I got a steak the size of my own torso for Christmas. At least it was the size of my torso before I ate it. Now my torso has grown considerably and the steak is . . . well . . . gone. This incredible piece of beef alone was worth the trip back to the States but the cultural insight that came from the experience along with my smoking hot date made for a phenomenal night.
I love me a good ol’ Texas steak house but tonight I couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to bring a Chinese friend into a place like this.
Let me back up and say that part of my job is to help foreigners (and by foreigners I mean people who are not Chinese) make a healthy transition into life in China. Part of that part of my job is to talk about restaurants. Foreigners (like me) often get overwhelmed by the volume and the chaos of a Chinese restaurant (see diagram). In the West we like our space. We like to talk at a reasonable level to the person or persons at our table and we lay unspoken claim to the airspace around us. It’s considered inappropriate to even listen into another table’s airspace. That’s called eavesdropping and if you get caught you could be arrested or even worse . . . given a dirty look. On the flip side it is your responsibility to maintain a volume level that makes eavesdroppers work for their reward. Get too loud and management will say “Sir, I’m gonna’ have to ask you to keep it down or leave the premises.” In Texas they just shoot you.
In China restaurants are typically loud. The meal is often a family, office or community event and it’s common to see large groups gathered around a massive round table with all of the food placed in the middle and spun around for easy access. You can have your space but there is no obligation on the part of anyone else in the room to stay out of it. If you want to be heard . . . talk louder than the person at the next table. If you don’t want them to hear you . . . wait until you get home. Restaurants in China are not designed for starry-eyed, candle lit romance or personal conversations about chaffing. A challenge for most Texans who are of course known for romance . . . and chaffing.
“SHE THINKS MY TRACTOR’S SEXY!!!”
I’m imagining trying to explain to my Chinese friend (over the volume of the loud speaker) the concept of sexiness and how that can apply to a farm vehicle. At the same time a group of senior citizens are hovered around a barrel filled with peanuts which they are sucking the salt off of, eating the nuts and then throwing the shells on the ground. In fact the entire entry way floor is layered with spit covered peanut hulls. “This is why we don’t take our shoes off in America.” 200 people are wading through the peanut shells while they wait for a table and a dozen twenty year olds with matching t-shirts and headsets are working like ants to push them in and out.
BLAM! Country music “WAY DOWN YONDER ON THE CHATTAHOOCHEE NEVER KNEW HOW MUCH THAT MUDDY WATER MEANT TO ME”
Me explaining . . . “See the muddy water is actually a good thing because it’s kind of a symbolic reminder of his childhood when he learned how to swim . . . and about girls . . . and probably beer.” A twenty year old with a head set leads us to our seat in a room filled with enormous moose and buffalo heads and big screen TV’s all playing different versions of ESPN except for the three over the bar which are all playing the exact same version of ESPN. None of them can be heard however, because . . .
BLAM! Country music “I WANNA’ CHECK YOU FOR TICKS . . .”
Explaining again . . . “A tick is a tiny little parasitic bug that lodges onto your skin and sucks your blood until it swells like a balloon and can give you lyme disease . . . or mule fever . . . or fresh water malaria unless you yank it out and crush it with a spoon which makes it splatter all over. But the singer is really trying to be romantic because . . . what he’s trying to say is . . . um . . . I like you.”
Our uber-friendly server bounces to our table “Hey folks, my name is John Bob are ya’ ready to order, or do ya’ need a few minutes? If you’d like I could start you off with drinks and some Rattlesnake Bites.”
Frightened look. “Not what it sounds like.”
BLAM! Country music “I GOT FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES WHERE THE WHISKEY DROWNS AND THE BEER CHASES THE BLUES AWAY . . . Cunningham party of three, your table is ready!”
My inquisitive friend asks, “Why does he want to chase blue away with alcoholic drinks? He doesn’t like blue?”
“Yes. That’s exactly right. He hates the color blue and in some parts of Texan culture it is believed that the only way to chase blue away is to pour massive amounts of alcoholic beverages on it. In other parts of the country they use chocolate and ice cream but in Texas, mainly alcohol.”
“WHHHOOOOOP! “WHHHOOOOOP!” A parade of twenty year olds with headsets and identical t-shirts emerge from the kitchen clapping and yelling loud enough so they can be heard over the music and the thousands of people who were already trying to talk loud enough to be heard over the music. “HEY EVERYBODY PLEASE JOIN US IN SAYING HAPPY 50TH BIRTHDAY TO JOE BOB. ON THREE LET’S GIVE HIM A BIG YEEE HAAAWWWW! ONE! TWO! THREE!”
And a whole section of people screams “YEEE HAAAWWWW!”
Confused look. Running out of explanations, “I think ‘Yee Haw’ means Happy Birthday in some parts of southern Tex . . . never mind.”
BLAM! Country music “CAUSE IT’LL FEEL LIKE THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD IS COMIN’ DOWN ON YOU. BROUGHT TO YOU COURTESY . . . OF THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE.”
Raised eyebrows. “um . . . you ready to order? They’ve got a steak the size of my torso.”
Culture shock shows no favoritism.