Sunday, January 15, 2012

Communal dining? Eat me.

“Do you have a Chinatown in Australia?” the woman asked, noisily slurping up wads of noodles from her plate.

We were in one of New York's most famous restaurants, a Chinatown icon renowned for its yum cha, or “dim sum” as it's called here.

I didn't know this woman, nor her five friends who also shared our table - all Americans of a certain age – and figured I must have misheard her over the clatter of steamer trays and Cantonese shouting.

“Pardon?” I said.

“You know, Chinatown – does Australia have one?” she repeated.

The rest of her party raised their heads from their bowls of fried rice and looked at us expectantly across the table.

I wondered how big they thought Australia was. Or if they were even aware it was a country.

“Yes,” I replied, as waiters whizzed past with trays of steamed dumplings.

“Australia has a Chinatown, one big one right in the middle. Everyone catches shuttle buses there once a week for dim sum, all 20 million of us. The waiters are kangaroos.”

At least, that's what I wanted to say. Instead, I held my tongue while my partner politely told the table that yes, Australia has many Chinatowns, located within its many major cities.

“I've been to Australia,” the woman continued, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary.

“Have you been to Adelaide?” asked my partner as I jabbed him under the table.

“Oh yeah – Uluru,” she said, shoving more noodles in her mouth.

Such are the joys of communal dining, otherwise known as “ruining dinner by sharing a table with people you probably don't want to talk to and never want to see again in your life”.

"Isn't it GREAT that we get to share a table like this?"

In a town where eight million people are frequently forced to cram into restaurants not much bigger than a walk-in wardrobe, communal dining is something of a cultural necessity in New York.

The first time it happens is a humbling experience. You and your partner will enter a bustling restaurant with a queue of waiting diners trailing out the door, but will miraculously be seated on a huge round table all to yourself.

You will congratulate yourselves on how obviously important you are, to have received such a plum spot in such a busy place. And then five minutes later another couple will be shepherded over and seated next to you.

You'll look at each other awkwardly, smile, and then each will spend the rest of the evening pretending the other doesn't exist.

I'm sure there are exceptions to this scenario - people who relish this sort of interaction with strangers as some sort of spiritual exercise, who see it as a way of expanding their world view and plugging in to a wider social consciousness.

But they're also probably the type of people who wear Birkenstocks and dreadlocks and say “dude” a lot. Or the type who wonders whether Australia has “a Chinatown”.

To be fair, I've backpacked solo around south east Asia and most nights dinner and a chat with strangers was a very welcome thing. Disclaimer: I also wore Birkenstocks then.

My point is that as with most things, it's all about etiquette. Reading social cues. You can't just plonk yourself down next to a loved-up couple trying to enjoy their dumplings (so to speak) and start quizzing them about Australian geography. You have your piece of table, they have theirs. Pretend the lazy Susan in the middle is Switzerland.

True New Yorkers know the rule about communal dining is the same as for the subway – sit down, shut up and don't make eye contact. And keep your dumplings to yourself.

This article was first published in the Adelaide Sunday Mail on January 15, 2012.


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