I’m currently in Taipei for the summer and because my Chinese is only so-so, I get incredibly nervous doing normal activities. In English, I’m an extrovert of the most obnoxious sort, but in Chinese, I’m painfully shy and awkward. So one of my greatest triumphs in recent memory was ordering breakfast at a stand near my apartment all by myself.
I live in a pretty tony neighborhood in Taipei and a lot of residents in my high-rise apartment building are American or European expats who work at the 101 building nearby, which is also a huge tourist attraction, so the menus at most restaurants around here are written in both Chinese and English or have pictures to point at. It’s generally pretty easy to get around even if, like me, you’re completely illiterate. But the breakfast stand, one of many in Taipei, a street food mecca, is for locals, so I knew I’d have to use my broken Chinese if I wanted my scallion pancake with egg.
First of all, there are two kinds of scallion pancakes here in Taipei. Many of you might be familiar with the thicker, denser kind found in many Chinese restaurants in America. I’ve never been crazy about the leaden, oily things, but I am completely in love with their flaky, pliant cousin, the zua bing. Zua means “to grab” and bing is, I guess, best translated as “pancake.” The zua bing is appropriately named because making it involves pulling it as it cooks on the griddle to create the flaky layers. For those of you familiar with Malaysian cuisine, it’s somewhat similar in texture to roti canai.
So yesterday, determined to accomplish the simple task of ordering breakfast, I marched up to the stand and waited in line. Two people walked ahead of me and I realized I was standing behind a man who had already ordered. The woman operating the griddle asked me what I wanted and I told her a zua bing with egg. She asked me if I wanted soy milk (a typical breakfast drink in Taiwan) and I said yes, and that I’d like it cold (a lot of people drink it hot.) She told me how much it was, I gave her the money, she gave me my food and that was it.
There was no misunderstanding on anyone’s part, I didn’t have to give her a quizzical look because I had no idea what she was saying, she didn’t struggle to understand my accented Chinese, she didn’t try to respond to me in English. It was a simple and efficient exchange and I got exactly what I intended to get. Yay!
Today breakfast, tomorrow, the world!