Pink Slip or Yellow Slip? (Surviving) Eating Out in a Foreign Culture

We arrived in Taipei around lunchtime. When we were planning our trip, we agreed to mainly “eat local”, even if it stretched us. While wandering through the neighborhood near Longshan Temple, we spotted a packed restaurant and figured it must be the place to go. Lines are always a good sign. It was loud, bustling, fast paced and a little intimidating, but we were determined to score some good grub.

A great way to learn how things work in a foreign culture is to simply observe. Slow down, and just watch. In this case though, getting close enough to watch involved being shuffled into line. Well, sort of a line…lines in Asia are usually as horizontal as they are single file. We saw people grabbing sheets of paper off the counter, some pink, some yellow, all printed in Mandarin. They scribbled numbers and notes on them and handed them to a loud, fast moving lady standing at a cash box. As she collected the sheets, she collected money from some people, but not from others. She handed the sheets to the cooks, handed filled to go boxes to some who were waiting, and before we knew it we were at the front of the line. Yikes.

There was a picture menu at the counter, and we discussed what to get. And, more importantly, how to get it. I grabbed one of the colored sheets, the pink one, and the lady yelled at us. Keep in mind, Mandarin is by nature a “loud” language, and yelling is not an indication of anger. She wasn’t angry, but maybe a little frustrated. I wanted to tell her, “you’re not alone!”. There was a sweet, slightly built elderly man in line behind us, who quietly repeated something to us over and over, until the three of us were laughing. One thing we now love about Taiwan is that even if there are huge language barriers, people will bend over backwards to try and help you. Still unsure of what to do, I desperately scanned the main road for a McDonald’s. Or ANYTHING remotely familiar. No luck. My stomach wasn’t happy with the concept of moving on, so we were stuck. And we were up next. Help. Finally the lady grabbed the yellow sheet, yelled again, and motioned us inside. We stepped a few feet inside, and froze. No empty seats. Now what?! There were two seats at a table already being occupied by an older couple, and we were yelled at and motioned to by the cooking staff (yes, more yelling), to go “sit there”! We sat down and our dining partners never looked at us, but spoke quietly to each other, probably something along the lines of “bless their little hearts.”

A waitress brought over the picture menu, and patiently waited while we took a breath and looked it over again under less stressful circumstances. We pointed at our choices, and she wrote them on our yellow sheet. She took the sheet and left the table, and we crossed our fingers that at some point, food would appear. About three minutes later, she brought us back our sheet and two amazing noodle dishes, (it was even what we ordered!), and we had our first meal in Taipei for about $3.50 for the two of us. As we left we confidently handed our sheet and money to the loud lady at the entrance, thanked her in Mandarin, and she bowed and smiled warmly in return. The ice had been broken.

So often when we set out on adventures and new experiences, deep down we want to be comfortable, to know what to do, to have the experience but not the struggle. My initial thought was, “I’m going back to the hotel for the week. I’ll just eat McDonald’s and drink Starbucks.” We used the sheet/picture menu/just be bold and ask for help combo for the rest of the trip, and were rewarded with some pretty epic meals.

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