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.


The Concert Goer

Normally I’ll be posting about conversations overheard, intentionally and sometimes not, instead of posting about something I didn’t want to hear, or wished I hadn’t heard. Normally. Here, for this, my first post, I’ve made an exception. Read on…

Setting: Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, during the Swell Season concert.

Subject: A woman sitting in the row behind us.

Sometimes you aren’t trying to hear anything, you just do. You can’t help it. You even try not to listen and you still can’t help it because she’s there. You try to concentrate on other things, block her out, ignore her. It’s impossible.

You know her. We all do. Though sometimes it’s not a her, it’s a him and honestly I don’t want to prejudice this piece by saying it’s always a woman, it isn’t. In this particular case though, it was a her. She was enthusiastic, she was very present in the moment, she was paying attention, and she was annoying. When we were asked to whistle along, she whistled with all the heart she could muster. When we were asked to sing a verse over and over, she did, and even when the band, and the rest of us, had moved on, she kept singing the verse, as if it was a life preserver and the ship was going down. She was not easily going to give up that preserver. Damn it, it was hers! When we clapped, she clapped louder. When a song was over, she yelled her appreciation. When someone on stage said something funny, you could hear her laughter ringing around the auditorium. Or at least, that’s what it seemed like. Maybe it was just my ears ringing…. hmmmm… could’ve been.

At one point I wondered, can the band hear her? Probably not, but then again, we were only in the first balcony. Not that far away. Yes, it could’ve been possible. I think she thought they could hear her and she wanted them to know she was having a good time. Because, she was most definitely having a good time. Yeah for her.

I tried to get a good look at her after the show was over, but as I peered over my shoulder she leaned over to hug the person standing next to her. She was, apparently, overcome by her experience and exhausted after the two hours she’d put in singing, whistling, clapping, and whoo hooing. Sadly, I was never able to catch a glimpse.

I never have a problem with people who are very into joining in and getting involved. To me it usually signifies a person who knows how to have fun and is not so uncomfortable with themselves that they can’t let go and get into it. I really, actually, enjoy those people. Unless… yes, here’s the unless part, they never give it a break and, and this is a big and, they are a bit too loud. So loud they overshadow what’s happening on stage so that sometimes you can’t hear the band over the fan. That was her.

I will give her credit, she sang, for the most part, on key. She had moments when she strayed off the note, but mostly… not too bad. It’s just that, and this is the point for all you enthusiastic fans out there, we wanted to hear the band, that’s why we paid for the tickets and went to the show. We didn’t pay to hear her…. as much as it seemed that she might have thought otherwise. So listen up all you participators out there. Join in, get into it, and have as much fun as humanly possible singing along all you want… just do it at a respectable level. Do it with regard to those sitting around you. You aren’t alone in the auditorium with the band. There are sometimes thousands of other people with you, who themselves want to have as much fun as humanly possible… listening to the band they came to see. Not listening to you.