I don’t know why we don’t eat in Chinatown more often. Believe it or not, it’s been well over a year since we’ve eaten at any Chinatown restaurant which seems so utterly crazy since dumplings and dim sum are probably Mia’s favorite food (Claudine, not so much). We do eat plenty of dumplings and have even made our own quite a few times, but dim sum only seems to be a once a year thing for us. Why is that?
But sometimes when you have a craving there is no stopping it, which is what happened last weekend with soup dumplings. We decided to go to Shanghai Cafe again on Mott Street above Canal because we almost always get a booth and they have noodles in soup which Claudine loves (there is very little else on a Chinese menu that she likes). Like other restaurants in Chinatown, Shanghai Cafe has a reputation for some pretty bad service and if you read any online review you’ll see what I mean. It almost makes you not want to go. I guess I always temper my expectations and know to just eat my meal, pay and not linger, but maybe that’s because I just know that’s what you do. The waitresses are not your friends. They do their job and you do yours, which is to eat your food.
Can I tell you a little story? Back when I was working in an office and did such things as go out to dinner meetings with my coworkers, I would always secretly cringe when anyone suggested Korean barbeque. Not because I was doubtful that my coworkers would like Korean food, but because these dinners would inevitably end up being long, leisurely affairs. That’s fine in other restaurants, but not in ones in Chinatown or Koreatown. If my coworkers unanimously agreed on Korean, I would try to steer them towards the few restaurants downtown which were definitely more hip and had a more Americanized vibe where you could linger for awhile, but they always wanted to go somewhere in Koreatown because it was more authentic. Keep in mind that this was 10-15 years ago so Korean food as a cuisine, even in NY, wasn’t quite mainstream.
Being “The Korean” in the group, I always ended up having to recommend a restaurant which basically consisted of me searching online for reviews or reading Zagats like anybody else because I didn’t really eat all that much in Koreatown. I also always ended up ordering for the table because, well frankly, the waitress would always look at me when she came by for our order. This was fine and all, but I’m not fluent in Korean and so I would stumble through the order as best I could and then she would realize that I was a non-fluent Korean speaking Korean-American and I could just sense the air of disapproval even if she didn’t say a thing. She didn’t have to. This little exchange and slight shift in the power balance between me, the non fluent speaking Korean, and the waitress, a very fluent Korean, was always unnoticed by my dinner companions, but I will tell you that it most certainly transpired.
The meal itself was always enjoyable and I’d even forget for an hour that I was wearing the badge of shame as the non-fluent Korean in the restaurant. That is, until the end of the meal. See, this is where the dinner starts getting really stressful again, but this stress is only apparent to me. Usually when I’m out eating at a Korean restaurant with my parents, we pay and leave as the waitress is clearing the table after our meal. Dinner can be done in under an hour. But my friends and coworkers all want to stay and talk and linger and drink and talk some more. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but not at most busy restaurants on a Friday night in Koreatown. Let me tell you…I have been in some stressful situations in my life and trying to subtly nudge my coworkers to move our party elsewhere for an hour while the waitress keeps walking back and forth after putting down our check has got to be up there in the 10 top most stressful moments.
“Well, why didn’t you just say something?”, you might be wondering. And yes, you’re right, but how can I explain that at that moment, blurting out that the Koreans don’t want you to linger in their restaurant isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially when it’s loud and your coworkers are all in a heated conversation about a client or you know, Ally McBeal. It isn’t easy I tell ya. And maybe, just maybe for making me feel the Shame, I was subversively trying to get even with the waitress who you could tell was getting increasingly agitated by the table of Americans and the one non-fluent Korean-American who wouldn’t leave the table even though they finished their dinner an hour and a half ago. Because really, it was me she was glaring at, not them and I knew what she was thinking. “You know the drill! You eat, you leave! No lingering! Why you not tell your American friends that?”
There are always these differences that exist between cultures. Maybe a simple awareness of them, which is not always apparent I know, would go a long way. It goes both ways too, of course. Take my dad, for example. He never understands why dinners take so long to serve at non-Asian restaurants. He’ll inevitably mumble about how he’d already be done with his meal if he were at a Korean restaurant while waiting for his entree. He also doesn’t understand the bread thing. “Why they bring so much bread all the time? I finish bread, but they bring more. Why so much?”
Incidentally, the service at Shanghai cafe when we were there last weekend was quite good. I don’t know if the owners started reading those reviews or we just caught them on a good day, but our waitress was super nice, smiled at the girls and was overall really pleasant. They even thanked us for coming as we headed towards the door. Thanks Shanghai Cafe. We’ll be back, sooner rather than later.