Making Yourself Understood
Language. Language. Language. The most important tool in your travel arsenal is language. Almost all the problems that arise actually in restaurants and food places would not occur if you could just ask in detail about the food and understand the answers given you. Just learning ‘I am vegetarian’ is not usually going to cut it since what is a vegetarian anyway? People who speak fluent English don’t know. I’m forever being asked ‘do you eat eggs?’ or ‘do you eat fish?’ Lots of people right here in Britain won’t think twice about cooking you up a nice veggie burger in the fat and grease of the beef ones. Some countries don’t even have a word for vegetarian, the idea is that alien to them.
Here’s how to communicate effectively:
Rule No. 1:
Learn as much of the language as you possibly can. Of course it’s unrealistic to dedicate the time and energy to learning a language to any degree of fluency just to go there for a fortnight one summer, but learn as much as you can. In addition to learning the minimum hello/thank-you/yes/no/beer, try to learn some basic question phrases like ‘is there meat stock in this?’ You need to be specific about things. Your average Thai person will swear that a dish is vegetarian, but will neglect to mention the fish sauce in it. In huge parts of Europe someone will tell you it’s safe when actually all the stocks and sauces are meat-based. In Mongolia they’ll say its fine when what they actually mean is it’s the same as everyone else’s, but they’ve picked the biggest lumps off yours. Do your research before you go, learn what the likely pitfalls will be and learn specific phrases to counter them.
Ask a local that speaks English, someone from your hostel maybe, to check your pronunciation before you go out and see if they suggest any good places to go or extra things you need to ask when ordering.
Rule No. 2:
Keep the specifics written down. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try you just can’t seem to make people understand you. One of the teachers at my school in Thailand was forever giving me meat; “meat in this?” I’d say. “No, no no no. No meat.” So I take a bite, “what is it?” “It pig.” Brilliant. I tried over and over again to explain that I was vegetarian, but she never understood me. Thai is a tonal language and you can pronounce something perfectly, but if you don’t say it at the right pitch and intonation it can mean something completely different. Ironically the one word I could never get the pitch of was the word for vegetarian – ‘jay’. How easy does that sound? I’d sit there like a broken record; ‘jay, jay, jaaay, jaaaaaay.” No joy. In the end I looked up ‘I eat no meat or fish’ on google translate and showed it to her. You could see the little lights come on in her eyes, ding ding ding! “You like vegetable?” she said, in a voice that was both incredulous and, quite frankly, horrified (Thailand’s not as easy as billed when you get away from the tourist spots).
Since then I came up with the plan of always having the key dietary stuff written down in the language and script of the country I’m in. Of course I’ll always try and say it first, but if I’m not convinced that the message has gotten through I’ll pull out the phrasebook or the flashcard and show it to them. As long as you smile and show that you’re trying to say it, people are perfectly fine and it’s very reassuring to hear the ‘ahhh’ when they read it and finally get what you’ve been banging on about for the last twenty minutes. Remember to be specific with it though; ‘I am vegetarian’ is just way too vague.