I was at McDonald’s on the West Side of Buffalo when the guy in front of me tried to order a double cheeseburger.
The cashier spoke Spanish with the workers behind the counter, who wrapped and stuffed food into white paper bags.
When the guy said, “No pickles,” the cashier replied, “No understand.”
The man raised his voice, as if talking to his half-deaf grandmother, and shouted: “No pickles!”
My mind jumped to a chat I once had with an old Chinese woman. I was teaching an English class at Buffalo’s International Institute. The woman approached me in the lobby with a question burning on her lips. She smiled, allowing a thousand tiny wrinkles to gobble up her face.
“Teacher, I have question,” she began. “Pizza in America. It have cheese and small meat on top … small circle meat. Very red. What is call this meat?”
“Pepperoni,” I answered. She looked at me in awe, as if my ability to pronounce this word was magical. “Pep-per-o-ni,” I said, sounding it out again.
She gave it a whirl, at first failing and laughing at herself. Then she tried again, insisting that she get it right. Who knows? Maybe all this was prompted by a messed-up pizza order.
That night, I found myself wondering how to say pepperoni in Chinese. I’d been studying the language for a couple of years, but hadn’t come across it (the meat is not common in Chinese cuisine). I hopped on Google Translate and typed it in. Seven characters appeared, and in Chinese, each character has meaning by itself. The literal translation was: “Meaning Big Advantage Spicy Flavor Scented Intestines.” Taken as a whole, it meant “pepperoni.”
This was not very appetizing to me and made little sense to my Western mind. The first three characters, “Meaning Big Advantage,” had no apparent connection to pork, but then I remembered that in Chinese, the characters make the sounds Yi Da Li. This is how Mandarin speakers say “Italy.” I was on to something.
The remaining four characters translated into English as “Spicy Flavor Scented Intestines,” a very descriptive way of getting about “sausage.” So pepperoni, when uttered in Chinese, is Italian spicy sausage, roughly.
I felt just as perplexed as the old woman who had asked me about America’s favorite pizza topping. Our concepts of the same food were worlds apart. She must have been wondering what small red circular meat has to do with peppers – and “oni,” whatever that is.
I pondered this as I waited in line for coffee. The man in front of me continued to bark “No pickles!” in vain at the blank-faced cashier.
As an ESL instructor, I felt the need to butt in. I thought about how a seemingly simple word like pepperoni gets broken up into multiple concepts in Chinese. I tried doing the same for the word pickle in English. When you break it down, what is a pickle, really?
“A pickle is a sour green vinegar vegetable,” I said, exaggerating a sour expression with my lips and drawing one of the small round McDonald’s pickles in the air with my index finger.
“Ah!” exclaimed the cashier, smiling. “Thank you.”
She had pieced together a pickle. The work of an off-duty Buffalo ESL instructor was done.