You ordered a WHAT?1
The language barrier can often pose a problem when ordering in restaurants. We share a few funny moments and give some tips on getting your point across.
Ordering in a restaurant in Thailand can sometimes be hit and miss. And while staff in tourist areas will have some knowledge of English, there are still often errors due to miscommunication. Before we get in to how you can avoid some of these common pitfalls when ordering, let’s look at a few examples of what we mean. Of course we’ve had many of our own experiences and have learnt by trial and error, but to get a broader spectrum, we posed the question of ‘what went wrong’ to several expats on the island. Here are a few replies, listed anonymously to protect the businesses concerned:
One mistake that kept popping up is asking for a glass of white wine, and being brought the WiFi password. Go on, say it out loud. See? It’s an easy mistake to make. Sometimes the reverse happens too and you’ll end up having a few drinks when all you wanted to do was answer your emails, as you feel too bad to send back that glass of wine. One local lady ordered a glass of Bailey’s Liqueur and got brought a bay leaf on a plate – wonder what the waiter thought she wanted that for?
Another drinks related episode – one of our visitors asked for a single espresso, and got given a Singha beer instead. And as one expat described, “I ordered a Cuba Libre in one bar, and got told ‘no have’, so I ordered a rum and coke instead – and got one.” Right, so here’s the first tip:
Unless the establishment has the quirky name of the drink on their menu, where you can literally point and order, stick to calling it what it actually is, as the case above points out. So, rather than ordering a ‘Screwdriver’, order a vodka and orange juice. You may just find the barman running down to the maintenance room… and in much the same way, it’s probably best not to ask for your scotch ‘on the rocks’, but rather with ice.
Sometimes, you have to wonder what the poor waiter must think of you, when you discover the miscommunication. Another expat recalls asking a bartender if he could make ‘Jaegerbombs’, and he promptly came back with the phone number of the local drug dealer. Oh dear. Yet another embarrassing story is that of regular visitors to the island. They asked at a local café where they could try a Thai barbecue… only to be told that the temple was ‘burning a monk’ the next day, so they should go down there. Not quite what they had in mind.
Menus themselves are often cause for confusion. Some are obvious spelling errors, easy enough to decipher, and you’ll commonly see ‘snakes’ instead of shakes, and ‘French fried’ instead of fries. And then there’s the tongue in cheek faux pas, ‘orgasmic’ vegetables instead of, you guessed it, organic.
Don’t be alarmed if you read ‘horse shit crap’ on the menu. It’s meant to read as ‘horse shoe crab’. Again, fried crap in curry sauce is more delicious than it sounds. And on a breakfast menu we once saw 'cockroaches' instead of coco pops listed under the cereals, the manage wondered why they weren't too popular with the children!
But other times, you just have to wonder what on earth is meant with menu items such as ‘Fried pork with pour the page’, or ‘Fried pork with the cotton that stops’. Evidently, Google translate has missed the mark with these.
Another tip would be to learn a few food names of your favourite dishes or ingredients. Just as important would be the names of items that you’re allergic to or can’t eat, such as peanuts or seafood. For the vegetarians, say ‘gin jae’ and you’ll be fine. Many restaurants now put pictures next to the menu items, which help a lot. And to avoid mispronunciation, it’s often better to point at the menu when ordering. Sometimes, the item is written in Thai underneath, making it easier for the waiter to get it right.
When placing your order, a couple of things will help to actually get what you ordered. So remembering the barman with the screwdriver and rocks, the same applies to food. Don’t use idioms such as ‘sunny side up’ or ‘easy over’ when talking about eggs, or ‘blue’ when you want your steak only seared. Remember too that the waiter is dealing with customers of many nationalities, so your ‘ketchup’ may be another’s ‘tomato sauce’, or ‘chips’ may be ‘French fries’.
When placing your order, speak slowly and clearly. Focus on clearly enunciating and slowing down, but without sounding like a stretched tape. Speak naturally, but without connecting your words, even if you’re pressured for time. Don’t rush through your communication, as doing so often takes more time, as misunderstanding can result and you’ll ultimately have to invest additional time in clearing up the confusion – or just accepting what got delivered to your table. Point to the item listed on the menu, to back up what you’re saying.
Be patient. Cross-cultural communication takes more time and you can’t expect
communication to occur with the same speed and ease as when you’re communicating with someone from your own culture. Relax, enjoy the view, and remember to say, ‘mai pen rai’, when things go wrong. For those not in the know, this is a common Thai phrase that basically translates to ‘no worries’, while at the same time, accepting the situation for what it is. Another important point – be careful not to sound patronising – not understanding another language does not mean the person is of lower intelligence. And speaking louder is no solution, yet common to witness.
So take note of the tips above, but if the wrong dish arrives, sometimes it’s better to just accept it. You never know, you may have just accidentally discovered your new favourite dish! The universe works in mysterious ways…
Samui TEFL Blog