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Travel Tip: Learn The Local Language Or Don’t Be A Picky Eater

So you have a choice: learn how to communicate with people or eat what they do.

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It is alright to travel in places where you can’t speak the language. It is alright to request specialty foods or meals prepared in a particular way when in other cultures whose dining customs differ from your own. But it is my opinion that when you are traveling in a place where you can’t speak the language you forfeit the right to be a picky eater. If your pantomime, pointing, and grunts land you a plate of food that wasn’t exactly what you ordered, just eat it.

A couple of Europeans in a hostel in the mountains of China’s Hunan province were having some issue with the meal they had just ordered. There was a steaming, delicious looking pork and cabbage hot pot boiling at full steam on the table in front of them, but they were avoiding it like it was a warm turd. They had their laptop opened on the table and were trying to use Google Translate to communicate with the hostel manager what was wrong with the meal he had just made for them.

What could possibly be the problem? This was the question everyone in the room seemed to have, and a small crowd of guests and workers gathered around the table to see if they could help. A spectacle was in the works. The Europeans continued trying to force the manager to understand them with meaningless words, with digital translators, and pantomime. It wasn’t happening. The problem, as it turned out wasn’t just language, but culture.

The mananger, caught in an uncomfortable position, began glancing in my direction. I was on the periphery of the room, hoping that I would not be called into action. Shit, I made eye contact. Too late.

I asked the European guy what he wanted. He couldn’t even really speak English. I was exasperated that they were able to get this far off the prime foreign tourist trail without a language they could even hope anyone could understand. When out of the borderlands, any foreign language besides English in China is about as useful as a rubber chicken.

I eventually understood that they didn’t want as much food as they were given. I communicated this to the manager in Chinese. He had me tell them to just eat what they wanted and to leave the rest. Simple enough. This did not satisfy the Europeans. I then figured out that they only wanted a hot pot for one person even though two of them intended to eat it. It is clearly stated on the menu that pricing for this meal is calculated by how many people are eating it, not by the portion. So two people eating one hot pot is still two people, regardless of how much or little food they wish to consume. These two tourists essentially wanted to walk into a buffet, eat, and only pay for one person.

I should have told the guy that he couldn’t have it the way he wanted, that he was in China and needed to do things the Chinese way. But I missed the opportunity to be so bold. I instead translated what he wanted to say.

“It can be done, a hot pot for one person,” the manager replied. He didn’t understand, and I was feeling embarrassed in my role as the go between for tourists who were being overtly difficult, petty, and unrelenting.

I told the Europeans that they had a meal for one person, then they both began eating. Of course.

“What are they doing?” the manager asked me, “You said that they wanted a hot pot for one person.”

I gave up: “I can understand his words but I don’t understand what he wants.”

“Doesn’t he speak English?”

“Not really.”

This couple was almost wantonly making a simple procedure complicated to save three fifty and not have to stare at more food than they wanted to eat. They were picky eaters without the toolset to take such a liberty.

If you can fully communicate with people in the restaurant you are ordering food in then you have earned the right to be picky: request what you want and the restaurant can accept or decline your order. But when you can only point to something on a menu and squack some gibberish you are not really in a position to complain when you are not understood and a meal is laid in front of you that wasn’t prepped to your specifications. 

Part of the trade off of traveling in a place where you don’t speak the dominant language is occasionally not getting what you want, being misunderstood, and accepting the consequences of your linguistic ignorance. This is the deal for all travelers, newbies and those who have been out for decades: where you can’t verbally communicate you take what you get, smile, and say thank you.

If I request something special when traveling and don’t get what I asked for because I failed to communicate properly I eat my error. I am the one who screwed up, not the person going out of their way to attempt to understand my foreign accent and askance sentence constructions. So I try to learn from my mistake, enjoy my meal, and do better next time around. I don’t always win in travel, but I know that it is OK to lose: to lose and learn, to lose and endure. Not always getting your way is called tolerance.

Travel is about adapting, rolling with a different culture, other languages, and occasionally getting something different than what you order. Without these twists and turns, trials and errors, world travel would lose a major element of its appeal. Imagine a world where everybody understands your native tongue, where food is made exactly to order, where there are no cultural misinterpretations, where there are few surprises. This place exists: it’s called home.

When traveling abroad, just eat it.



Filed under: Food, Intercultural Conflict, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

6 comments… add one

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  • Jessica Barnie May 9, 2013, 10:43 am

    I totally agree!

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  • WanderfulTogether May 9, 2013, 11:51 am

    LOOOVE this article.

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  • Steve O May 10, 2013, 2:12 am

    Well said…

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  • Emma Higgins May 10, 2013, 5:15 am

    I agree! I used to be a picky eater but they a) got bored of it and b) started travelling and when you’re on a tight budget you eat whatever you can get your hands on. In restaurants I just tend to order whatever looks like it has mainly ingredients that I eat in it, and don’t ask questions about the rest. Nearly always turns out to be yummy!

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  • Annie Lutes May 12, 2013, 5:14 pm

    Traveling with dietary restrictions makes one a bit picky by necessity, unfortunately. I never mean to be that way, but it is tough! I need to learn the phrase “no wheat, rye, or barley” in every language. 🙂

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    • VagabondJourney May 12, 2013, 10:55 pm

      Hello Annie,

      Yes, there is another dimension added to this when food allergies come into play. Unfortunately most people I see being picky have no such medical conditions: they’ve chosen their ultra-specific diets of their own volition.

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