In the years that I have been living in New York, I have experienced many hilarious moments involving the many ethnic restaurants in town – especially those outside Manhattan, where not only the food might be a little different than what can be found in Manhattan, but the whole environment can bring more than a few surprises.
My first job here was at the YWCA in Flushing, Queens. After I taught my classes, I would usually stop at a nearby Chinese restaurant, where I would order off their ‘lunch special’ menu. I noticed that the waitress who always served me didn’t speak much English, but she took my orders quickly and effectively, so I didn’t think much of it. I really enjoyed the food there, and once I invited a friend to go there with me. I’d forgotten how picky she was, and when she got there, she looked at the menu and said, ‘there’s nothing here I can eat.’
“Try the Szechuan chicken, it’s very good, I suggested.”
When the waitress came by, I quickly ordered my selection, and then my friend turned and asked, “Is this chicken white meat?”
The waitress seemed a bit puzzled, and responded “Yes, chicken” with a heavy Chinese accent.
My friend seemed annoyed and repeated her question to the same answer; the waitress interrupted nervously and blurted, “Chicken. Good. No English.”
A few years later, I took another female friend – a Chinese journalist who was here to study English – to a Colombian restaurant in Jackson Heights, also in Queens. As we took our seats, she opened the menu and was overwhelmed with the quantity of options she had. Oh, there is the fact that the offerings were mostly in Spanish. The menu was translated, but the English-language descriptions were kind of vague compared with the original. For instance, grilled chicken with potatoes, onions and peppers was simply described as ‘chicken with vegetables.’
I worked her through the choices using a process of elimination based on what she felt like. About fifteen minutes later she finally came to a decision, and we could enjoy our meals.
Also in Jackson Heights, there is a Korean restaurant that I used to patronize. The place was always kind of empty during the lunch hour, so I always had the time to greet the staff. Once I started talking to one of the waitresses, and she looked quite confused. Turns out she was the sister of another waitress I knew – but she was a recent immigrant and spoke almost no English. After the sister made things clear, we all laughed about it.
A week later, the waitress enrolled in English classes.