Ugh. This post isn’t so much about (not) eating lunch as it is about the hazards of being illiterate, hungry, and having only limited oral language skills at your disposal.
I like variety. I like to try new things. On long road trips I keep my finger on the Seek button, stopping on whatever radio station is playing music I’ve never heard before (ha, Jessica hates this). It’s the same with cheap food. But today, it backfired.
Weekday lunches here are usually street food or the next closest thing. They cleared off all the street vendors near the library office where I study in the afternoons, but there are still plenty of hole-in-the-wall places where lunch will cost you less than a dollar. This week I’d already had a string of good luck, stumbling upon three new dishes worth adding into the regular lunch rotation. It helps that the longer we study, the more the street signs slowly come into focus and we can start to read parts of the menus.
Jessica, Chuck, and I hit the street at lunch time wondering what to eat. I noticed a doorway listing some kind of dish that had “roast” (烤) and “spicy” (辣) in the name, among other characters, and that was more than enough to warrant giving it a shot. So Chuck and Jessica headed up the road for bāo zi (包子) and má là miàn (麻辣面) while I ducked inside. They had a BBQ rack! These long (sometimes several feet) skinny BBQs have been in short supply the last few months, and they usually have some of the cheapest and best roasted-on-a-stick street food around. I talked to the couple inside: they had a table full of loaded skewers, and they mentioned “sheep soup” (羊汤). I ordered two chicken skewers and sheep soup, all of which came hot in plastic bags in about a minute.
The three of us returned to the office where lunch usually doubles as oral Chinese practice with the office staff (except for Chuck, who’s sort of an ABC). That’s when I discovered my lunch’s true identity. Now, it’s one thing when you’re served dinner as a guest and you eat whatever it is without any improper hesitation. It’s another thing when you’re buying your own lunch and what you thought was sheep meat turns out to be diced sheep digestive tract, and the chicken meat that you then thought would make your lunch not a total loss turns out to be chicken skin on a stick. No meat, just dimply fatty skin-on-a-stick. Fifteen minutes later I was back outside telling all this to the fried noodle lǎo bǎn (老板), explaining that most Westerners don’t go for stomach parts and skin, and he laughed and told the customers eating next to him while he took my order.
Moral of the story is what everyone at our lunch table, except me, already knew: “sheep soup” (羊汤) and “sheep meat soup” (羊肉汤) are not the same thing. That, and wherever you live, if you want to have a clue you have to learn the language!