I’ve started working a couple days a week at a Chinese restaurant near my house. Now, I’ve complained a great deal about how freaking slow everything is in the south, but that’s working in my favor as I earn endless praise for being mildly efficient at a job that is, objectively speaking, not difficult. Mostly I take phone orders for takeout, and ring up, although I serve a little bit if it gets busy. Also, the American “service with a smile” is bullshit. Fortunately, I work for a Chinese family, who don’t have much interest in employee nametags, dress codes, or obsequious customer service. Here’s your delicious food. Eat it. Here’s your correct change. Take it. Bye.
On one hand, it’s a delight to have free gung bao ji ding, daily Chinese language practice, and a couple hours of downtime between lunch and dinner to study. With my classes going on, it’s not bad to have a job that I needn’t think about outside of work, and where the requirements are basically shower and turn up on time. On the other hand, I had hoped to be doing something a bit more prestigious than food service by my thirties…
When I took the job, I expected to be more helpful with my Chinese, since my strongest vocab involves food, but it turns out that wildly different regional accents and the fast pace restaurant service make it too hard for my baby Mandarin to keep up. I can help out with the occasional request for mai dan or da bao, but besides that, my Chinese skills haven’t been much benefit to the restaurant. (Unless you count the amusement the rest of the staff gets from my toneless Mandarin… and they have stopped ni de zhongwen hen hao! and started telling me I sound like a idiot.)
The advantage has gone the other way, and working here has been really beneficial for my language learning. Learning Chinese in a classroom is usually being told to memorize something, and then repeat it back to the teacher. There is no variation or application of material, just recitation of the assigned sentences. A dialogue will always begin with ni hao because that’s how the book has it. In real life, a person could open a conversation with hello, good morning, nice day isn’t it?, where do I catch the 6 from here?, or watch out, your shoelace is untied. I just don’t have the Chinese skills for that.
But in the restaurant, there are limited common conversations, with some variations. For example, a lot of my job involves handing people their takeout orders (Oh! And I can read the Chinese dishes on the receipts! Food vocab and a limited number of possible options!) and ringing up customers, so I regularly hear and use ta ge chien le ma? (has he/she already paid?) and the answer ge le. or ta bu ge le. The repetition and all the slight variations of usage really make this ideal circumstances for language acquisition.
Also, Mandarin swearing. You guys, I have learned so many different insults and swears! This is a great job!