A recent event that exploded in Chinese social media is about a tourist being charged RMB 38 per shrimp (instead of per serving!) while dining at a seafood restaurant in Qingdao, a coastal city renowned as a summer resort in the eastern province of Shandong. Jokes of parody soon swept Weibo and WeChat. One of them is about a customer who, determined to learn lessons from the shrimp incident, videotapes his conversation with a barber to make sure that the haircut is not billed by the number of hairs. The bill turns out, however, to be based on the number of cuts with the scissors.
While most Chinese netizens gloat over the rip-off scandal that humiliated a city near the hometown of Confucius, a few local netizens of Qingdao defended the act indignantly in a futile effort to “save face” for their city, claiming that RMB 38 per “sea-caught shrimp” is “not expensive at all” because the giant tiger prawn, a typical sea-caught “shrimp,” is indeed quite expensive. Though it may seem baffling to expats how the “shrimp” can be exchanged by the “prawn” by those cheeky sophists, it sounds much more plausible in Chinese, as both of these words share the root character xia (虾).
A beginner of Chinese should be well acquainted with the powerful generativeness of root characters in Chinese, for example, che (车) can be preceded by different modifiers and turned into words like huoche (train), qiche (automobile), zixingche (bicycle), chuzuche (taxi) and gongjiaoche (bus). Judged from this, the Chinese language features a broader level of categories in its folk taxonomy. I personally tend to interpret this as a necessary result of the complicated ideographic system of the Chinese language in which each of the thousands of characters assumes a stand-alone meaning: if they use an individual character instead of a compound word to denote a new thing, the Chinese dictionary would be swarmed by a soaring number of characters of all shapes and pronunciations beyond the wildest fantasy of humankind. By contrast, while English adopts fewer compound words, its vocabulary proves much more learner-friendly.
The list of xia family in Chinese may go on to include longxia (literally “dragon shrimp”, or lobster), xiaolongxia (literally “little dragon shrimp”, or crayfish), duixia (prawn) and hexia (river shrimp). No wonder an expat friend of mine from the US ordered “small lobster” in a Shanghainese restaurant but was served a plate of crayfish! Well, the Chinese themselves are not immune from cultural encounters of this sort. A Chinese student demanded “paper” in a restaurant in London but was offered a white sheet of A4-sized paper—in fact what he expected was canjinzhi or the paper napkin.
It is useless for expats to stare at menus with their eyes wide open, as menus in Chinese restaurants are notoriously loaded with lousy translations.Hongshao shizitou (meatball braised with brown sauce),a popular dish in Shanghainese cuisine, is often translated verbatim into “red-burned lion’s head,” a sensational name that scares expats out of their wits. Even more appalling is the Sichuan dish “husband-and-wife lung slices,” which turns out to be “sliced beef and ox tongue in Chili sauce.” The imagism school of Chinese cuisine steeped in the Chinese tradition of poetry thus makes ordering food in Chinese restaurants an even more thrilling tightrope walking experience.
Tip: to guard against rip-offs and other catastrophic surprises, always demand a menu with illustrations, as the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A recent catchphrase that swept Chinese social media is you tu you zhenxiang (with pictures there is truth). As in the “shrimp” incident in Qingdao, the photo taken by the diner clearly shows that he was served a plate of plain Chinese white shrimps, a kind of shrimp widely grown in ponds and rivers across China. Hence the restaurant owner was duly fined RMB 90,000 by the government. Bang! The case is closed. No worries, bros.
Expats soaked in Chinese language and cultures, by contrast, are much less apprehensive of those risks, as they usually find ordering food a more pleasant adventure than outdoor trekking. Hey dudes, don’t be scared by incidents of lesser probability or be fooled by those scary names like the “thousand-year egg.” Hold your breath, gently rub this cheesy, sticky yet creamy oddity against your palate, and you’ll soon fall in love with its strangely appetizing flavor. Bon appetit!