Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Incident at the Poo Poo Hot Pot

Chinese women don’t like me. Well, wait a minute, that’s not completely true: women of Chinese ancestry raised in the U.S. have no opinion of me, but female Chinese immigrants definitely don’t care very much for me. I often feel it in their cold stares or the way they knock past me while boarding buses or escalators. When I place orders at Chinese restaurants, they act impatient and rush me. It may be because I’m too tall or too white or both; I have an aura about me that antagonizes them. Instead of the Goofy Nice Guy persona most people pick up on, I think what they see is Yankee Imperialist Oppressor. I’ve just got a bad look to them.

Several years ago, I was working on a catalog job (I’m a graphic designer). My client contact was a pretty, young Chinese woman named Ling. Whenever we met to discuss the job, she was as cold as liquid nitrogen and acted as if sharing the same atmosphere with me was poisonous to her. Her remarks were punctuated by barely concealed contempt and, despite how hard I worked, nothing I did was right and the smallest slip was proof of my complete incompetence. Now, keeping in mind that I’m pretty good at what I do and most clients are delighted with me, the only thing I could put it down to was that, like all other native Chinese women, she hated me because of this look I seem to have. What else could it be? I worked hard, tried to be polite and kept my stupid questions to a minimum. I gave it my best, I really did. But in the end, rather than have me take the job to completion, she abruptly pulled it from me and had someone finish it internally.

That’s State’s Exhibit A. We now move to Exhibit B. About ten years ago, I was out with a group of people to see a show at the MIT auditorium in Cambridge, MA. For some reason which I’ve forgotten, we parked the car quite a distance away. As we strolled down Massachusetts Ave. on our way back to it after the show, a member of our group recommended we stop off at a small Chinese restaurant she knew of called the Poo Poo Hot Pot. The vote was unanimous, so we went. The only hitch I saw was no one claimed to be particularly hungry. Most people in the group declared they would only order an appetizer, like soup. I remarked that it seemed kind of unusual to not order full-fledged meals at a Chinese restaurant and actually felt a premonition of trouble. But no one else felt it was an issue, so on we went.

It was a relief to see the restaurant more than half empty, as I mainly feared a large party of light eaters taking space away from more profitable clientele might lead to some friction. We were seated, menus were distributed, and I decided I would order a full meal just for appearance’s sake. When the waitress arrived, she did indeed seem taken aback by orders for only soup or chicken fingers. I think one of us might have requested only water. When we finished ordering, she said rather brusquely, “Is that it? That’s all you want?” Someone said yes, and then she snatched up the menus in a fit of pique and stormed away.

This was bad, I thought. What really made me nervous was how my wife, Myrna, would react to a hostile waitress. My wife is Puerto Rican, and — forgive me if I’m stereotyping — like a lot of Latinas the passions inflame in her as quickly as a match to rocket fuel. After a minute, I asked, “Should we leave? That waitress doesn’t seem too happy with us.” Myrna instantly agreed.

I caught the waitress as she walked by and told her to cancel the orders. Anything already being cooked special for us, finish it and we’ll take it to go. The waitress gave me a blank look, then strode directly over to the manager and said a few choice words in Cantonese while gesticulating toward us. The manager, a fairly attractive Chinese woman perhaps no more than 30, came over and asked in her most civil tone what it was we wanted? I replied with some asperity, “Your waitress doesn’t seem to like us very much and we want to leave. I told her, any special orders being prepared for us, go ahead and finish them. We’ll pay for them, only we want them to go. We don’t feel comfortable eating here.”

The manager’s appearance completely changed. Her face instantly took on the very shape of outrage. “What is the matter? What did she do?” she demanded.

“I think she thinks we ordered too little. That’s fine. Just wrap it up and we’ll eat it elsewhere.”

“So you’re leaving?”

“Yes, we’re leaving.”

That was all she needed to hear. She turned on her heel, walked the five or so steps over to the telephone, punched in three numbers and informed a police dispatcher that she, the manager of the Poo Poo Hot Pot on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, had a party of customers attempting to leave the premises without paying their bill.

