“Hold on a minute, I’m just negotiating an ice cream budget,” is an actual sentence I actually spoke recently in the course of doing my job. Since then I’ve been traveling around sampling the city’s frozen options (which it turns out are mostly gelato and not ice cream) and taking flavor and ambiance notes like, “A girl was annoyed that I asked her to move her Prada bag from an empty table so I could sit.” Ah, the joys of Beijing in the summer.
Lest your jealousy be frothing into a creamy foam at this point, let me just say that not all the dessert I ate for work was enjoyable. Some of it was actually downright terrible. The clientele (see: Prada brat) was less than pleasant at a few of the locations. I’m also pretty sure that one of the gelato shops I sampled was just a front for laundering money, based on the, “cash only, no receipts,” conversation I had with the manager.
But nothing beats the odd exchange I had with the waitress at the last shop I visited. I mention it briefly in my review, but I’ll share the entire exchange with you here because it’s such a quintessential China moment. This cafe is in an area heavily trafficked by tourists, and I was there on a Friday evening in the middle of the summer. So, you’d think they’d have their A-team out on the floor. Not quite.
I looked over the ice cream menu and decided I’d try the maple-walnut since I hadn’t seen anything like it at the other restaurants I visited. When I called over the waitress to order, she got really flustered and explained to me that she didn’t speak any English. Not a huge deal. I told her in Chinese what I wanted and that seemed to sink in.
I started taking down some notes on price and surroundings, when I saw a cup with a bright orange scoop slide onto the table. I waved her back and explained that this was in fact mango, and not maple-walnut. Just to be clear, “mango” (芒果 － mángguǒ) and “maple” (枫 – fēng) don’t sound anything alike in Chinese, so it wasn’t a case of mishearing me.
I could see the confusion quickly filling all the creases of her face. “That can’t be mango,” she said emphatically. “It’s definitely mango, you can even smell that it’s mango,” I explained. “Well, are you sure that maybe it’s not the maple one?” she asked. “Nope. Mango for sure,” I said. “Hmmmm, come with me,” she replied.
We walked together back over to the ice cream cooler, and she pointed to a container that did in fact say “maple-walnut” on its lid. She lifted the lid to show the orange contents and I sighed. “That’s mango, the name on the container is wrong,” I told her. “Really?!” (She was incredulous.) She looked around for a container labeled “mango,” lifted the lid and saw that its contents were also orange. “So, then what’s this one?” she asked me, as if I were some sort of ice cream wizard. “That’s also mango,” I said. “Really?!?!” (The level of incredulity in her voice was steadily rising.)
She looked around for another “maple-walnut,” found two containers of it (both having been opened, scooped from, and left freezer-burned, I may add) and asked me to then confirm for her that these were in fact the flavor I was seeking. “Yes.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “How do you know?” “There are walnuts in it.” “Is that a walnut?” “Yes.” “You’re sure?” “Yes, haven’t you seen a walnut before?” “Well, yes, but I don’t know what a maple is.” “Not a problem. It’s maple-walnut, and those are walnuts.”
In the end I got my maple-walnut scoop, but I almost wish I hadn’t. It was so bad that I didn’t even bother finishing it. She probably thought she still served me the wrong flavor and I was just being polite.