After living in China for almost two and a half years, the number of truly “foreign” moments approaches zero. Tonight was an exception.
I’m in Qingdao (Tsing Tao for all you beer fans) this weekend, relaxing, enjoying the beach, parks, and generally pleasant city.
Tonight I stepped into a Korean BBQ restaurant for dinner – pretty local, no English on the menu.
About halfway through my meal, a cute, slightly pudgy little kid comes up to my table, explodes with “Welcome to Qingdao!”, and proceeds to introduce himself as a 6-year old who can speak English. In fact, his English, while accented, is incredible, and he proceeds to ask me if I have a Chinese girlfriend and then recite for me his rendition of Peter Pan!
At this point, the entire restaurant is laughing and staring at me, and I, being the cultural ambassador, play the game. I tell the kid in Chinese, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Your English is amazing! Where did you learn it? It’s the best I’ve heard in all of China!” But he doesn’t seem to want to have a conversation – he just keeps going with Peter Pan, and by this point his recital has turned into an all-out performance with jumping, sword swinging – the works.
By now I’ve given him the nickname “Little Friend” and the waitresses have joined the ranks of the rest of the restaurant patrons half giggling half shooting me awkward “you must be so embarrassed” glances (and I was, by this time my face is bright red…). A gentleman who seems to be the kids father is sitting on a bench by the restaurant’s entrance, all smiles, and as the kid’s fantastic English performance goes on, I wonder however briefly how this kid speaks near perfect English and his father, at least from 10ft away seems pretty darn local.
Well, Little Friend’s rendition of Peter Pan finally comes to an end, at which point he runs off outside of the restaurant just as another man, who also appears to be his father, approaches and apologizes in very broken English. I quickly jump into fast Chinese, “No, no! Your son’s English is amazing! It’s great! Too cute! Where did he learn it?” Awkward silence.
What is going on here?
This gentleman is dressed differently. Something’s different about his demeanor…
“Oh my, he’s not Chinese!”
I immediately switch into a slow English, and compliment the kid’s performance and language mastery again. He apologizes again, and thanks me for entertaining him, and explains to me, probably a bit confused by my earlier Chinese… “I’m Korean”, to which I respond “Ah, sorry I wasn’t able to tell!” He proceeds to tell me he lives in Qingdao. I ask him if he likes it, and he responds with a classic Korean lip-biting hesitation as if to convey “Not so much, but I’m far too polite to overtly say so here.”
We chat a bit more, awkwardly, then I finish my meal and pay the bill — $7.76 in total (not bad for a plate of beef, rice, and a great selection of vegetables and kimchi!). The waitress returns with my change, and with a slight grin and in broken English mumbles, “3 yuan [$0.44] discount!”. Was it because they felt bad about the embarrassing situation? How nice, but odd! In two and a half years in China I’ve never seen a restaurant give a courtesy discount.
As I walked out the door, I passed the kid’s father. He shook my hand and said thank you again.
He was the restaurant owner.