Thursday, March 25, 2010

Terms Are Negotiable

You don't order food in a Chinese restaurant. You negotiate.

“We'll have the lotus root stuffed with sweet rice,” says our host.

“No lotus root today,” the waitress replies.

But these aren't the bad old days of Communism, when the standard response to every request was "mei you"—“don't have it.” Rather, Chinese cuisine depends on fresh ingredients, so if they didn't get their shipment of lotus root, they can't serve it.

“Why don't you try the pork-stuffed eggplant,” the waitress suggests. “It's good today.”

Nine of us are sitting around the table, throwing out suggestions from the menu.

“You've got two beef dishes,” the waitress says. “You could change one of them to a fish or chicken dish.”

Someone suggests the sweet-and-sour fried fish, and the waitress points. We all get up and head to the tank room. After a long discussion, we reach a consensus. A busboy nets the fish and carries it, flopping and dripping water, to the kitchen.

Waiters are carrying dishes to the table, but then the waitress comes back.

“There's no goose for the three-meat platter,” she tells us. She's not apologizing, merely informing us.

“Would you like to order something else?” she asks. “Or, we could substitute duck instead.”

We tell her any three meats will do.

Near the end of the meal, someone notices we never got the pumpkin fritters, and we ask the waitress about it.

“We don't have any pumpkin today,” she says.

“Why didn't you tell us?” our host demands.

“I didn't know,” she replies.

It doesn't matter anyway, since there's already more than we can eat.

From the Western perspective, China is not a well-ordered society. Those new here are constantly complaining the Chinese never follow the rules.

“My life flashes before my eyes every time I cross the street,” they complain.

Those who've been here longer rationalize Chinese behavior. The traffic laws are merely suggestions, the traffic lights are but decorations.

But I don't think that's the right perspective either. The Chinese navigate traffic the same way they order a meal, the same way they conduct every aspect of their social life. They negotiate.

Twenty of us stand at a crosswalk, and our numbers are growing. Will that light ever change? Someone steps off the curb, and several others follow. We reach critical mass and pour into the street.

A bus is heading toward us, horn blasting. Not to worry. It won't slow down, but it won't hit us either. We quicken our pace, and the bus swerves around us.

We all make it through the intersection, and we all go on with our lives.

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