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A Chinese Order

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 16, 2010 1 Comment

The shivering saxophonist played an unrecognizable tune, the melody in competition with the out-of-sync car horns blaring ever so often at the intersection of Center and Shattuck in Downtown Berkeley. I heard snippets of this language and that, foreign to my ears, and then the familiar “American English” sounds-which to me still does not seem like an unmarked category. How strange it is, I think, that the language I have been immersed in these last six years still resists being normativized in my mind: it is ever alien, ever foreign to my ear. It is what is familiar-but still not expected.

But that’s not what this post is about.

So, to celebrate President’s Day-okay, to grab a quick dinner because making it would be too much of a production-we decided to head over to a Chinese restaurant on University Avenue. We sat down, and a chilly breeze wafted in through the open doors. We were handed the menus, and I struggled for what seemed like hours, torn between the Chicken in Orange Sauce and the Beef Broccoli. I finally decided on the latter, and the waitress came in and took our orders. She didn’t write anything down, and I found that vaguely unsettling, though I figured she would remember it all. A minute or two later, however, she returned to our table, bearing a notepad. The notepad was angled in my direction, and what I saw was mesmerizing: intricate Chinese characters scribbled next to numbers. She went down the list of characters, repeating our order out loud. My eyes were riveted to that motion-the movement of her fingers, as they traced what to me were but ciphers-from cryptic line to line. How utterly magical to see the impenetrable script come alive in someone else’s eyes, how humbling, and how fascinating to be rendered utterly “illiterate” for a few moments. Regardless of the translations she supplied, those marks on the page-would always be marks on a page for me, closed off to me. The beauty, the complexity, the encoded layers of meanings that those characters represented-they were not mine, would never be.

The encounter lasted all of thirty seconds. And as she vanished into the recesses of a dark kitchen, for a brief moment in time, I felt a twinge of sadness for the worlds that I will never know…but it was nice to catch a tiny glimpse of that world in a scribbled order in a restaurant.

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One Response to “A Chinese Order”

  1. sharon lee on: 16 February 2010 at 9:19 pm

    This entry spoke to me at my very level of Chinese pride and ignorance. I grew up speaking and hearing Cantonese in the home, and as I’m away at school, I melt when I pass by families or students rambling in the tongue. So much culture is embedded in the language (any language) that I’m not sure a foreigner can understand even after years of immersion… I’m lucky to have that American-Chinese background. Gaining a feel begins with the beautiful passage you wrote in admiration and appreciation.. i’m probably still extremely far from the feeling of my ancestors, but it’ll be worth it to train my future 2nd generation kids as legit american-chinese (not like whitewashed suburbian me :)). east & west have to collaborate at some point… i encourage you to explore chinese culture, or any culture that is so overwhelming that you’d think to “never know”… the world is at our bidding! thanks for the entry 🙂

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