and slowly, one by one, pointed to the pictures of the different options. When she got to the mango flavor I smiled and nodded vigorously. She smiled back!
I think I’ve been both surprised and humbled by how patient and accommodating the people here are towards foreigners. They genuinely want to be helpful. Even if it means interpreting my wild pointing gestures at peak rush time, they’ve still taken a second to help me out when they can. Patience and kindness, especially in this new environment, has been key. And the mango juice was delicious.
Today is our third day in Beijing! We’ve spent our time so far going through orientation to learn about cultural norms, the Beijing Union University campus, Chinese etiquette, and practicing our chopstick skills—all the details we need to know to get used to living in China. The food is particularly amazing. Our Mandarin class orientation is tomorrow, and we’ll be starting those as well as our core classes on Monday. I’m very excited!