James D. McCawley wanted was to be respected in a Chinese restaurant, to be treated he says, "as a real customer, not an interloper," and not have to "fight with waiters for treatment befitting a normal human being." It isn't much to ask, but, he claims, it is apparently too much to expect.
In desperation, McCawley, a University of Chicago linguistics professor, systematically attacked the problem and ended up writing "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters (University of Chicago Press, $5.95, softbound).
Anyone who has tried to find out the names of untranslated dishes on a Chinese menu knows what McCawley is talking about. Years ago, my husband went to the trouble of asking one of his Chinese colleagues to write down the characters for numerals and pork, beef and chicken. He carried the cheat sheet around in his wallet until the paper disintegrated.
By then, he had memorized them, and anytime we are getting nowhere when questioning a waiter, my husband says, knowledgeably, "What's this pork dish for $6?" There is always an instantaneous dramatic turnabout in the waiter's attitude from annoyance to respect.
The same problems drove McCawley to his 10-year study of the Chinese characters for foods. Though he knows several languages, McCawley, who was born in Glasgow but has spent most of his life in Chicago, does not read Chinese except for menus. "I came to the Chinese language through love of Chinese food," he explains. "After all this time, I still am so proud when I can figure out where one character starts and another one ends. Actually, I can read menus very well, cookbooks laboriously, newspapers even more laboriously."
McCawley is a scholar, having studied linguistics at MIT where he wrote his thesis on pitch in Japanese, teaching such "oddball" courses as Bantu tone systems, and having written several major books about linguistics. He has devoted the same sort of serious attention to deciphering the mysteries of Chinese menus.
Being deprived of all the untranslated dishes on the menus and the fliers that advertise the daily specials in Chinatown establishments was reason enough, and he believes his new book "is going to contribute to the well-being of far more people than any of the linguistics books I've written."
McCawley, too, has discovered the power of a little knowledge. He claims that he enjoys significantly higher quality meals in Chinese restaurants now that he no longer is in the dependent position of begging waiters to translate the mystifying characters that promise exotic dishes. He no longer need accept being put off by a brusque waiter. He can decide for himself if he wants to order abalone with boned goose feet, live shrimp, jellyfish skins, candied sweet and sour lamb slices, fish lips with crab roe, jellied chicken blood, stinking bean curd or red-stewed elephant trunk, all dishes listed in his book's glossary.
"The most enjoyable research that I'm ever likely to do," is the way McCawley characterizes the field work he has done for this book. It took him out of his Hyde Park kitchen, where he cooks Chinese food using recipes in Chinese-language cookbooks, as well as Thai, Japanese, Cambodian and other Oriental dishes. He has eaten Chinese meals in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Toronto, New York, Chicago, even Washington. After a summer at the University of Maryland, he decided that Washington's Chinatown is "too minute. The best restaurants are in the suburbs."
The audience for "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters" is what McCawley calls "serious Chinese food freaks," non-Chinese people who are willing to undertake the effort to decode the Chinese-language menu. Serious potential diners can spend a couple of hours at home studying the book's explanation of how to understand the essential qualities of Chinese characters, but most eaters will simply carry the book to the restaurant and look up the dishes on the menu in the 125-page glossary. At first glance, accomplishing this task might seem impossible.
"How can Chinese characters be arranged so that one can know where to find a particular character?" McCawley calls this the basic problem of the book, and he has solved it by using a simplified system of divisions and pen strokes. He separates the parts of the complex characters and explains how to count the number of strokes. Then he demonstrates the way to use the glossary to find the meaning. He "admits defeat," however, when it comes to teaching how to read handwritten characters because they are too different from printed characters.
He is able to demonstrate how to write out orders (legibly enough for a waiter to read them), a practice he claims will make the waiter hold you in high regard. And judging by the respectful bows he received from the staff at a recent dinner at Happy Garden Restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown, he knows what he's talking about.
My family and I have tried "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters" in a local restaurant. The glossary, we discovered, is indeed helpful, but putting it to use in a restaurant setting is a slow and challenging process. We stuck with it, found it works and vowed to study it carefully before our next Chinese meal. Practice, in this case, won't make perfect, but it will make using the glossary more practical.
If struggling with the Chinese characters requires more diligence than you might be willing to apply to the ordering of a meal in a restaurant, don't ban the guide from your library, for the glossary is helpful in figuring out the ingredients of dishes with metaphorical names. It's a relief to know that Fish Bites Lamb is nothing more than deep-fried lamb stuffed with fish, that Barbarian Eggplant is merely a tomato, and that Ants on a Tree is spicy ground meat with bean thread noodles. Deep-fried Ringing Bell, the glossary reveals, is stuffed bean curd skin, Pearl Joins Jade is duck with mushrooms, dried scallops and lotus seeds, and Phoenix Swallows Mushrooms Whole is chicken stuffed with whole mushrooms.
The manager of a local Chinese restaurant said the untranslated dishes are not on the English menu because Americans do not like them. Perhaps though, he revealed the true reason for the double menu when he explained that the untranslated dishes take so much time to prepare that the chefs don't want everyone ordering them.
However, thanks to "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters" anyone now can order a meal from the once-secret Chinese language portions of the menu. If you want red-stewed bear paw, it's yours.