Irate Football Fan

Two weeks ago was “Super Bowl Monday.” At 6am John B and I caught a taxi to Windows Scoreboard, the place the Carl said would be “the place” to catch the big game. Well, “the place” insofar as it’s a pretty decent sports bar, beer is cheap (in the Windows tradition), and you can even get a decent American breakfast for a reasonable price. Plus they were showing the Super Bowl through satellite TV, so we didn’t have to put up with that outrageous 15-second delay.

I’m not a big sports fan at all, but I enjoy a good football game from time to time. I’d never started drinking so early before, and it was a good reason to hang out with John B and Carl, my former roommate I hadn’t seen in a while.

Excited by the breakfast food which Carl assured us would be very tasty, I ordered a 30 rmb omelette with cheddar, bacon, onions, and tomatoes. I was really looking forward to that.

When we arrived at 6:30am, the place was fairly crowded, and breakfast orders were flying. I waited a good while for that omelette, and I was getting hungry. (Plus, like a wuss, I wanted to eat before I started on my beer.) At one point I decided to go up to the bar and check on my order.

There was a foreigner in front of me trying to put in a food order. He got the extremely busy waitress’s attention and started giving her his order (in English). She gave him an embarrassed laugh and told him she didn’t understand (in Chinese). The guy tried again (in English). She apologized again (in Chinese) and started to leave. I sympathized with the guy, because the bartender could take his English order, but the bartender was really busy too, and so the foreigner might have to wait another while just to put his order in, let alone actually eat. So I stepped in and told the guy I’d translate for him. I started telling the waitress in Chinese what the guy wanted.

The foreigner did not like that. He gave me a nasty, “I’d like to order my own damn food, if that’s OK with you.” So I immediately backed off and left the guy alone. I eventually got my omelette and it was goooood. (More memorable than the Super Bowl, in fact.)

So what was the guy’s deal? My interpretation is that the guy was just in a bad mood (maybe he was a Seahawks fan?), but maybe not… I wonder how many other foreigners would be pissed off by what I did. It’s been my experience that any newcomers with no language skills are typically grateful in a situation like that. But maybe the guy has been in Shanghai a while and he’s pissed off that he still can’t order food, and thought I was trying to show off? If the guy was trying to order food in broken Chinese but the waitress couldn’t understand him, I could understand how he would get pissed at me for butting in. I wouldn’t have said anything in a case like that. But he wasn’t speaking any Chinese at all.

I find these multilingual/cross-cultural exchanges and all the emotion-laden sociolinguistic baggage they come with to be very interesting.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I would have ordered a fish-head & chicken feet omlette for him after he did that.

  2. Why didn’t the guy just point at the menu and show it to the waitress what he wanted?

    I can understand if this person has linguistic difficulty, but when the Chinese waitress told him (or gestured to him) that she did not understand his English, he should be glad that someone would step in to help.

    Just because a place that serves American food in China does not mean all its employees are fluent in English.

    I mean I have been to P. F. Chang’s several times (Chinese restaurant chain owned by Americans here in United States, terrible food, the only times I went was for “team-building” events), I can’t place my order in Chinese, because the employees there do not speak Chinese.

  3. I’ll let you order my food for me when I come back, John. Maybe the guy recognized Carl, and Carl had pissed him off, and he saw you were friends…and well, just maybe he acted on his rage against Carl. It’s too bad you were in the way.

    That happened to me a lot in Hangzhou.

  4. Meh. The guy was just an ass. I’ve helped people with no language skills where I may find them, like one time when I went to Tokyo and a British guy was asking the panicking wicket girl where the lockers were. You were nice, and got shit for it. Don’t let it jade you. For every guy like that there will be a hundred grateful tourists (in the future, anyway). I personally think that he’s one of the types who lives in another country for months/years and never picks up the local language. HA!

