I was pretty much hooked on Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah as soon as the protagonist explains she only knows food words in Chinese. Hey, me too!
This turned out to be an awesome story about Beijing expat life, with so many of the tiny details right. Going to Jenny Lu’s for essential home comforts. Eating Beijing duck. Ordering without a menu because all homestyle places have the same dishes. Wait, there was some non-food-related stuff too… The part where the Westerner speaks perfectly good Chinese, and the nervous waitress confirms it with the Chinese-looking person at the table. An angry, hard-drinking Australian expat with a well-hidden heart of gold (ahem). Working in China and how much is guanxi, not qualifications.
A lot of really wonderful novels set in China present a skewed sense of learning the language. I’m not talking about the ones where the foreigner just picks up Mandarin by osmosis (ugh), but usually for a narrative to work, the character’s language skills progress in simple tiers, from random sounds to what John Pasden calls “Fine, it’s a language” to Horrible Spoken Chinese to Not That Great and onwards to Fluency. Kitchen Chinese really showed the terrible frustration in needing a particular word in a normal second-language day, or in getting the tones just slightly wrong and saying something completely different. Of course, as a waiguoren, even when I screw up the basics, most Chinese people can’t stop telling me how great my Mandarin is (pretty sure that’s Chinese for You Tried!), while the ABC protag of Kitchen Chinese gets just the opposite reaction. Beijingren keep telling her to study more, while other Americans condescending tell her that her English is good.
Most of the story is set in Beijing, but there’s a segment set in Shanghai that reminded me so strongly of Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella, and, if I’m honest, of my recent trip to Shanghai when I walked around the French Concession thinking of the family in that book. It was a nice sidetrack, but didn’t fully mesh with the Beijing expat adventures in the rest of novel, and I was a bit confused. Anyway, at the end of the book, I saw that Ann Mah, the author of Kitchen Chinese, is the daughter of Adeline Yen Mah, the author of Chinese Cinderella, which suddenly made everything make sense.
Anyway, you should read it if you like food and Beijing.