What could be more simple than ordering a cup of milk tea?
After a few months of being restricted to cafes with picture books as menus, I began to rue the loss of my eloquence as I could only point to things I wanted with a childlike, “这个”（zhège: this one) and “那个” (nàgè: that one). Feeling like an idiot soon became a bore.
So I decided to expand my vocabulary range using café menus as my textbook. One morning I decided to take the plunge and order a milk tea… properly. As I waited in line, I looked up the words I thought I would need:
Milk tea: 奶茶 (nǎichá)
Take away: 打包 (dǎbāo)
How much?: 多少钱 (duōshǎo qián)
When I got to the counter, I strutted out my perfectly prepared sentence:
“我要一杯奶茶。” (wǒ yào yībēi nǎichá: I would like a cup of milk tea).
My triumphant smile quickly faded, as what then commenced was a barrage of questions that I was in no way prepared for:
“你要小杯，中杯，大杯?” （Nǐ yào xiǎo bēi, zhōng bēi, dà bēi?）
Ok… small, medium and large. Let’s go for “中杯.”
“热的还是冷的?” (Rè de hái shì lěng de?)
Hot or cold? Hmmmmm…. “热的吧.”
“糖要多少?” （Táng yào duō shǎo?)
“Táng”? Quick dictionary check. Oh, “sugar”. The barista kindly pointed to a little poster with different choices of sugar on it.
全糖 (quán táng) Normal (full) sugar.
半糖 (bàn táng) Half sugar.
少糖 (shǎo táng) A little sugar.
无糖 (wú táng) No sugar.
I pointed at the 无糖 option. She was not happy about that.
“会有点儿苦哦！” (Huì yǒu diǎnr kǔ ó: I will be too bitter!)
Does she think I don’t know that?
I mumbled out as polite a, “我喜欢” (wǒ xǐ huān: I like it like that) as I could.
Phew, that’s over!
Nope, not yet: “要不要珍珠?” (Yào bùyào zhēnzhū?)
What the hell? Another quick check on my dictionary app, covered by some nervous laughter and at the same time crying inside, “I just want a cup of milk tea!” My dictionary offered up the definition “pearls”.
Then I saw a girl leaving the café sipping a milk tea with what looked like black bugs at the bottom of her cup. Eww, what are they? The straw was extra large to allow these “pearls” to get through. What is this business of half-drinking and half-chewing? I was not into that.
“不要!” (Bùyào: No thank you!)
With a pert little, “好的,” (hǎo de: okay) the barista busied herself with making my drink. Other customers pushed past me, obviously having had enough of this slow foreigner. I was so relieved when she put my cup on the counter and was ready to get out of there.
Alas, one more challenge awaited: “先喝还是带走?” (xiān hē háishì dài zǒu？)
What? No more choices! Just give me the damn beverage!
I grabbed the cup. “先喝吗?” She repeated. I just blindly nodded and she swiftly stuck the straw into my cup and handed it to me. I grabbed it and was out of there in a flash.
I have since discovered there are a few different ways of saying ‘take away’:
带走 (dài zǒu: to take out/away)
打包 (dǎbāo: to wrap up – like a doggy bag at a restaurant)
外卖 (wàimài: takeout as a noun – you will see this sign at restaurants that offer a takeout menu).
外带 (wài dài: interchangeable with 外卖).
I am now a pro at ordering drinks and take pride in reeling off a long list of requirements for my beverage. I can ask them to add ice (加冰快 jiā bīng kuài) or not (不要加冰快 bù yào jiā bīng kuài). I can ask them to make it with soy milk (用豆奶做, 可以吗？yòng dòunǎi zuò, kěyǐ ma?) and so on. And as we all know, becoming a pro at anything is no cup of tea.
Feel free to ask any questions about living in China or learning Chinese below. And I would love to hear what your take on this ‘bubble tea’ is: love it/ hate it/would never try it?