The last thing I want to discuss at 9am is whether I want whipped cream on top of my coffee, particularly in Mandarin. Why can’t I ask for a coffee and get one, and not have to say grande instead of medium? The arseholes who invented the illusion of choice at coffee shops clearly never stopped to consider the miseries of ordering such minutiae in Chinese, where foreign concepts are assembled from a jumble of syllables that sound almost equivalent to Chinese ears, all of which have their own discrete meaning. Even asking for a Caramel Latte involves saying that you desire Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa. And a Mocha is a Magic Card. I feel like I am inside some Situationist art installation, asking a woman in an apron to bring me a Shining Fish Wiggle Rainbow, and doing so with a straight face.
“What size do you want?” asks Betty.
“I just told you,” I say, “dabei”. Which means Big Cup.
“Does that mean the biggest cup?” she asks, which is tebie dabei (or Special Big Cup) in Chinese, “Or does that mean the medium cup?” which is called ‘Big Cup’ in Chinese, as I just told you. And her.
“Grande,” I sigh. “You call it dabei. It says dabei here on the sign. I am reading out your own labels.”
“Ah,” she says. “Gu Lan De,” making up an entirely new concept in Chinese to describe the thing that is already described as Big Cup, but now is apparently also to be referred to as an Old Blue Independent.
“All right, then,” I say. “An Old Blue Independent Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa,” using the correct terminology, which is only correct at this moment, in this conversation, between me and Betty. If I use the same jumble of ideas with anyone else, they will blink at me blankly and wonder if I am mad.
“Would you like a muffin?” she adds, innocently. Which, if you ever need it in Mandarin, is Ma Fen, which means Carnelian Finn. But if you say it with the wrong tones, it means a Pointless Faff.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.