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Aug 1, 2007 01:32 PM

Are Chinese Restaurants the most intimidating ethnic establishments?

Had a (non-Chinese) friend comment to me the other day that she found Chinese restaurants to be the most intimidating of all the ethnic restaurants she's been to.


She says it's because of the language barrier (both written and oral) -- the waiters either don't speak English, refuse to speak English, or have very poor, limited English skills. And the menus have awkward, sometimes downright funny, English translations.

She also says that she gets a sense that most Chinese restaurants could care less about catering to other people (read: non-Chinese) because they figure they can make it well enough just by serving Chinese folks.

Then, of course there is the food, which can oftentimes be exotic (pig's blood, fish stomach, etc.) and very, very foreign. Compound that with the fact that most people are eating these foods with chopsticks -- not the most intuitive utensil for non-Asians.

Do folks think this is true? Obviously, this is a pretty gross generalization, but I think there are parts that definitely ring true for many, but not all, Chinese restaurants.

And, if it isn't Chinese, then what do folks think is the MOST intimidating ethnic restaurant/cuisine?

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  1. I won't say "intimidating" but eating at any truly authentic ethnic restaurant I find challenging if there is a language barrier.

    I think if you go to any ethnic place, assume there have been numerous jackasses there before you wanting ranch dressing and forks, and you're going to have to show them that you're not like that, that you have an adventurous palate and you'll find soon enough that you'll be treated accordingly

    These folks have been asked to assimilate in other parts of their life, but in their restaurant, they can do their own thing, so treat it as you're visiting their homeland & don't be the "ugly american"

    Chopsticks are honestly not that hard to master & you'll find that once you get going, you'll wonder why we DON't use them. Grab an extra pair next time you get take-out and practice, and use them for food at home.

    29 Replies
    1. re: RaleighRocker

      I've been trying to use chopsticks ever since college (over 15 years), and still am not very good. I'm the one who drops the sushi into the soy sauce and splashes her shirt. I'm the one who starts a meal with chopsticks and ends up with so little in my stomach that I gobble the leftovers with my hands or a fork when I get home. I've had numerous friends and even employees at Chinese restaurants show me the proper way to hold and use chopsticks, and my hands just don't work. Maybe it's the arthritis I've had all my life. Maybe I'm just not that dexterous (I also cannot manage to twirl pasta onto a fork properly). But just because it's easy for you doesn't mean it's easy across the board.

      1. re: mojoeater

        Practice with popcorn...or nuts...whatever small snack you eat in front of the TV.

        1. re: mojoeater

          try the rubber band trick.

          roll up a piece of paper towel and place about 1/2 inch from the top of the chopsticks and wrap a rubber band around the top end creating a "see-saw". the you only need to worry about "closing" them and they take car of "opening".

          1. re: jfood

            I've actually tried the ones where they are attached at the top and they do the opening thing. No better for me.

          2. re: mojoeater

            Don't feel so bad - speaking as a Chinese person with a few relatives and quite a few Asian friends, a lot of them still struggle to use it properly.

            Their mistakes often are like:

            -holding it properly, but their hands are turned over in a way that it seems rather useless.
            -crossing them, so that the bottom parts of them literally crossover each other and makes it impossible to pick up anything that way - I used to do that!
            - Standing chopsticks up in a rice bowl - only a little, little sister of my friend did that, but it's extremely disrespectful since you only do that at death rituals.
            - Stabbing at things with chopsticks. I've heard of frustrated Japanese people doing that, considering that their chopsticks are pointier and more suited for that and maybe only as an off-color joke, but a Chinese person would never do that. The chopsticks aren't suited for it anyway, since they're blunt. I got reprimanded for doing that when I couldn't handle chopsticks well and stabbed my dumplings.

            The only real way for me to learn was to go "Use your chopsticks correctly or STARVE!" when I was 10, but reading from your struggles, I don't think that would work as well for you. It's respectful to at least try in restaurants, so don't worry too much.

            1. re: cerealpancakes

              I don't know anyone of us (Japaese) who stab at stuff with chopsticks.

              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Like I said, must've been an off-color stereotype or a joke. I have several Japanese friends and I've never seen them stab at anything with chopsticks. My apologies.

                1. re: cerealpancakes

                  No apologies needed and absolutely no offense taken.

