As I thrust my parsley onto the counter, I look at the woman and say, “horseradish.”
She looks at me quizzically. I do tend to speak rather quickly, so I repeat it again. This was most definitely not the problem.
I try to describe it to her. I find myself essentially playing a game of charades with the two women behind the counter and two women who happen to be in the shop.
While I do love a good game of charades and have played many impromptu games when trying to communicate here, I am really short on time.
Pointing to a radish while “neighing” seems like it won’t get me what I need. I even resort now to saying the word marror and contemplate singing part of the Four Questions but am doubtful that will help me either.
While one does pick up some Cantonese as a natural consequence of living here (though foreigners generally only study Mandarin), words seem to be limited to greetings, numbers, addresses, bathroom, water, garbage and other basics. I assure you that the word for horseradish is not on a rudimentary vocabulary list.
The game of charades, while mildly entertaining to me and apparently enthralling to them, gets me nowhere.
I pull out my phone and google a photo of horseradish. They all seem to recognize this and direct me two blocks down the street to an old woman, describing what she looks like in great detail. I thank them and race down the road abandoning my extra parsley. I am hopeful. I reach the corner and find a woman who meets their collective, rather unflattering, description. I scan her stall of dried Chinese medicines; this most definitely was not a step in the right direction.
I make eye contact with a man at an adjacent stall and essentially repeat my game of charades. I do this again and again covering all five stalls on the block. I am sent in one direction or another. I am always hopeful each time I see a nod or glimmer of recognition at the photo.
While leaping over a brackish puddle to the next street, I google the word for horseradish.
I give up on speaking and on charades at the next two stalls and instead present my phone screen. A fellow shopper looks at the screen.
“What are you looking for? ”
I show her the Chinese characters.
“What is this?”
“Laaht gan,” I say, which unbeknownst to me just means “spicy root.”
“No, but what exactly are you looking for?”
I again offer the characters on the phone screen and repeat, “spicy root.”
She looks perplexed.
“Spicy root,” I repeat.
“I know that. That is what it says.”
Apparently, when you google horseradish in Cantonese, the word for spicy root comes up. Six stalls later, I will tell you that there are many spicy roots on offer. I am offered the same odd-looking Thai root several times. Apparently, the characters Spicy Root are not helpful.
Exacerbated, I call my husband and explain the story to him.
I am now joined by the women from stall one, apparently amused by my quest. They clearly do not have to make it to a Seder this evening.
My husband says to me, “You know it technically doesn’t even have to be horseradish.”
“Yes,” I respond, “but I have little time for a discussion of Mishnah. Besides I am firmly rooted in tradition. Pun intended,” because there is always time for an attempt at wit.Erica Lyons
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