  5. Greg Pasden Says: February 20, 2006 at 9:51 am

    You, like most of us, are a good person. But there are some people who are a little (well, maybe alot) off. Those people seem to be the minority when traveling. I wouldn’t waist anymore time concerning yourself over this ignorant, self absorbed person. Who knows, The best we can hope for is that he’s probably learning that he’s a jerk since he now starving (because he can’t order any food in Chinese). My advice, go have a beer (becauses I know you stay up late and then go and passionately kiss a beautiful girl). The world will be a much better place after that… and who woul care after doing that…Now back to my beer. c’ya cuz

  6. Maybe he thought you were propositioning him. Did you look deep in his eyes when you said it? Nibble on his earlobe? Touch him below the waist?

  7. No good deed goes unpunished. Perhaps he had a bad experience previously with a waggish foreigner who converted his cheeseburger order into stewed civet cat.

    More seriously, I reckon that it would be an isolating and emasculating (for men – women can choose the female equivalent) experience to live in China and not speak any Chinese at all. Imagine the sense of dependency. (Heck, I had two years of Chinese when I got here and still felt completely helpless.) It wouldn’t surprise me that some individuals with fragile egos would react to this –or what he might see as some linguistic showing-off– by becoming pissy and defensive. There is, after all, no mildly inconvenient situation that can’t be exacerbated by angry defensiveness and pride.

    On the other hand, some of my more shamelessly confident monoglot friends bull through just fine. One famously used to carry around a card with illustrations of various animals and cooking methods on it. Chicken + in soup please.

    An interesting thought experiment is to wonder how he would have reacted if a Chinese person had offered to translate for him.

  8. PS: What a crappy football game.

  9. That was a pretty boring morning.

  10. Carl,

    You mean the part while you were awake or the part where you were asleep? hehe

    You were in high spirits that morning.

  11. The guy was just a dick. Thankfully the breakfast (both of them I got… I wonder if that first one was supposed to be his…) was pretty good, and there’s nothing like getting drunk early Monday morning to make you feel like a true American.

  12. Maybe was he one of these people who think Chinese waiters have to speak and understand English and that he was “educating” the poor waitress when speaking in English? Some sort of wicked colonist mind… I’ve seen quite a few like that (“What, they don’t even speak English, what kind of retarded chick is this, this place is a real rathole”)…

  13. Ah, with these things it’s hard to know what to say when you read about it rather than witnessing it. Obviously, in John’s presentation of the story the guy comes off as an ass, and John as the helpful nice guy (which I’m sure he is anyway).

    But I do get annoyed a bit when expat friends whose Chinese is much better than mine step in and help me without being requested to, even if their intentions are good. I don’t have a fragile ego, but simply prefer to muddle along even if there’s an initial failure to communicate.

    What you might want to do in the future is ask strangers if you could translate for them instead of actually doing it. Most will undoubtedly say yes, but a few will prefer to try it their own way, no matter how painful it might be. It’s quite difficult to voluntarily translate something without coming off as a bit of a show-off, and maybe the dude in question got that vibe from you, John.

    But then again I wasn’t there so what do I know? It could be that he was simply a prick but if it were that cut-and-dried I doubt John would have deigned to mention it, no?

  14. Perhaps he had an alterior motive of trying to chat up the waitress. Or was coming off a late night bender, or more likely a combination of the two, given the description.

  15. He was just a bad-tempered arsehole. Forget it. Most normal people would be grateful…

  16. I guess it all comes down to the truism that helping people who don’t want to be helped will not win you many brownie points.

    I think that for many travellers in China, especially with a backpacker mindset, dealing with the language barrier is part of the challenge and fun (at least in hindsight — no doubt it can be very frustrating at the time).

    But then consider the waitress. Clearly this situation is no particularly novelty for her, and furthermore she was very busy, so I’m sure that even if the foreigner didn’t welcome your assistance, the waitress did.

  17. I know what his problem was… he’s a dick!

  18. Hey now, we Seahawks fans aren’t angry or unhappy…in fact, we feel bad for the Steelers who needed the help of the referees to eek out a pathetic win in what must be one of the worst Superbowls in history.

