I don’t think I will ever forget the first time I went to a McDonalds by myself in China. It was an eye-opening experience, not due to anything crazy about China actually, but more because I learned a lot about myself and how I’ve grown since then.

That day, I had just finished running some errands and suddenly got a huge craving for a Big Mac. I had been in China for about 2 months already, and haven’t had a burger since I got here. I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonalds puts cocaine in their Big Mac sauce because that stuff is seriously addictive. Anyway I digress…

So I find a McDonalds and I start waiting in line to place my order. Now in the US, you can just say “I want a large number 1 meal” and everyone pretty much knows that you want a large Big Mac meal. And if you didn’t know that, there is the number 1 explicitly placed right next to the Big Mac picture on the menu.

Typical US McDonalds menu

Well in China, there are no numbers, there are only words. And the words are all written in Chinese. Oh, I should mention that at the time, my Chinese reading ability was pretty terrible. It was probably equivalent to that of a 5-year-old. So you can kind of see where this is going.

Typical Chinese McDonalds menu

The Chinese characters for Big Mac is 巨无霸 (Ju wu ba). Out of the three characters, I only recognized the middle character. So I was frantically scribbling the first and third characters on a translation app on my phone to figure out how to pronounce them, so that I could place my order without sounding like a moron. And as you can notice, the third character is pretty complex so I was having difficulty finding it and the correct pronunciation associated with it. I was starting to get really anxious.

I mean, could you figure out how to write that third character?

Well, by the time it got to me to place my order, I froze at the counter. I didn’t find the third character yet, so I didn’t know how to pronounce it. And that’s when I bolted out of there. I literally ran out of McDonalds because I was so embarrassed.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking. I could have just pointed to what I wanted, and placed my order that way. But at the time, my mind just went blank. The reason I was so embarrassed was because in my mind, I thought the cashier would think that I’m stupid. How could someone like me (a person who looks completely Chinese and can speak decent Chinese) not be able to read Chinese? The cashier would think I didn’t finish school, or that I’m just an idiot. And for some odd reason, the embarrassment was too much for me and I ran away.

When I think back to why I ran away, maybe it wasn’t just embarrassment. Maybe a part of me was questioning whether coming to China was the right decision in the first place? At the time, I still hadn’t found a job yet, so I was giving myself a lot of pressure. I realized that there were so many difficulties and challenges that I had to deal with every day, and this small little thing just set me off and made me want to run away from it all.

But of course, I realized how silly my train of thought was and eventually corrected myself. It didn’t come overnight, but I managed to convince myself that I enjoy a lot of advantages that others in China may not have. English is my native language, but I can still speak Mandarin at a near native level. And I’ve lived abroad, so I have lots of unique experiences and perspectives I can share with others.

So slowly, over time, I learned not to care what others think about my Chinese. I know that I didn’t grow up in China, so it can’t be expected of me to have perfect Chinese. And even if someone does think I’m an idiot, so what? I’ve learned to care less about what other people think, and to just be happier with myself. And at least now I can go into McDonalds and order a freaking Big Mac meal for myself.

First Time Ordering at McDonalds in China
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