Eats · Essays

The Thai Restaurant Patron

I was at a Thai restaurant the other night and overheard a woman sitting at another table looking over the menu and trying to decide what to have. In the course of her trying to make that decision she said, “listen to this, this one has pineapple, coconut milk, chicken, curry…” And then she uttered the phrase that got me thinking… “That’s a strange combination of foods to put together”.

At this point I started scratching my head. Not literally mind you, but figuratively. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Here we all were, she and her party and I with my dinner companion, sitting in a lovely little Thai place offering authentic Thai cuisine. I thought… if she wants Americanized oriental food, why didn’t she go to one of those Chinese restaurants at the mall. They always have sweet and sour chicken and pork fried rice, the “friendly” and well-known American substitute for the more exotic menu items found at a real oriental restaurant. Granted, my dinner companion and I were having Phad Thai with chicken, and Pra Ram with chicken. Maybe not the most exotic items to be found on the menu, but dishes you can say are definitely Thai. Which is why, don’t you know, we went there, and most people go there, in the first place.

So I ask… and maybe I shouldn’t, but… with all of the restaurant possibilities out there, why would a person pick one where they wouldn’t be able to find anything they liked… or more to the point, one in which they wouldn’t really want to eat anything they might find there.

I believe she ended up ordering steamed vegetables.

This whole episode got me to thinking about how much we like to, here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., homogenize everything. We want to feel like we are people of the world, in touch with cultures and customs different from our own. We like to think we are accepting of those same cultures and traditions. Sadly, many of us are not. Because when you get down to the brass tax of the situation, we don’t really want anything to be different, and we certainly don’t really want to be different from each other. It’s why mass marketing works. Buy the same toys, wear the same clothes, own the same car, and live in neighborhoods that look the same as those down the block and in the next town. We want to feel we are cultured, worldly, a part of the larger world, and yet we find it frightening, uncomfortable, and somehow a bit wrong. As in… “That’s a strange combination of foods to put together”… said in a way that conveyed all the doubt, scorn, fear, and sarcasm thrown out to the world every day by citizens of this “advanced” civilization. We want all the toys in our box to be the best, the biggest, and can find nothing redeeming in those things that are unfamiliar to us, things we feel superior to.

I shake my head when these situations present themselves to me. I wonder, how “advanced” are we, really? How much a part of the world are we? Whether we like it or not, there’s so much value, so much to be learned from other cultures. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t know what’s best for everyone, including ourselves sometimes. And you know what? That’s ok. It’s OK to not have it all figured out. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. The feeling of being uncomfortable makes us look a bit more closely, pay a bit more attention… and if we actually did pay attention we might find things outside of our immediate world that are beautiful and worth celebrating, saving, and honoring.

I had to laugh that night…. I was listening to the disdain present in the woman’s voice thinking, you are in a Thai restaurant. They have Thai food here. Why did you come to a Thai place if you didn’t want Thai food? The answer? We want to look continental, without actually being continental. We want to be able to say to our friends and family later… we had Thai food. Emphasis on the Thai. Meaning that yes, even though we live in our safe suburban neighborhoods, drive our safe SUV’s, our kids go the right schools, and we shop at the right stores… all of this taking place within a 10-mile radius of our homes, we are hip. Urban. Citizens of the world. And what’s more, we say… we understand the world. We commune with it regularly, because we, with disdain or not, eat at ethnic restaurants once in awhile. Therefore, we know, completely, what it’s all about.  Sarcasm anyone?

There was one other thing a bit disturbing about the whole incident for me. The tone. It was as if chefs in the U.S. wouldn’t put together such an odd and obviously wrong combination of ingredients. How could they? It’s just plain silly. That’s what it is. Silly. It was a bit embarrassing to me. I was embarrassed to be a part of that scene, even as a bystander, watching an arrogant person degrade another person. I wanted to hide my head.

I know I have a tendency to over think things. I do. I hear conversations and infer from them things about the people speaking that are possibly unfair. Perhaps not even a true representation of what the person or persons were trying to convey to each other and the great cosmic universe when they were talking. But, I can’t help it. Because what I think is, even a moment or two like that, a simple fragment of a conversation, does something to us, to anyone who hears it.

Bringing me to this moment and the thoughts I had about it. I know I can’t change the world, or how people are in it. But, I can listen… I can start a dialogue about it… I can wake up, if only for a moment, the collective consciousness. Knowledge is power, and if this makes even one person more aware of what they say, how they react, what they’ve thought or been… then listening to this whole episode was worth it.

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