                  This thread is so interesting in the sense that I never before thought of restaurants being intimidating in any way. Then my reflections brought out my NYC deli-phobia.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    You'd probably be dismayed to learn that stabbing isn't so unusual among some generations in Japan, depending on the type of item.

            2. re: mojoeater

              Not that it helps with your chopsticks skills, but just realize that it's OK to eat sushi with your hands. As a japanese friend of mine explained, "He makes it with his hands, you eat it with your hands - you lose the connection with the wood". A qoute that has guided me through many life situations, not all related to food.

              1. re: mojoeater

                Problems like arthritis in the hands, tendinitis, carpal tunnel, and the like can indeed make eating with chopsticks difficult.

                1. re: bachslunch

                  I recall reading that chopstick users had a higher chance of developing arthritis in old age compared to chopstick non-users.

                  1. re: bachslunch

                    My dad died at 93 and never seemed to use chopsticks properly. He never starved. My DH doesn't seem to hold chopsticks correctly either! Yes, I have tendonitis in my hands, wrists, arms and shoulders, and they all get tired pretty quickly.

                  2. re: mojoeater

                    mojoeater, I know what your dealing with. I was diagnosed with RA at 16, and had a very very hard time accepting it. I fought it tooth and nail, my youthful stubborness actually serving a purpose. When I was 18 and had a car, I began exploring on my own the world I was in (LA back then) and started eating lots of Japanese food. My arthritis was bad then, I wasen't on any pain therapy yet. I taught myself how to properly use chopsticks (after being show the right way from a good friend) and used them to eat EVERYTHING! I drove my family batty. Not to toot my own horn (toot-toot*lol*) but i'm really glad I learned how to use them. Mind over matter. Hey, I'll admit it wasen't easy at first, but now I can use them quite well. When I was in Japan, I was complimented on my skills with them. I really coulden't tell the story to them, so i'm pleased I can now. (even tho i'm sure only 1% of readers give a hoot)

                    Practice, practice, practice. It will come, I promise! Good luck, you can do it!

                    1. re: mojoeater

                      Easiest way to handle chopsticks...pick up the first one as if you were going to write with it, then slip it down a notch and let finger 2 & 3 handle 'writing' with that one, then add #2 chopstick, in correct writing position. Bingo! You can pick up a single grain of rice very esily with that one. We keep several sets at home---we find that with many delicate Eastern dishes or anything involving rice, it just taste better without metal.

                      The time that really taught me to use them was when I was invited to a special Chinese banquet and faced with slippery noodles, a large baked fish, and *ivory* chopsticks. Keeping anything oily on an ivory chopstick is an artform.

                      1. re: mojoeater

                        It is perfectly acceptable, PERFECTLY, to eat sushi with your fingers. I've never gone back to chopsticks for sushi since a waiter extolled me as a :connoisseur" for eating with my fingers. And if you are going to use chopsticks, only the fish, and not the rice (for nigiri) touches the soy sauce.

                        1. re: John Manzo

                          Agreed. I used to find sushi shops waaay more intimidating than Chinese restaurants. Now, I think I've got my chopstick kung fu good enough where I can pick up nigiri, turn it upside down, and have only the fish touch soy sauce.

                          Incidentally, when I was a rookie sushi newb ordering cut rolls and what not, I would make a practice of use the slices of ginger to "paint" soy sauce onto the fish. This, too, I've found to be perfectly acceptable, though I usually skip the ginger and just use the tip of the chopstick to do the painting.

                          1. re: SauceSupreme

                            I've used the technique of dipping the chopsticks in the soy sauce then using it as a "brush" to brush it on the fish... it's a little esoteric, but it works and gets just enough on.

                            1. re: Blueicus

                              I actually learned that from a show I saw on TV Japan (shot and aired in Japan for Japanese audience) that had a huge roundtable showcasing all kinds of specialty sushi around Japan, and they were not only saying eating with fingers was acceptable, but this painting technique was reccomended. It's a great technique, and very proper.

                              1. re: Ozumo

                                I have this thing about not getting my fingers vinegary/sticky/dirty through the handling of foods (that is, while I'm eating it), so I do eat sushi with chopsticks :). If I could I'd eat Ethiopian food with a knife and fork... :|, but I am getting better with it these days (Although I still prefer to use chopsticks to pick up sushi).