This sent my wife into a rage and she let forth a stream of very uncomplimentary words to the manager. The manager retorted: “Lady, calm down! You are crazy! I think I smell alcohol on your breath!” and then made a fanning motion as if the fumes were overcoming her. Here I interceded and told this woman to watch what she said and announced our intention of seating ourselves again to wait for the arrival of the police. I told her I explained our intentions to her very clearly, she completely misconstrued them, was still not willing to listen, and now I would simply have to be satisfied with explaining our position to the police.

So we waited. And we waited. I began to form the suspicion that no real call to the police took place. Meanwhile, members of the kitchen staff popped into the dining room from time to time to see the unruly customers who were making such a fuss. Some of the diners gave me black looks. One customer, in to pick up her take-out order and obviously a regular, was told by the manager a bizarre version of what took place. By this time you could see the sole wish of the manager was for us to leave. This woman turned to us and said, “You know what? You people are assholes! She’s a nice person! You should leave her alone!”

The customer left, another five minute passed, and then the manager, who was really becoming quite distraught, finally pleaded to us, “Please! Just go! Go!”

“No,” I said, “you accused us of trying to leave without paying the bill. I explained to you three times what our intentions were, but despite that, you called called the police. That was a serious step you took. We won’t leave until we tell the police our side.”

Then she said, “I know what you think when you look at me! All you see is cheap labor! You get your fancy degrees and high-paying jobs and think you own everyone! But you don’t! You don’t own me!”

And then it became obvious: I embodied everything she hated about this country, the stories she heard and the prejudices she encountered. I was Mr. White Self-Satisfied Smug Capitalist Shithead — or whatever that translates to in Cantonese.

I had kept everyone in my party from saying anything which might escalate the tension by giving a little speech about us showing some class in this situation. Despite that, every now and again Myrna said something ostensibly meant for our group, but loud enough for the people passing by on the sidewalk to hear. “Now, now Myrna…” I’d caution. Another five minutes went by. Finally, I went up to the manager and said, “Look, we can’t wait any longer. But this doesn’t mean I’m admitting you’re right.”

A change came over her. She suddenly appeared vulnerable; the hatred had all drained away. She replied, “The waitress is my sister. She’s only been in this country for a little while and she doesn’t understand English very well. Maybe that was the trouble.”

“Just let me ask you this: do you still believe we’re trying to cheat you?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

Believe it or not, in the end we came to maybe one-sixteenth of an inch away from hugging each other. We both admitted we could have handled ourselves better. She wished we’d come back again some other time; we had a completely wrong idea about her and her restaurant. I expressed a desire to do so. At one point, I inexplicably gave her sister a tip for absolutely nothing (we never got any food, as it turned out). It became a lovefest. Weird.

Of course, we never did go back.

24 Comments:

Blogger trinamick said...

I'm afraid I'd have been hesitant to eat anywhere with Poo Poo as part of its name. That said, while more difficult for a waitress when small orders are requested by large groups, it's nothing to get bent out of shape over. I had a group of 20-30 Italians come in one night and order all appetizers, radishes, and bowls of lemons. Customer is always right.

One kid that used to follow us everywhere was hated by all Asians. But I think it was because he ordered a hamburger at one place, asked for a fork in another, and requested ketchup for his crab rangoons. I'd have thrown him out.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Mr. T said...

Wow.. that is some strong inbred hatred there. Who did you piss off in a past life ;)

12:08 PM  
Blogger Mr. T said...

Funny you mention "ketchup for his crab rangoons".. One of my colleagues is Chinese and eats ketchup on everything and I mean everything. But you know, he doesn't really consider himself Chinese but rather British and doesn't anything weird like "chinese ethnic food" (his words not mine)
He's a funny guy (in a non-intentional way)

12:12 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"But I think it was because he ordered a hamburger at one place, asked for a fork in another, and requested ketchup for his crab rangoons. I'd have thrown him out."

Oh man! No wonder the world hates us!


"Who did you piss off in a past life?"

Probably Confucius, maybe for saying something like, "Man, get off it! You sound like a fortune cookie!"

12:15 PM  
Blogger hoverpants said...

