01 Sep

Nonfiction: A Cheeseburger and Pickles

Keiko Amano

I came to the U.S. for the first time in June 1970.  I wished I would be able to speak English in no time.  I was nineteen.  Shortly after, I attended Palomar Junior College in San Marcos.  The following is an excerpt from one of my stories.  This day, I was in the cafeteria waiting for my turn to place an order.

“Next!  What would you like, young lady?” a waitress says to me, holding a yellow pencil in her left hand.

“Hamburger and 7-up, please,” I say.

“Would you like a hamburger or a cheeseburger?” she says with a broad smile.

The waitress looks like Alice, the housekeeper of the Brady Bunch.  Over the counter, a male cook picks up a stainless-steel spatula and turns over hamburger patties.  A sizzling sound echoes.  He puts a piece of bright yellow cheese on top of each patty.  They look yummy.  Those hamburgers probably come with cheese or without cheese.

“Hamburger and cheese and 7-up, please,” I say.

“Do you want a hamburger or cheeseburger?” she says looking into my eye.

I pursed my lips.  My heart begins pounding.   I don’t turn back, but people are behind me.   I have to hurry up.  Maybe I should use the word “with” instead of “and” because a piece of cheese will melt and stick with a patty like a mother holding her child’s hand.

“Hamburger with cheese, please,” I say.

“Do you want a hamburger?” the waitress says making her chin double.

People must be staring at me.

“A cheeseburger?” she says without changing her tone.


I wonder what difference a cheeseburger and a hamburger with cheese make.  I can recognize burger and cheeseburger as a pair, and hamburger and cheesehamburger can also be a pair, but the pair of hamburger and cheeseburger throws me off.  I used to think English was logical.  Maybe her mind works in a different way because she is left handed.  I hadn’t had any friends or acquaintances that used their left hand except my grandfather.  My grandfather used a pair of scissors with his left hand and wrote using his right hand.

“What would you like to drink, dear?” the waitress says.

“7-up, please,” I say.

“What?” she says.

“7-up,” I say louder.



I wish I would be able to pronounce 7-up like Americans.   I’m disappointed and frustrated, but I don’t know what to do about it.

The scene above happened almost 40 years ago.  The following scene is from March 2009 at the Subway restaurant in San Dimas.  I made an order for a six-inch combo with Italian herb bread.

“No pickles, please,” I say to the young worker.

“Would you like jalapeños?” she says to me.

“No, no jalapeño, please,” I say.

“Would you like pepperchinos?” she says picking up a few strips of yellow pickles.  She almost drops them on my sandwich.

“No, no.  No pickles, please.”

She drops the yellow strips back to the container.  I had the similar conversation at the place every time I went in to place my order.  I chatted with most of the workers there.  They recognized my face but not my preference for no pickles.  One day, I went there late.  I was the only customer.  I thought this was a good opportunity to explain myself if they asked me about pickles again.

“You don’t like pickles, do you?” another worker says to me with a smile.

“I love pickles, but lately I can’t eat too sour foods.  It bothers my skin,” I say. “Please, no pickles.”

“Okay,” he says, smiling.  “Do you want jalapeños?  Jalapeño is not pickles.”

“No jalapeño.  Pickles mean processed vegetables with either salted water or vinegar,” I say and point to the bin of fresh cucumbers, “That’s fresh cucumber slices, but the other is pickled cucumber.  You know what I mean?  Those jalapeños or pepperchinos are also pickles.”

We went into more detail about pickles, and we burst into laughing.  We began using the word “family.”  The family of pickles.  I thought I finally achieved my goal in our communication.  I was happy.

But life is not easy.  My next visit there, my situation went back to the way it used to be.  A server asked me about pickles again.

Going back to cheeseburger, to me, the word connects to a brilliant comedian, John Belushi.  In the television program “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” he played a cheeseburger cook.  He shouted, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger!” no matter what customers, other cooks, or waitresses said.  I love those sketches and the character.

Almost forty years has passed since my cheeseburger incident.  My language development was long and slow, but I thought I made my progress.  But the pickle incident sent me back to my original question.  How do native English speakers think behind their words?  It is still a mystery.