Every time when I chat with my family on the phone, they often ask me how I adjust to the American life. My answer is always positive. But they don’t know I still stumble at the circumstances of making choices.
Not a single day in America that I don’t need to make a choice because I can’t live without food. No matter when I go to a restaurant or shop for groceries, I have to go through the process of either listening attentively, think real hard and decide or read closely, compare and decide. This is just one of the common situations I come across in an American restaurant.
Waitress: Hi! How’re you doing?
Waitress: What would you like to drink?
I immediately think to myself: Do I have to order a drink? What can I order? Am I supposed to know the choices without reading the drink list?
Me: Water please.
The first few times of eating out, I kept ordering a soft drink because I didn’t know I can actually order free ice water. That’s quite like what Cantonese do in my hometown, Guangzhou, China—if it’s not free, try not to have it.
(After a few minutes, the waitress comes back.)
Waitress: Here’s your water. Are you ready to order now?
Me: Yes. I’d like a Caesar Salad, a cup of soup and Spaghetti Bolognese.
Waitress: OK. We have Chicken Noodle, Italian Wedding, French Onion, Broccoli Cheese and Beef Chili. Which one do you want?
First of all, to avoid surprises I only order the dishes that I had in China. Some of the soup names are new to me. If only the waitress could explain what the ingredients are in each kind of soup. I don’t know chicken plus noodle make a soup; nor do I know a white wedding dress could turn into Italian style liquid. At first I thought Chicken Noodle was a bowl of noodle with chicken, like a Chinese-style main dish. Obviously, I was wrong. Second, the waitress gives me a fast rundown like singing a rap song. I can hardly follow. So, I pick the one that resonate in my mind.
Me: I’ll have a Chicken Noodle.
Waitress: Ok. What kind of dressing for your salad?
Me: What do you have?
Again, I wonder myself, am I supposed to know all these before I come to the restaurant? The common sense for Americans doesn’t apply to ignorant foreigner like me.
Waitress: We have Honey Ranch, Italian, Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Strawberry Vinaigrette and Creamy Caesar.
Me: Thousand Island.
My mind is bloated after hearing the list. I barely catch a word except Thousand Island which is familiar to me. The safest is to order something I know.
Waitress: Ok, your dinner comes with a side dish. What would you like?
What is a side dish? In China, a side dish means a small plate of condiment, such as soya sauce, chili sauce or mustard. Apparently, I didn’t read the menu carefully. The list of side dishes is likely stated on the menu in fine print. With the dim lighting in the restaurant, the list at the bottom of the page isn’t noticeable to me at all.
Me: What are the options?
Waitress: Cole Slaw, Black Beans, Home Fries, Mashed Potatoes, Baked Potatoes, Steamed Veggies, Apple Sauce and Hush Puppies.
Me: Steamed Veggies, please.
My brain is drained by now. I don’t seem to remember I have been through so many decisions making before a meal in China. My biggest problem is I don’t know these foods. What are they? They aren’t in my English textbook!
I later asked the waitress named Pepper. T how long it took her to memorize such a long list of food. She said, five years. She had worked in the restaurant for five years. Well, she doesn’t know for customer like me, I have to remember her rattling in five minutes and respond!
Another confounding situation is when I go to Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh. Just strolling along the cereal aisle overwhelms me. There are 35 kinds of brands on the shelf—frosted cheerios, toasted oats, honey nut toasted oats, apple cinnamon cheerios, cocoa crisp rice, peanut butter crunch, crunch berries and many others. Each type of food has more than one choice. So my grocery shopping can easily turn to be a vocabulary shopping.