It can be quite tough at times to find a square meal in China to suit the western palate. There is of course great food to be had but if you don’t know the Chinese for it you are on a non-starter, quite literally. Some places have picture menus but they tend to be the exception.
By way of example of the perils involved, here’s a picture one of my colleagues sent me of something she found in her food while in Dongguan. She was uncertain whether it was fungus, seaweed or intestine!
My solution is to have friendly Chinese people you meet write down the Cantonese or Mandarin characters (kanji) for the dishes you like when you encounter them. You can ask them to write the pinyin (romanised script) too if you want to have a stab at the pronunciation but don’t assume all Chinese people will be able to read it. Also be aware there are regional variations of pinyin!
With the help of accommodating hotel receptionists and teachers, I’ve built up a set of food flashcards that I can show to waiters to get such staples as fried or steamed rice, various stir fried greens, beef noodle soup and cold beer. It sounds like a bit of a cop out, but your server will appreciate it, and you’ll get the food that you actually want to eat.
There are also picture flashcards, which use the three scripts mentioned above, that you can download for free here and here. I also recommend the Lonely Planet phrasebook which has a handy dictionary with kanji translations you can show to the waiters. Now of course you can download dictionary apps for your smart phone as well.
For specific local dishes, take a photo of the relevant regional list on this webpage and just show the waiter the characters for the ones you want to try. Do it before you travel as you probably won’t be able to access this page (or many other websites) once in China.
You should also remember to say if you want your drinks cold (‘bing’). If you don’t, you will get probably get warm beer or water as Chinese people believe they are better for the stomach than cold beverages. A useful phrase might be 不冰不给钱! or ‘bù bīng bù gěi qién!’ which I think translates to “no cold, no give money!”
Most restaurants close at 2pm lunchtime and by 10pm at night and are pretty rigid about it. There are always night markets and stalls around should you want to eat later.
In the smaller local establishments, hold on to the little packets of tissues they send you as there’s often no loo roll in the toilets.
Airport restaurants are surprisingly not too bad, which is a godsend if you’re like me and can’t abide any of the stuff served on planes.
If you can bring yourself to do it, serving staff can be summoned by clapping your hands above your head football supporter style! I only ever do this if I have been completely abandoned though.
While we’re at it, there are a few local habits that were sources of culture shock for me:
Most (though not all) waiters I have met have been very friendly and attentive, even a bit too attentive at times. Hovering hotel servers will pounce on any plate or spoon that looks used, even reaching over you as you eat in their eagerness to procure it and thereby justify their existence. It’s very annoying but I’ve learned to roll with it or you would be constantly losing your temper at breakfast, admittedly a time when I’m not at my best.
Once I returned from getting a coffee to find everything gone; my milk and spoon I’d just collected, my food and even my newspaper. I went round replacing everything but but by the time I came back my coffee had gone! I just had to laugh. Breakfast can take a while in China…
Probably the most unappealing cultural habit for Westerners is public spitting, which is mainly but not exclusively practised by males. I can live with it on the street but when trapped next to several hockers on a plane, and even a spitter in a sauna! (as has been my misfortune in the past), you risk being driven to the point of insanity.
My solution is to use a PET (Politeness Enforcement Tactic) to make them stop, in this case offering them a tissue to embarrass them! If only there was a flashcard for ‘please don’t hock or spit’. Posher restaurants have signs with this message, both in kanji and cartoon form. If you see one, my suggestion would be to take a picture of it and show it to any offenders that enter your personal space. People know it’s not acceptable because if was made illegal by city governments during the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo.
Hopefully these tips will make your trip more enjoyable.