Hungry in China

People always worry able how they’ll be able to survive in China without being able to speak the language. Simple tasks like ordering food can be a challenge, especially in areas with few foreigners. This shouldn’t be discouraging though. You may get a little hungry, you may order some unexpected things, but you will survive and probably come away with some interesting stories as well. Here is how I survived my first few weeks in China.

Fried rice

It’s actually fairly common to have a “first food.” By this, I mean the first and only thing you learn how to order in a foreign country. When one of my friends first went to Korea, he only knew how to say “pulgogi” or Korean barbeque, and so he ate it every day until he could no longer afford it and had to learn to order something cheaper. Another friend ate nothing but Kung pao chicken in China until he heard about the bird flu.

My first food was “chao fan” or fried rice. Almost every restaurant in china has fried rice too! In fact, for the first month I was in china, just about every restaurant I went to I ate fried rice! Sometimes I would run into a problem where the waitress asked what kind of fried rice I wanted. This was when I learned to say “dan chaofan,” egg fried rice. For only 3-5 yuan per serving, I was saving money too!

Ramen noodles

Ramen sometimes seems like the perfect food, it’s cheap, convenient, and fun to eat, though slightly unhealthy.

I once heard a story about a Chinese student to went to America for postgraduate studies. He was apparently rather studious and barely left his apartment. He was also poor and ate only ramen noodles. Well, one day someone noticed that he wasn’t showing up for his classes anymore, and so he went to check on him in his apartment. What he found inside wasn’t pretty. Stacks and stacks of empty ramen containers, and the boy’s body. Apparently, there isn’t enough nutrition in ramen to sustain people for long periods of time. Probably an urban legand.

Before I heard this story though, I discovered the economical food at my local Chinese supermarket. Ramen in china is much more plentiful than in America and comes in many different varieties. The best part about it is that you don’t need to be able to speak Chinese to buy it!

Certain kinds of ramen noodles come in foil lined bags. It’s rather ingenious really. You simply heat water, then pour it into the bag, tie the bag shut with a rubber band or elastic hair tie, wait a few minutes and voila ! This sustained me for weeks whenever I wasn’t eating fried rice. A trick I learned later from my korean classmates was to put steamed rice in the ramen broth after you finish the noodles. It’s very satisfying and can be made inside your dorm room! (I by no means recommend the ramen noodle diet.)

French toast

Whenever I was truly hungry, I would try my luck at one of three restaurants I found in the city with English menus. My first visit to a “western” restaurant left me feeling a little helpless.

One day during my first week in China, I decided to go out for a Western-style breakfast with my one American classmate. We were so excited about the possibility of being able to read a menu and the possibility of bacon, eggs, and pancakes. We spent several minutes reading everything in the menu from cover to cover until it was time to order. The waitress assured us she spoke English, but just in case we pointed to the items we wanted on the menu. I ordered a glass of milk and French toast! I was so happy I must have been glowing!

First, the milk arrived. It was hot, in a scalding hot glass, accompanied with corn syrup… not exactly the ice-cold milk I was used to. I assumed the corn syrup was for the French toast.

Then a saucer of ketchup was brought out. I stared at the ketchup with fascination as I pondered its possible uses.

Finally, my breakfast arrived! There was a plate of French fries and a plate of toast!

So much for my French toast.


Recently, I saw a Bruce Lee movie that made me laugh. It was called “The Big Boss,” and there is one scene where the non-English speaking Bruce Lee goes to a restaurant in America and tries to order food by simply pointing to random items on the menu. I can sympathize with how his order turned out.

One day the other American student and I were staring at a dinner menu with pretty Chinese characters. They were very pretty and we assumed that each character represented something that might be rather tasty, but we had no idea what.

Luckily, I had my handy phrase book where I was able to compare the lists of food with the characters on the menu. It actually didn’t help very much at all, but we did manage to order two dishes after picking out the characters for chicken and for pork. It’s always rather self-gratifying when one can accomplish a task like this.

The first dish was brought out and it was a type of soup. It wasn’t what we were expecting but it looked pretty good. Then the second dish came out, another big family size bowl of soup! We had unintentionally ordered two big bowls of soup. No wonder the waitress looked at us funny when we ordered! We had no choice but to eat what we had ordered so we slowly drank all the soup until we were full of liquid goodness. Only we were still kind of hungry.

Luckily, for me, soon after moving to china, I got a Chinese speaking Korean roommate who started ordering for me. I also started learning some Chinese by stealing menus from local restaurants and then looking up the characters in my dictionary. (Note: I by no means endorse thievery and I’ve repented for my actions)