Awkward and uncertain as ever, I was standing uncomfortably on the pavement outside a busy dim sum restaurant in George Town’s Chinatown district, shuffling my feet and trying, uselessly, to blend in. Busy, in fact, is an understatement. The place was heaving. Teeming with the kind of impenetrable organised chaos that seems vital to everyday life in South East Asia. Every table was full, and snaking around them was a jumbled, confusing queue that had no clear end and several different beginnings. There were people queuing on the pavement outside, too, as though waiting to be seated by a staff member that never came.
Often, when I travel, I feel like the awkward outsider. Everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing. The locals, casually passing plates and chatting – over the clash of sounds from the open kitchen and the bustle of servers with trolleys of steaming dim sum plates – come here every weekend. Maybe every day. They know how to find a table, how to order, how the system works. I am the new kid in the playground; a sweaty, uncomfortable bystander, wanting to join in but unsure how.
Serendipity was smiling at me that day, though. I had arrived exactly at the same moment as another group of outsiders. Equally unsure of the system, and just as lost amongst the Malay and Hokkien Chinese languages swirling in the heavily scented air around us, a group of three Thai teenagers took pity on me. A table became available, and the fastest of the girls bagged it before the last of the former occupants had even left their seat. I was just about ready to walk away, too Britishly addicted to queuing to ever snare a table so forcefully, but the girls waved me over and insisted I sit with them. We could all be confused together, they told me.
And confused we were. As soon as we’d placed ourselves around the too-small metal table, an elderly Chinese waitress descended upon us, tight-faced and visibly annoyed by our ignorance. She handed us paper ordering cards, pointed at the queue winding its way to a lady with a trolley laden with dim sum dishes, then mimed a teapot questioningly, to which we all nodded. When she returned with the tea to find us still in our seats, looking around uncertainly, she put the ordering slip in my hand and ushered me towards the queue, with the gruff exasperation of a granny sending me to do some chores. We were quick to obey.
Eventually we sussed it out. You queued, ordered some dishes from the trolley, and the waitresses added everything to your order card. Not all that hard to figure out when you know what you’re doing, but from the outside it was all so confusing.
The next hurdle was knowing what I was ordering. No one spoke much English, and I didn’t really know what anything was, so I just pointed at a handful of random dishes. One of them was some kind of meat on the bone in a sticky looking sauce, which – at a glance – I’d assumed was barbecue ribs. Afterall, that’s always on my order from the Chinese takeaway at home.
Sitting down at a table now laden down with different dishes, I took a closer look at my “ribs” and realised that they weren’t at all rib shaped. In fact, they weren’t shaped like anything I’d ever eaten before. They looked like tiny little hands. Everyone else was eating them, and they smelled good, so I decided not to ask. Google would later enlighten me that they were chicken feet, a pretty popular dish in Asia. But I’d have found it a lot harder to take the first bite if I’d known what I was facing!
A cooked chicken’s foot looks so much like, well, a cooked chicken’s foot, that it’s ever so slightly ridiculous that I didn’t twig. But there I was, wondering if I was eating a monkey’s paw, or if there is perhaps a body part I’ve not yet come across that resembles a three-fingered hand. Ignorance is bliss! And it really wasn’t that bad. Taste-wise, it was just like a chicken wing. Except that there’s even less meat, and dozens of tiny little bones to negotiate your clumsy way around. Everyone else in the restaurant was performing some kind of chopstick wizardry to eat them, which I honestly think would take years of dedicated practice to perfect. Again, I was the obvious outsider; eating with my hands, spitting out tiny fragments of knuckle, making a mess. Thankfully, the Thai girls – also pros with a chopstick – just laughed and passed the napkins.
My new friends were on holiday from Phuket; their first holiday away without parents, after working weekend jobs around their studies to save up. I felt a little awkward for gate crashing their holiday, especially in the face of their giddy excitement (remember the rush of your first trip abroad?), but they were so sweet. We shared a small dim sum feast, chatting away, and I was so grateful to them for having rescued me.
Serendipity, kismet, happy accident… whatever you want to call it, I wouldn’t have had that experience if I’d arrived at the restaurant at any other time. I might not even have had breakfast there at all. More likely I would have wandered away feeling frustrated at myself, and bought breakfast at one of the tourist restaurants with English menus and scrambled eggs. And I’d never have known what a chicken’s foot tastes like. But I arrived just at the same time as those girls, and I had people to sit with, and to diffuse the awkwardness by laughing at ourselves.
Moreover, it was yet another story in my ever-growing arsenal about stories of kindness. With all the warnings and stories of scams and dangers that pop up whenever you plan a trip, it’s easy to start suspecting everybody. To think that everyone is out to get you in one way or another, or at least to trick you out of some extra cash. But over and over, when I travel, I’m reminded by various strangers and situations that most people are nice. The good people I meet always outweigh the bad, and most people are willing to help someone in need. Even if that need is simply having somebody to eat breakfast with.
This short travel story is part of my new series focusing on the stories that don’t get told. I’m trying to be a bit more creative with my writing, and share the simple, funny, or poignant moments from my travels that don’t normally find a home on my blog.