A Chinese Order
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.