  19. I gotta go with Matt. Seems kind of uppity to just chime in without the guy’s consent. And maybe I’m a jerk,but if I were going to throw a SUPERBOWL event,it would probably be wise to have a waitress on duty that can speak at least enough english to know the menu. Know your audience! Americans. A few curiosity seekers. Course,it wasn’t the waitress’ fault.
    Yeah Brian,Seahawks totally got robbed. I was pissed after that game. And I’m a RAIDERS fan!

  20. This eerily reminds of more or less the same situation that occurred to me a couple of years ago in Belgium. Only the languages involved were Dutch (waitress) and English (customer). And the guy exploded in a fiery rage. If I hadn’t backed away fast I’m sure he would have kicked me.

    From his looks, he seemed to be from the Middle East. I am still scratching my head if this kind of behaviour is normal over there. Maybe it wasn’t but is now that they have more exposure to Westerners…

  21. Wow, not to defend the guy, but if every time I snapped at somebody very early on a Monday morning I earned a blog entry with 20+ responses, I don’t know if I could make it out of bed.

  22. But Jeff, this was not an ordinary Monday at work… it was Super Bowl Monday in a sports bar.

    Matt and Dulang, thanks for confirming my suspicions. I’ll be more careful… sensitive people lurk everywhere!

  23. I was the guy who brushed John off. And don’t you call me sensitive or defensive cuz it absolutely had nothing to do with either! I am from an English speaking country and I spoke my language, my goddamn language, the language of the Euniverse, and she has the nerve not to understand it. Since this is China everybody should speak my language — English that is, which I had heard just everybody does and they should definitely. Besides, where I came from, customer is KING. I’m the King and you had better understand the King’s words! That woman, this waitress, Miss Lewinsky, if she can’t take order in English what good is she for? She should have crawled to me on all fours just for speaking my language, not to mention my good looks. Someone is right; this was a goddamn superbowl party! If the restaurant did not go all the way to cater to us American Football fans, if they can’t f*^$’ing please English speaking Kings like me, what good are they for? Are they just here to make money, huh? If China’s tourist places do not provide foreign language services and kowtow to us all their waken minutes, what good is China – what’s there to see? And the worst, are you Americans that speak Chinese, you with your arrogant MPS, you with your probably broken Chinese just like Chinese guys with Chinglish, what damn business is it yours to belittle me like that, in front of Miss Lewinsky. I was just about to make her see my way and you had to cut in?! You think you’re the only one who can get food and women out here? I bet you came to China because you couldn’t damn find a job in the U.S. (although I can’t damn find one either). You’re lucky I didn’t call you a traitor and kick your sorry ass! Goddammit you totally ruined my party, and my colonialistic, exostistic journey. God I need to be laid.

  24. But John,it was still kind of you to ask. I just meant,for example,I always see Chinese getting on the train and struggling with alot of baggage and I’ll offer to help them. Most are grateful,but some want to do it themself,but I won’t just yank the bag out of their hand. Sometimes I am in the gym and struggling with my benchpress and a Chinese will come and help me lift it,not understanding that I want to lift it myself for my own improvement. I have wanted to snap at them,but I know they were just being friendly.

  25. Just like to add that there’s no excuse for the dude to get snappy at you, as that’s extremely rude. Had he told John, “thanks, but I got it”, politely, that would have been an appropriate way to handle the situation.

  26. OK it was early Super Bowl Monday morning and the guy was in the middle of a difficult situation and he was rude to a stranger. Gin reads a full page of cultural imperialism into this act (between two foreigners, which is the kind of mysterious part), but I think the exact same thing could happen with any possible racial or socio-economic or ubermenschic background.

    My experience: I helped obviously lost people in San Francisco all the time, people were always glad. When I first tried to help an obviously lost non-Chinese person in Shanghai, the guy started yelling! His girlfriend had to calm him down. Pretty cool.