                        2. re: mojoeater

                          Oh for goodness sake... just politely ask for a fork. (or with sushi, use your hands, most Japanese do). It's not being an ugly American if you're polite... which I'm sure you are. If you get "attitude" for asking... ignore it. Now they're being the ugly ones.

                        3. re: RaleighRocker

                          The funny thing about chopsticks is that many Americans think that ALL Asians use them and that's just not the case; I found out that when I use chopsticks in a Thai restaurant that I'm not being authentic- most Thais (in restaurants at least) use forks to my knowledge. Personally it doesn't bother me- I like using chopsticks and I could care less if I'm being "authentic" because it's fun! :}
                          What I do worry about though is sneezing from spicy food- either in a Thai or Korean place. I read that it is poor ettiquette to wipe your nose at the table but when you're constantly sneezing throughout a meal, what can you do? Sometimes I think I'm getting dirty stares but at this point in my life I just shrug it off.

                          1. re: NicoleFriedman

                            Eating is actually done with a tablespoon. The fork is the "helper". Many Asian eat with their hands as well.

                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              And noodles are traditionally eaten with chopsticks, the only exception -- most Thais would no sooner put a fork full of Thai food in their mouth than an American would put a knife full of mashed potatoes in his mouth.

                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                Oh, that's why I always have to ask for the knife. I like to use the knife as the helper and the fork to eat off of. I hate eating off of tablespoons for some reason, at home I use teaspoons even for soup. Guess I'll have to stick with being unauthentic with this one. I do eat with chopsticks where appropriate at least.

                                1. re: Ozumo

                                  If you don't use a tablespoon you're leaving the best part of the meal on your plate.

                                  1. re: John Manzo

                                    Curry sauce? I'm pretty good at getting it all up with my fork. I let the rice soak up excess.

                          2. re: RaleighRocker

                            The points made by RaleighRocker ring true for me. I love going to a restaurant that caters mainly to one ethnic group. Usually a good sign of authenticity.

                            I have been to all manner of ethnic restaurants and find, like Raleigh, that a gesture of good will like closing your eyes, pointing to the middle of the menu, and ordering "that" works well. They get a kick out of it and without understanding a single word of your language get that you are there to try new stuff.

                            The most intimidating restaurants for me are the Soul Food restaurants down here. I'm usually the only white guy in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood OR I am the other white guy in a fish shack at 3AM with the first white guy being a drunk college student trying his best to assimilate to his new environs by talking jive... poorly.

                            One night I was shoulder to shoulder in Dave's Seafood Supreme which is roughly the size of a phone booth. I was standing right next to (o.k. ... we were basically spooning) a massive man who was looking at me like he just needed an excuse to be angry. He asked in a loud voice "So, you like black people food?" I said just as loudly "No!" No needle scratching across the record but dead silence none the less. This man looked at me like I had lost my flippin' mind. "I like good food. Mr. Dave makes pork chops just like my Mom." He gave me a big smile and expressed loudly how true that was. Everyone had a good laugh and continued to wait patiently for their respective fried morsel to exit the roiling grease.

                            For me good food can bridge some pretty big social gaps. Hungry is hungry regardless of where you are or where you are from.

                            1. re: RaleighRocker

                              Love your post RR.

                              Intimidated not a word I would use. First times I went I didn't know what things were by name of dish - e.g. General Tso's chicken, Kung pao chicken, ant climb Hill, etc. but I asked and tried and enjoyed. Also loved going with Chinese friends and trying everything they ordered. Did not always like everything but enjoyed trying new dishes.

                              Sad that many people only want the familiar and that they freak out if they aren't being catered to with translations, etc. some of my best food adventures have been in places where communication left a bit to be desired.

                            2. Intimidating is kind of an extreme word, and she should aviod places if she feels intimidated.
                              When you say most Chinese restaurants could care less, do she mean the ones in her town, or all over the world? I've never felt that way.
                              Pigs blood and fish stomach are not that normal in most American Chinese places. I wonder where this friend is going where she's noticing this.
                              I don't find any ethnic food or restaurant to be intimidating. It can be frustrating when there is a language barrier, but never intimidating.

