China: a beijing roast duck adventure

It was October 2012 and I was in Beijing. It was my final night in China, and the final night of my first ever solo backpacking adventure. I was packed and prepared, and I had done everything I had wanted to do in Beijing, except for one thing: eat Beijing roast duck. In fact I was yet to eat out at all in Beijing and had been eyeing up restaurants for days. Now the time had come: it was tonight, or never.

The restaurant I chose for this momentous occasion was a slightly flashy, tacky looking one with multi-coloured flashing lights on the outside and a miniature jungle immediately inside. Over the door were signs promising "Beijing roast duck" and other local specialties. Despite being absolutely aware that the prices would be of a Western standard rather than a Chinese one, I chose this genre of restaurant for two simple reasons. Firstly, it was the only kind of restaurant where you could reasonably expect to find roast duck on the menu - or even be sure that you would be given a menu at all. Secondly, I was working on the assumption that since the signs were written in English I would have a higher than average chance of being able to get by with no more Chinese than "Hello" (Ni Hao) and "Thank you" (She she).

So I picked a reasonably full looking restaurant of this ilk and anxiously ventured in. After being ignored for slightly longer than I think is acceptable, I waved at a group of nearby waiters and pointed at a table. One of them lazily shuffled over and led me to a small table by the door, then returned to the group and casually finished his conversation before troubling himself to bring me a menu. I was dismayed to find that only the titles of each dish - not the descriptions - were written in English, and that there were two roast duck options for me to choose from. I poured over the menu for a considerable amount of time and eventually concluded that the less expensive option must be literally just a plate of duck, while the more expensive version included the pancakes, veggies and sauce. Satisfied with this deduction, I had a quick flick through the rest of the menu - it contained such delights as turtle, donkey, bullfrog and jellyfish - and then sat idle, twiddling my thumbs and wishing I had thought to bring my book or notebook along.

After a while it became clear that nobody was going to take my order. I started trying to flag down a passing waiter or waitress, but the crafty cats had sat me just around a corner from the main seating area where I could see everything that occurred but they could quite easily pay me no attention whatsoever. Ultimately I actually had to get out of my seat and walk across the room to ask if I could please place an order sometime this year. An unwilling, sour faced waitress followed me back to my table, and that is where the fun really began. I pointed to the more expensive of the roast duck dishes, and she began gabbling Chinese and making all kinds of nonsensical gestures at me. I continued to point, said "yes" where it seemed appropriate and shrugged the rest of the time. I hadn't been given a drinks menu but I thought that "coca cola" would probably be understood so I went for that. More gabbling and shrugging, then she suddenly walked away, only to return a few moments later with some drinks for me to choose from. They were apple juice, something unrecognizable and disconcertingly black, or a carton of milk - so I went with the first option and settled down to wait for my duck.

At this point a man who had been clearing up nearby - his entire job seemed to be to remove uneaten food and other rubbish from tables, without clearing the dishes - decided to come over and try to communicate with me. Mainly this involved him speaking, and me replying, "Sorry, I don't understand" repeatedly - which obviously he didn't understand. After a while he started pointing to my menu, pointing emphatically at Chinese symbols as if he thought I could read them despite not speaking a single word. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me, but I was aware that people were starting to stare. Before long there were children getting up from their tables and walking over to mine, to stand in front of me and stare at me and giggle.

By the time my food came I was beginning to wish I was invisible, or possibly that I had stayed in after all. Nevertheless, I was determined to enjoy my meal. Out came the duck, followed by the pancakes, then the accompaniments, and then.....more duck. Immediately I began trying to explain to the waiter that I had only ordered 1 portion, and before I knew it there were 4 or 5 people gathered around my table, all yelling over each other in Chinese and gesturing wildly. Eventually somebody fetched the waitress who had originally taken my order, and she deftly shut them all up. Then she very slowly pointed at the menu, pointed at my food and held up 1 finger.

Suddenly it dawned on me: all the confusion, all the people frantically trying to communicate something to me, all of them laughing at me like I was the biggest dork in the world - it all made sense. The two roast duck dishes weren't a choice between a single plate of meat or the whole ensemble; they were a choice between a meal for one, and a sharing platter for two. There I was sat in a restaurant where I didn't understand a single word of what anyone was saying, every single person in there looking at me with laughter in their eyes. I had on the table in front of me a stack of about 30 pancakes, and enough duck to fill every last one of them. I had made such an idiot of myself that Mr Rubbish Clearer felt it was necessary to show me how to eat my food - he motioned putting things onto the pancake and rolling it up, then he nodded and grinned and stood there watching me along with 3 waiters and my waitress and at least 6 children from nearby tables.

Well, as I'm sure you'll all agree, there was only one thing for it! I smiled politely at my audience - because I didn't have the language skills to ask them to leave me the hell alone - and then zoned them all out. Alone in my bubble, I made up and immensely enjoyed my first genuine Beijing roast duck pancake. I don't know what they do to their ducks, and frankly I don't want to, but it makes them taste amazing. Half an hour later I hadn't quite consumed 30 pancakes, but I had eaten every last scrap of duck, cucumber and onion and was happily licking sauce off my fingers when someone suddenly gave me a boisterous pat on the back. It was my new friend Mr Rubbish Clearer, and he said something to me that I like to think was, "Good on you, girl! You're awesome."

Needless to say I sat there trying and failing to flag down a passing waiter or waitress for the next 20 minutes while they all stood around chatting and ignoring everyone, and when I did finally manage to grab someone's attention every member of staff and errant child in the place flocked to my table to see the Girl Who Has Eaten Two People's Duck. I almost expected to get a round of applause, and as I stood up to leave I couldn't stop myself from giving the gathered crowd a little bow.

As I sauntered (ok, waddled) down the streets of Beijing for the final time I thought to myself, "What a wonderful, insane country I have been in."