Lost in Translation in Hangzhou

Translation in Hangzhou

Lost in Translation in Hangzhou

“Welcome to the back!” proclaimed an English sign at the front door of a small Chinese restaurant in Hangzhou, a city in China, known for its West Lake. It was here where Marco Polo once sailed, mesmerized by its stunning beauty and declared the place in ancient times as “the most beautiful place in the world.”

Six exhausted backpackers from four countries and I, who all met in a hostel, froze for a moment of silence, as if trying to decipher one of China’s ancient, decrepit signboard. We exchanged quick glances, hoping one had a clue to share. Almost in unison, we quickly realized what the sign meant was, “Welcome back.” It’s one of those rampant translations gone wrong coined as Chinglish, a blend between Chinese and English.

With hunger excruciatingly creeping into our stomach, we gave up looking for another restaurant. We’d been walking all day and we were so hungry we could eat a barrel of dumplings sans chopsticks.

Two ladies behind the reception desk smiled when we came in. One disappeared quickly to call someone from the kitchen. When we were all settled, a waitress came with a kettle of tea and a vacuum flask of hot water. She carefully poured the hot water and tea alternately without asking us what we would like to have. When she was done, she said something in Chinese and our jaws dropped. We understood not a single word. She smiled and left embarrassed.

A young girl in a floral dress emerged from the kitchen. She walked towards us and handed out the laminated menu—in Chinese! We rolled our eyes in disbelief but we expected it nonetheless. She quickly turned her back and left us in a quandary.

Browsing through the black and white, pictureless menu was a useless endeavor but we still ran our fingers through it and stopped casually as if we knew what the dish was. In less than two minutes, the waitress came back, glowing with excitement, “Ready. Now. Order!?” It was more like a command than a polite question.

Due to the young lady’s limited vocabulary, we spent at least three minutes, patiently explaining our dish—in gestures, in sounds and mimes. We heard a sound of a duck quacking, of chicken arms flapping, of tongue slurping a noodle and of a ridiculous face demonstrating a hot pepper.

When it was my turn, I told her that I wanted a chicken soup. She understood what chicken was but not soup. Holding my chopsticks, I dug them into my tea cup, raised them and pretended to sip like it was boiling hot. Before I could finish the rest of my prepared act, she interrupted me like she found her own “eureka” moment! “Oh, I know! I know! Okay. Okay. I know!” That took me less than a minute to explain to her what I wanted. My fellow travelers were impressed at my miming skills. She fled without repeating our orders, feeling accomplished. The other two waitresses at the counter felt so proud and looked at her with deep admiration.

Fifteen minutes later, the dishes started coming. As they were carefully laid on the table, our facial expressions ranged from shock to smiles to bewilderment. Everybody grabbed their chopsticks and giggled while checking out their food. Not one dish was rightfully done, except the rice. Starving, nobody had time to argue and complain about their unusual-looking food. They started digging in like a pack of hungry wolves.

When my dish arrived, everyone stopped eating. They looked in my direction and curiously eyeing the waitress as she anxiously laid the chicken barbecue and a glass of water in front of me.

My chicken soup had just landed on the table.

Amused, the French guy said, “Bon appetit!”

* Visited Hangzhou in summer of 2004.
**The Asian guy was me.

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