We don't want no stinkin' crab rangoon.

12:17 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"We don't want no stinkin' crab rangoon."

Then none you shall have, Mooney. . . I mean, Hoverpants.

12:27 PM  
Blogger John said...

I don't know about hamburgers, but the Chinese food places around here have forks and ketchup. And for some reason, french fries.

12:34 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I don't know about hamburgers, but the Chinese food places around here have forks and ketchup. And for some reason, french fries."

Yeah, there's a place where I live called Tin Tin Buffet that has french fries, onion rings, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, etc.

You'd think the least they should do is call them chinese fries.

12:42 PM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Or freedom from Communism fries.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Wow, that was some encounter, and well described. I would have been outraged at her suggestion that I was trying to steal something, and I would probably have stuck around to talk to the police too. It's funny that you posted this. I had a long rant about something quite similar, how Americans are preceived by the rest of the world, how we are despised for simply being winning the geographical lottery, but it really helps me to read the last part, that they think we look at them as cheap labor. Interesting...

12:57 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Uh, I think I typed that last one too fast. Really, English is my first language.

12:58 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Or freedom from Communism fries."

Translated into Chinese and back into English: "liberated from the shackles of our oppressors fried potato treats."


"…how we are despised for simply winning the geographical lottery…"

That is a very interesting statement right there, Scott. I think geography has a lot to do with it, but quite frankly — and note I am no flag waver — I think our political system, despite its many flaws, works into it as well. But what a big advantage size and natural resources give us.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Chloe said...

Beautifully said, Mr. Schprock! You have a gift for seeing other people's viewpoints that most folks are lacking.

Glad the po-po never showed at the Poo Poo.

2:46 PM  
Blogger :phil: said...

"Mr. White Self-Satisfied Smug Capitalist Shithead — or whatever that translates to in Cantonese."

-What a funny story. We got chased down once because we didn't leave a big enough tip.
PS-The chinese food sucks in NY State, we drive to NJ for ours

4:33 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I love it. That was a awesome story. The lady at our Chinese restaurant always insists that we get "hot and sowa sup" but none of us really like it. I think she gets a little annoyed at us as well.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Wave away Mr Schprock, you won't get any argument from me. I think there is a tendency for a lot of Americans to be ashamed; anyone with pride is denegrated and dismissed as a flag waver. We should be proud, and you are right, our policital system enables even the poorest among us to work our way to the top.

3:57 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"You have a gift for seeing other people's viewpoints that most folks are lacking."

Thanks, Chloe. I know my problem is I'm just too white bread-looking. When in Puerto Rico, store clerks, without even hearing me speak, address me in English. I should stay the hell away from the Middle East!


"The chinese food sucks in NY State, we drive to NJ for ours"

There's a hole-in-the-wall in the Chinatown section of Manhatten that's really good. I forget the name, but the walls and ceilings are plastered with dollar bills with messages inscribed on them. Describe that to people and you'll be able to find it. Tell them Mr. Schprock sent you.


"The lady at our Chinese restaurant always insists that we get 'hot and sowa sup' but none of us really like it. I think she gets a little annoyed at us as well."

Next time bring in a chili dog and say if she eats that, you'll have the soup.


"…our political system enables even the poorest among us to work our way to the top."

Who was it who said something to the effect of, our system of government is the worst — if you don't include all the others. Only put much wittier, of course.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

You got me, but it is hard to deny that our model has been successful.

6:20 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

OMG, I don't think I'd even go into any other cantonese restaurant again! I'd be too freaked out.

You handled it so well. I could see my husband screaming then just storming out.

6:41 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

" You got me, but it is hard to deny that our model has been successful."

Well, I've never had to stand in a bread line.


"I could see my husband screaming then just storming out."

Screaming and storming out . . . that could've worked too.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Paul (rock star wanna be) said...

Hiya,
Found your blog through a comment on Phil's.

Awesome story man. Got ya on my faves now. Peace,

7:32 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thanks Paul. How much truth there is to be sought here remains to be seen.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

Indeed...


;)

Good stuff as usual Schprock.

9:40 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thank you, Henry.

9:45 AM  

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