How Foreigners Can Overcome The Language Barrier When Ordering Food in Chengdu

Authors: Oliver Kimber Baumgarten


You have arrived in Chengdu, the city of gastronomy known for its culinary delights, but you don’t know how to order in the restaurant. Don’t feel lost – help is near.
Many foreigners who come to Chengdu are not able to speak Chinese and something as simple as ordering a dish can suddenly seem like an impossible mission. At most of the small, local restaurants the staff don't speak English and since your Chinese might be poor, you will have to find alternative communication strategies. Trying to make the local people understand seems harder than climbing to the top of Chengdu's IFS-center, but remember that the citizens of Chengdu are very friendly and tolerant towards foreigners. This is to your advantage as it makes the ordering process at restaurants much smoother.
With only a minimal ability to speak Chinese, my tactic has often been to look for a place that has pictures of their dishes on the walls. In cases like that, it is easy to get an overview of what the relevant restaurant provides and if you find something interesting you can just point at it and say, "Wŏ yào nàge" (I want that one). Since you are in Sichuan, the home of hot food, always expect the waiter to ask you if you want the dish to be spicy or not, "Yào bùyào làjiāo?". Remember that in Chengdu spicy means very spicy!
Translation apps for smartphones are also very convenient when you have an empty stomach. The Chinese app Youdao Translation features a function that allows you to speak Chinese through your phone. By tapping a button the app will record what you say in English and translate it into Chinese. Youdao Translation also provides translation from Chinese into English and in this way, you can have a conversation with a person who doesn't speak your language, which can be useful in restaurants in Chengdu.
Youdao Translation Application
However, this app doesn't help you much if the restaurant doesn't have any pictures and the menu is in Chinese. Of course, you can always use Youdao Translation to ask for a specific dish, but that won't give you a sufficient overview of the menu. You will be staring at a card full of characters, which you feel like you have never seen in your life before. But don't lose heart — also this problem can be solved and again your phone comes you to rescue.
A recent update of the app Google Translate includes the feature of translating text you point your camera at. By allowing the app to screen the menu through your camera, your phone will show you the menu in English. In this way, you will know all the food that the restaurant provides, which gives you the opportunity to order the dish that suits you the most.
Now you are ready to order. There is a big variety of delicious food waiting for you in Chengdu.

About the author: Oliver Kimber Baumgarten, from Denmark, has traveled countries like South Africa, Ecuador and Malaysia and likes shareing his stories.
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