    If I was to get deep about it, it’s that all foreigners in Shanghai are major weirdos.

  27. (between two foreigners, which is the kind of mysterious part)

    Well, maybe kind of not so mysterious. If another Chinese had stepped in and offered to help he may not have acted rudely, because in which case he views the Chinese volunteer as less of a threat (belittlement) to him and/or as an inferior person tending to his presence or even begging for his attention. However, when the volunteer was John, a tall, smart-looking, white dude, it became a situation of a threat, his inferiority complex suddenly sets in and he even considers John the cause, the muscle flexer. That was when he lost it.

    Yes, I’d call it cultural imperialism.

  28. Oh bullshit,Gin! It’s just as annoying when a Chinese does the same thing. If I need some help,I’ll ask. I have been in restaurants having a private conversation and had people from the next table lean over and just start translating. Do you think I would only find that rude if a tall foreigner did that? There’s no psychology or “cultural imperialism” in there.
    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. FREUD

    I am also unrepentant and stand by my earlier statement that in some situations it is not unreasonable to expect the staff to be able to take your order in whatever language the event calls for. Especially in Shanghai that has alot of foreigners just passing through on business. If you’re a bar and want to attract foreign business,common sense is to try to create a bit of home away from home. There is still plenty of China outside. If I’m a restaurant/bar owner and promoting a “Cinco De Mayo” party,I wouldn’t expect my staff to speak Spanish. But they should at least know what the hell a taco or an order of nachos is.
    BTW,hate to disappoint you ,but it wasn’t me that snapped at John. I was nowhere near Shanghai on Super Bowl “Monday’.

  29. I never try to translate unless asked, but if someone asks, I’m happy to do my best. I had to go up to Beijing several times last year and I always went to the airport starbucks before getting on the shuttle (We don’t really have a Starbucks that I know of in Nanning, so this is a real treat). I kept seeing the same Starbucks worker and would always joke with her, sometimes in English and Sometimes in Chinese, her English was excellent. The last time I was there, she asked me in Chinese what size coffee I wanted and while I was trying to decide, and Chinese-American guy came up said loudly and condescendingly, “She just asked you a question!”. I tried to explain that I was still making up my mind, but this guy woudl have none of that, loudly trying to translate between the perfect English 服务员 and myself.
    Maybe he was just trying to help, I was in a good mood, so I just laughed, but if he’d caught me at six o’clock Monday morning and I hadn’t gotten my drink yet, it could have gotten ugly.

  30. Dulang,

    Whoa, allow me to explain my bullshit. I was only analyzing one probable scenario here. Jeff mentioned it could be mysterious between two foreigners as if persons from the same culture/country/race would naturally be friendly or more understanding to each other, and I offered an alternative logic or illogic to consider. Any chain of thoughts could be at play that Monday morning and your guess is as good as mine as to what had likely caused the guy to snap, right?

  31. Duly noted,Gin. And it could very well have been exactly how you explained it.We were only going on the info John provided. Perhaps I should modify the Freud quote to: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes.

  32. Guy was mid-40s, maybe spoke with a British/Euro/Aussi accent, a bit pudgy, white as wonderbread, about 5’10”. Sorry John–you are the exception white guy in China. The dude you met was the other 99%. Welcome to the anglo-saxon world, have you forgotten?

  33. Yeah, I really believe Gin was the guy in the bar. What a knob to pretend he was there so people will argue with him on Sinosplice. God, he needs to get out more.

  34. phil: Actually, a lot of readers will recognize Gin’s name, since he regularly comments at Sinosplice — if he had wanted to fool us, he would have used a fictitious name. Plus, I think the content of his post is fairly obviously satirical.

  35. I think it’s a Shanghai thing more than anything else. More foreigners are pricks there than in any other city I’ve ever been to. My theory is that it’s due to the fact that many foreigners in Shanghai are bigshot expats on high salaries, and they’re used to everyone jumping at their command. Get out into the rest of China, and foreigners chill the fuck out.

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