My authentic Chinatown experience

We went to Chinatown last night because we wanted some really authentic Chinese food. This one place came highly recommended by coworkers and by the Internet. It’s just really popular for whatever reason. Finding it was pretty easy. It looked just like all of the other Chinese places densely packed on this tiny street, but it was the only one with a line out the door. It was so hot out that we really considered just going somewhere else, but how would we pick which one? There were too many choices, and all of the signs were in Chinese. Even if we picked one at random, my subconscious would have been making all of these subtle calculations, so it wouldn’t really have been random at all. It would have been a controlled randomness, a fake-decision cloaked in chance.

Anyway, we waited, and while we waited, outside, because the place was too packed to wait inside, we read all of these newspaper articles from major newspapers raving about this place’s Chinese food. “Ask the servers for recommendations!” these articles told us, “They’re really passionate about the food!” So I’m thinking, OK, I’ll ask for something cool to eat, something special. Because surely this newspaper article written in 1996 won’t steer me in the wrong direction.

We sat down at a giant communal table with a bunch of other people already eating. Fine, that’s cool. I’m a friendly guy. I’m not going to get weirded out sitting next to strangers. But I’m not going to talk to them. I’m just going to act cool. I’m just going to act like I don’t even know I’m sitting with anyone else. The waiter showed up immediately and asked us if we want soup dumplings, one of the specialties of the house. Everyone talks about the soup dumplings. They have these comic strips posted at each table showing the correct way to eat them and the perils of going about it in any other unapproved way. He asked if we wanted pork or crab. We said crab. He brought us pork. Whatever, we didn’t find out until we made it past the first scalding hot bite, so it was way too late to complain, and we were hungry, and the pork was fine.

Then the waiter showed up again and asked us what we wanted. “What do you recommend?” I asked him, like an idiot. I’m a waiter, and I know the I-don’t-give-a-shit-what-you-order look, and that’s what he gave us as he pointed to the “house specialty” dishes written on a menu insert in English. Fine man, I wasn’t asking for that, so I tried again, this time telling him to bring us out two dishes of whatever he thinks is the best, if he were eating. He shrugged and walked away. He came back in ten minutes with a fancy plate of beef-and-broccoli and another fancy plate of shrimp-and-broccoli. Fine. Thanks man.

The food was, like I said, it was fine. It was nice. It was definitely better than the whatever-and-broccoli you get at your neighborhood Chinese place, but only marginally better. I probably could have sucked it up and enjoyed my meal, but the Chinese family sitting right next to us started an actual round of applause as their food came out. And it looked awesome. There were crab legs sticking out of dishes that I don’t even know how to begin to describe. They were eating all of the stuff that I wanted to be eating: exotic Chinese foods that I would never be able to order in my own neighborhood. And they were loving it. It just made our dinner seem so, well, come on, it was beef-and-broccoli.

One time I went to a really cool Chinese place in a different Chinatown with a big group of people, and this one guy in the group totally knew how to order. I don’t know how he did it. He called the waiter over and they had like a private discussion for maybe ten minutes. The next thing I know, servers are carrying out trays of fried jellyfish and seared duck tongues. It was the coolest Chinese food dinner I’ve ever had. And here I was, trying to do the same exact thing, talking to the waiter, trying to convince him to sell me something good, and he’s just not into it at all. Was it me? Was it him?

I lost my appetite. Check please. Thanks dude. Thanks for already adding the fifteen percent gratuity. You totally earned it. Come on, I’m not even close to being a great waiter, but if a group of foreigners come in and ask for recommendations, I’m not just like, “Hamburger. Chicken. Check.” And as we left the restaurant, I looked around at all the other white people scattered amongst the giant round communal tables and I saw plates of broccoli, large bowls of plain lo mein. Am I reading a little too much into what was going on here?

On our way home, I stopped at a Chinese bakery to buy some steamed pork buns. I asked for my buns, paid the money, and left. The whole interaction took maybe ten seconds, no pleasantries. I don’t think the cashier said one word to me. And the person I was with commented on why everyone working in these places seems to be in such a bad mood. And I’m thinking to myself, it’s probably because they work in Chinatown, and they have to deal with groups of annoying tourists all day long.

The restaurant I work at gets its fair share of tourists, and I’ve noticed that certain groups of people act in certain ways. I’m not saying anything bad about how any groups act, but I’m making a judgment, inferring through a noticeable set of patterns, that restaurants etiquette is different in different cultures. I lived in Ecuador for two and half years, and I can definitely tell you that it took a couple of months to really get how to act in a restaurant. But it takes time. You’re just programmed your whole life to behave a certain way in a certain environment. And just because you’re on vacation, even if you have an open mind, even if you’re a nice person, it doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to know how to act on the spot in a foreign restaurant. And even if you do know, even somebody warned you in advance, that knowledge isn’t going to make much sense out of context, it’s not going to translate into you acting as if you weren’t a foreigner. If someone tells you to grab the waiter’s arm in a different country, that, go ahead, it’s not rude, it’s how they do it here, there’s still going to be a huge amount of resistance on your part. There’s still going to be that fear that you’ll grab his arm and he’ll stop and stare at you and say, “Did you just grab my arm?” You just won’t get it.

But people who work in restaurants don’t get that either. They don’t get how different cultures and etiquettes and norms can be. So a different group of people comes in and they act differently and we take it as rudeness, condescension. We’re just annoyed. We have to work outside of our own routines to accommodate their not knowing what’s going on. And I’ve noticed a lot of my coworkers, how they get annoyed as certain people sit down, even before they have any interaction with them. They see them and they just already know it’s going to be annoying. So when you start out any exchange with that attitude, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Chances are they will be annoying and now you’re already annoyed. So it’s going to be even more annoying.

So then I look at it from the Chinese Chinatown worker’s point of view. All day they have to deal with American tourists coming in and behaving differently and asking stupid questions and wasting so much time and just being really annoying, disrupting the flow of normal everyday life. I can totally understand how by the end of the day you want as little interaction with someone else as possible.

I don’t know. It’s really hard putting myself on the other end of any situation that I’m normally used to being the other way around. I wanted some authentic Chinese food. Maybe I should have looked up the menu online and done some research in advance instead of placing the whole burden of the success of the meal on whatever waiter I happened to get. All I’m saying is that all the time I think I’m this progressive open-minded guy, but I still find myself getting annoyed at a Chinese restaurant, just like everyone else. Maybe we’re all just collectively really annoying as a species. Like it’s built into our DNA to wander around finding other human beings and unintentionally wasting their time by asking them stupid questions. I think that, with restaurants, it’s always going to be worse, because hungry people are really annoying, and picky eaters are even more annoying, and then you throw in miscommunication and preconceived notions and overcooked food and, didn’t I tell you I wanted this burger medium rare? You know what? Just go get the manager. Just let me speak to somebody in charge here.

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