Cultural Blindspot: Noodles.

“Chicken. Noodles. Shrimp.” The customer was baffled; jaw hanging half-open, eyebrows high and tense.

R and I walked into Dinersty, a shoebox of a restaurant in Manhattan’s Garment District, just around the corner from the office. It’s run by nice enough, though quick tempered, bunch of folks from Fujian Province. They’ve got a hot wok, a quadruple deep fryer, rice cookers… all the necessities for Chinese food, but the food that comes out is the kind of Chinese food that could only come from the imagination of a New Yorker. It smells vaguely of pork grease.

Anyway, we walked in, and this baffled customer is down to just nouns: Chicken. Noodles. Shrimp.

The kid behind the counter is just as exasperated; I’m not sure if he was about to scream at the customer or crack up with laughter. “What do want,” he says, just on the verge of yelling, “soup? Chow mein? Chaw fun? Mai fun?”

The customer broke it down again… I want chicken. Noodles. Shrimp. That’s all.

And then the kid behind the counter opens and drops his hands, “Yes! What do you want? Soup? Chicken soup? What kind of noodle?

Yes… chicken. Noodle. And shrimp.

The kid behind the counter readjusts his hat out of frustration and tries again. “Ok, chicken noodle soup… and a shrimp in it?”

The customer looks at the wall disappointed, and then says he’ll be back. He walks outside to cool off.

R orders his lunch; I order my beef with string beans, NO SAUCE. “You want me to steam the beef and beans?” No, I answer, you can 炒 it, but I don’t want it sitting in a pool of sauce. Ok, he replies, just a little sauce so he can 炒 it.

It took me a just a little while to figure out what was in the cultural blind spots of the frustrated customer and the exasperated kid behind the counter. The customer wanted was chicken, noodles, and shrimp, period. That’s what we call yakisoba, which you get at a Japanese restaurant, not a Chinese restaurant. His cultural blind spot was an assumption that noodles are stir-fried. Why shouldn’t he expect them to be? In his world, he’s totally right.

What the kid behind the counter was hung up on was a lesson Davidico taught me back in Shanghai; if you say you’re eating noodles to a Chinese person, they’re going to assume it’s soup… unless you specify that it’s a non-soup noodle dish, like cold noodles, fried noodles. His cultural blindspot was that “noodles” is a soup dish… what else would it be? In his world, he’s totally right.

On top of that, there are regular noodles, egg noodles, rice vermicelli, wide rice noodles…. Walking into a Chinese restaurant and asking for “noodles” is like walking into a Baskin Robins and asking for an ice cream, and giving no further information.

Anyway, to my surprise, as I was waiting for my sauce-less (and yet somehow, still overly salted) lunch, Chicken Noodles Shrimp came back in the door. He repeated his same three nouns, and the kid behind the counter said SOUP? CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP?

I should intervene… I’ll chime in and say “he wants chicken chow mien, add shrimp.” And then I think, wait… I’ll say it Chinese! How do I say it… 他说鸡肉炒面加一点虾仁。 Is that right?

But by the time I figured it out, the customer had acquiesced to the soup, and 30 seconds later there was a plastic container of chicken noodle soup in his hand. The chef had dropped in a couple of cooked prawns. I think it was less than $3.00.

One thought on “Cultural Blindspot: Noodles.

  1. Pingback: Cultural Blind Spots | you don't have to read v2.0

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