                              1. Ethnic restaurants are not intimidating at all. I like "exotic" food, other languages, and funny translations.

                                What IS intimidating: NYC delis with soup-Nazi like customs and where you can't ask any questions without being barked at and without other patrons in line getting hostile.

                                12 Replies
                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  jfood knew sammy would steal the thunder. while reading the OP the thought of Carnegie Deli and Katz came into his head. That's intimdating but in the deli if you can schmooze, you can break the barrier. In a chinese resto there is no humor.

                                  1. re: jfood

                                    jfood, even worse when I see the old counter guy's look of disgust and thought bubble saying, "gudimit, justmluck, nutherfriggnturst". Hard for me to schmooze. But I know what you mean and agree.

                                    In restaurants in places where I don't speak the language, I find that being able to make quick sketches of animals, parts oif animals, vegetables, and cooking methods breaks barriers and is a way to schmooze. Restaurant staff around the globe appear to like Pictionary--except in places where drawings don't make any sense culturally.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      jfood's brother used to research his chinese cookbooks and write down what he wanted in chinese. then he would bring his "order" with him. The chef liked the challenge soooooo much he used to get the best meals in Chinatown.

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        Ah, see, having grown up in that environment, when confronted with that sort of attitude, my conversations tend to go like this:

                                        "Whaddayawant, hurry up already!"

                                        "Bacon egg and cheese on a hard roll. And don't burn the bacon."

                                        "EY! I been here 42 years, now yer gonna come in here and tell me how to make a piece of @$#%in' bacon? I oughta shove this @$#%in' spatula up your @$#%in' &%@!!!"

                                        "Whyncha take that @$#%in' spatula and make me a @$#%in' bacon egg and cheese like I ast ya!"

                                        Anyplace else but New York (and concomitant parts of LI, CT and NJ) that would ensure you got the Loogie Special... but in New York, usually, it works.

                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                          No doubt the NY'er in your face "hurry up and order" thing is real...but I've always noticed it's usually between other NY'ers. I remember going to NYC in my 20s thinking, okay these people are hardass yellers, etc., so I need to be on my toes.

                                          So I'm in NYC and walk into a pizza joint. The counter person asks, "What'll you have?" I say, "Pepperoni slice". He gets me the slice and I say, "Thanks." The guy says, "You're welcome have a good one." Normal, pleasant exchange just like anywhere else.

                                          So I'm thinking what's with the NY'er rude yeller thing...then another guy comes in. The counter guy asks "what'll you have?" The buyer yells back and a NYC yelling thing happens...basically barking at each other. Then I realized a lot of it's between other NY'ers.

                                          Other things in NY to reinforced this. I noticed people with thick accents from Brooklyn or Queens tended to get really, really rude service in Manhattan which shocked me a bit. Also my then NY girlfriend, a normally low-key and sweet person would get into the NY thing too, like getting into a car service off the street and asking how much and the harshness came out like, "No that's too much!" "Then get the F&*k out of here!" I had to ask her about it and she said something like "they're animals you have to talk to them that way!"

                                          Never thought anyone in NYC was fact the overwhelming feeling I got was they were mostly a bit paranoid and weary and that's why they yell.

                                          1. re: ML8000

                                            Good to know. I'm much better at dealing with that attitude than DH, so he's never wanted to go to NY because of the perception of the rude exchanges. He's very soft spoken, nice, and kind, and expect that of others, so he's always surprised when people aren't like that, especially unexpectedly. So we CAN visit NY someday. :-)

                                    2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      Sam, your post made me laugh. I have never, ever been intimidated in ANY Asian restaurant, and have often found that my dumb American questions and curiosities were warmly greeted with a patient response, no matter what country I was visiting. I've even had the owners give the name of their special dish written in Cantonese so that I could simply pull it out of my wallet when at another restaurant back home.

                                      However, the level of rush and impatience at a Manhattan deli is something unique. There is no room for hesitation with your order, and if you can't understand the bark of the order taker or preparer (who usually has some kind of accent these days), you get a really annoyed response. Now that I live in Dallas, I find it amusing to see how slowly deli servers, when you can find a deli, work, versus those high-speed, NY deli men. Must be Texan charm or something. But as far as the atmosphere -- you are right. It is kind of like the Soup Nazi episode on Seinfeld.

