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)


  1. I remember going to a little Sichuan restaurant in my first few months of being in China and they had something that resembled French fries on the menu – they came out and looked just like a plate of fries – covered in sugar.

    I did the Ramen died for a long time, and also filled my shopping basket with frozen dumplings for a number of months too.

    Best thing any new laowai can do is get a friend or colleague to write out a few “Expat friendly” dishes on a piece of paper that can fit in your wallet. Even 10 dishes is awesome when you’re first figuring out the food here.

  2. I had a friend who had a clever technique, he asked the waitress for suggestions, he didn’t care about money, but I would ask for something a little cheaper. I get asked all the time if I want hot food or not, and they mostly assume I don’t want internal organs. Which is funny because I am willing to try anything, but don’t eat too much of the ones I know are organs, because I worry I might get sick, or vomit if I think about it too much.

  3. When I first arrived, lived on Subway for lunch and frozen dumplings for dinner; tasty but probably didn’t do my health too much good!

    My next biggest headache was trying to get rice with my meal – I’m not used to having my carbohydrate at the end of the meal. Cue same funny looks.

  4. Dear Ericka,
    I’m an editor of a chinese newspaper on which a column named ‘china through expats’ eyes’ comes out twice a week. And we’ve had over 50 foreign writers,but we are looking for more.So are you interested?

  5. Is that a big deal? Normally when I enter a new restaurant, I would like to see what are on others’ table, then I tell the waitress that I want this dish on this table, and that dish on another table, easy and quick, and the food always turn out not bad.

  6. My friend and I definitely went for restaurants with picture menus for our first few months here. Just point, ask a few clarifying questions if necessary(hot or cold? Spicy?), and enjoy!

    I second the suggestion of looking at what the other diners are eating, and then asking for that. As a bonus, you know it has to be good if the other people are enjoying it!

  7. I’m still hungry every day and living mostly on Ramen noodles. I’m having a very hard time adjusting to the food here.

  8. I was lucky. I fetched up in Lanzhou for my time in China, where the beef noodles rule. For 3 yuan (it was a while back), served in a big bowl with a ferociously hot pepper oil, I defy anyone from the North, South, East or West not to enjoy them. They are hand stretched and served in soup that took all night to prepare, and contains absolutely everything you need for life. A few greens, and you could live on that for ever. Yi wan, bu tai la, xie xie! The very best. Pip.

  9. Twice cooked pork with rice Seth.

    Hui (aspirated h) guo rou. This is an occasionally great pork dish.

    Sweet and sour fish tang tsu liyu. Thats codfish. The yu accent does up.

    Sweet and sour chicken tangtsu liji

    Gongbao jiding with mifan or rice. Kungpo chicken or palace lightening fry chicken nail strips.
    Much bettrr if you ask for a jiangyou or soya sauce and mayou or sesame seed sauce mixedtogether with some qiede lajiao or cut chillis thrown in. Amazing! Get it in a side dish and throw it ontop. I expect money for this..

  10. I tried ramen noodles on the plane to England. They made me so flatulent that i could either explode or ruin a cosychat with a beautiful Guangzhou girl beside me. So i hate them..

  11. French toast is excellent in China, wierdly. Its called Faguo Tusi, the i is long. Has peanut butter inside. Popular in South China.

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