                                      1. re: RGC1982

                                        It drives me CRAZY, ordering breakfast in my local place, because I'm used to this as an order: "Bacon burrito wit hot sauce." "Three eighty."

                                        Instead it's "Uhmmmmmmm... I'd like, uhm.... a bacon... ... ... burrito ... no, sausage ... no, um, bacon... um, what does it come with?"

                                        It makes me LONG for New York. Honestly. The lines are long enough, READ THE DAMN MENU ARGH. Pat's King of Steaks in Philly has the right idea.

                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                          If you plan on living away from New York, you do need to slow down. You'll stand a better chance of "blending in" :)

                                          1. re: RGC1982

                                            Hah! I was distracted by the phrase 'bacon burrito' but now it's time to share the lament. I've moved from NYC to a small town in Britain. Oh, they are so slow here. I long for the efficiency of NY. (And the food. If I were in London I might feel differently, but the diversity of choice is so limited-- and everyone thinks mayo goes on everything here.)

                                            I think NYC efficency comes from something quite basic: there are millions of us living on top of each other seeking the same services. Time and space are valuable and valued resources in this economy. Squandering it, or taking more than your due (kind of like the tourists who create standing hoards in the middle of the pavement), comes off as churlish. I spend much of my time in my new home, a quaint seaside village, trying to remind myself that no one means it that way here. In NYC, waddling slowly across the pavement and making it difficult to let others pass, or taking one's sweet time to order-- these are aggressive acts (or perceived as such). Here it's just a way of life. EuRGh.
                                            Sorry for the rant. My quaint seaside town is even worse this summer thanks to the tourists.

                                            1. re: Lizard

                                              I think you've hit on something, and it's endemic to all quick-service New York restaurants. There are, on any given workday, 15 million people in the city of New York. All 15 million of them will need SOMETHING that day -- anything from coffee, to lunch, to a re-fill on their Metrocards, and they will be out with many, many others.

                                              So, out of consideration to the people behind you, you talk fast, and you order quickly, and you get out of the way once you've paid.

                                              I wouldn't have thought of this, but looking back, I definitely was less likely to be abrupt if there were no people on line behind me.

                                              1. re: Lizard

                                                I'm not sure "efficient" is the applicable word here if you are talking about service in NYC. I live in the city and I don't find service particularly efficient for the sake of efficiency. Half the time, lines form or things move slowly because people working are putzing around rather than working or paying attention. You're usually not speaking some clipped patron's ordering lingo because someone is in line behind you. You do it because you have to resort to dumbing down orders to the lowest common denominator so they don't screw it up. When you get the combination of this inefficiency behind the counter and huckleberries from parts unknown placing an order, it's a recipe for deli hell.

                                      2. I am *never* intimidated in *any* 'ethnic' restaurants, I'm the one excitedly grabbing my companion's arm to drag them into one. Of course, some of these 'exotic' eateries then become my regular places where they ask me if it'll be #17 with wontons that night and I feel like combination pork instead.

                                        1. What I find intimidating are formal restaurants, no matter which cuisine, although French comes most readily to mind. I'm intimidated because I don't feel sure of all the manners required and while I appreciate everyone looking nice, it is not relaxing, to me, to dress up for a meal.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: dzoey

                                            Agree. And while I have no problem in most ethnic eateries (if they don't have reasonably simple explanations on their menu, they're almost always happy to explain), French and Italian restaurant obviously feel that their menus are so awesome and universal that they require no translation, so I end up trying to figure out what the hell "suprême de poulet à la bigarade" is, or "bifteck à l'africaine" is. I speak French fluently, but I don't often eat French food, so I don't speak French food. Italian is less of a problem, but still often a problem.

                                            And then there was Barcelona... where the menus must be in Catalan or the restaurants face fines from the Generalitat... until I found a menu translation document (put out by the Catalonian government), I was lost, because I haven't got the least clue what a lot of unfamiliar fish are called in an unfamiliar language. I just picked what looked interesting and won 95% of the time.

                                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                              Picking what looks interesting is always a good strategy. And if the communications barrier is so intense that you just can't make head or tail of the menu, just see what the other patrons are eating and ask for that. This only fails if you have allergies and really HAVE to know exactly what you're eating.