Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ordering Chinese Take-Out

It is getting late in this 24/7 city, and I am writing. It is about 8:30. I cannot imagine cooking. My refrigerator, like a typical one in many single households in Manhattan, is nearly empty. I google “Chinese food,” then glance at the reviews on the Internet. Ordering out for Chinese food in this Upper West Side neighborhood -- which some reviewer described as the "Capital of Mediocre Chinese Food in the City"-- is a ritual. I suppose this moniker assumes that the best and most authentic Chinese food is found in the city's traditional Chinese district, Manhattan's Chinatown (with its active tourist industry and about 200 restaurants), and now also in places in the outer boroughs, like the new Flushing Chinatown in Queens -- a burgeoning enclave that rivals the original home of Chinese immigrants as a center for new Chinese-speaking arrivals, and even the new Flatbush Chinatown in Brooklyn.
But I suspect that professional West Siders are not in search of the "most authentic" of Chinese cuisine, are just used to ordering what they call "Chinese" because they are always on the go, and it's quick, convenient and inexpensive. It's not atypical here to see a delivery man, driving though the traffic on a bicycle, with a plastic bag of Chinese food balanced on each handlebar.
There are at least 35 restaurants listed in my search. Most on my list are familiar but there are a few new ones that pop up. I notice a new takeout place that has suddenly appeared just a few blocks away in this city where storefronts so quickly come and go. It promises good food, fast delivery, and low prices.
I give it a try. My delivery order is small: Won Ton soup and Moo Shu Chicken. I give the credit card number to a woman with broken English who politely and efficiently asks me twice to repeat it.
Amazingly, the order comes in a few minutes. To my surprise, a dignified Chinese man, perhaps in his late 40s, arrives, holding a bicycle helmet. His manner is formal, decorous, and deferential. Dressed in neatly pressed khakis and a short-sleeved shirt, he looks more like a teacher or office worker than a delivery boy. He does not rush. He walks quickly and efficiently down the hall and smiles as I wave at him and greet him at the door.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello, Madame,” he says, politely. He bows, in the gracious and formal manner of the Chinese.
He hands me the order, and then bows again.
“Thank you,” I say, at a loss for words.
“Thank you,” he says, in broken English, repeating my words.
When I give him the tip, a look of perplexity crossing his face. He points to the credit card receipt and tries to hand the money back to me.
"For you," I say.
The deliveryman then carefully and discreetly folds the dollar bills I give him, without even looking at the amount. Before he leaves, he bows again.
Because of the language barrier, we manage to use only a few words in our interaction. But I am not sure that we need to say much more. It often seems to me that the most telling of communications are not necessarily verbal but are just as effectively made though a simple language of gesture and silence.
This astonishing exchange makes me feel like a most distinguished and valued custome,r rather than a somewhat lazy and tired and self-absorbed New Yorker who takes a delivery from a restuarant from just a few blocks away for granted. Certainly his unexpected courtesy is a welcome change from the brusque and impersonal and money-grubbing ways of the slouchy young delivery boys from the local deli who glare at me with entitlement if I do not hand over a sizable tip. This man is a pleasure to deal with, especially at the end of a day after I have endured the usual indignities one becomes accustomed to here, such as the pushy woman who stepped ahead of me at the drugstore queue and loudly commandeered the attention of the hapless clerk who was trying to wait on others, or the bus driver who shut his doors abruptly right before I and another passenger were able to board.
The quality of the food is great. It is pleasingly predictable, freshly prepared, abundant, non-greasy. A bargain in this expensive city. Certainly there is enough for two people or for another meal.
Why is this man doing this job? I begin to wonder. Is he perhaps taken advantage of by an unscrupulous restaurant owner, or, judging by his looks and obvious intelligence, might he perhaps even be the owner?
Suddenly I feel ashamed, wonder if I am behaving with a sense of undue entitlement to services such as his, much like an “Ugly American,” that is, a term often used to apply to Americans who exhibit arrogant and insensitive behavior toward natives when they travel abroad.
Judging from his English, I figure he must be a new arrival, most likely from mainland China, the world’s most populous nation, which of late in this ever-changing city -- where nothing is ever stagnant -- has been providing a steady flow of immigrants, many of them undocumented, eclipsing the number of the earlier more-established Chinese arrivals here, who hail from
Hong Kong. As a result, Mandarin is replacing Cantonese as the main language of the Chinese population in the City. According to Wickipedia, there are now 665,714 Chinese immigrants in New York City, the largest population in the United States, surpassing even that of San Francisco.
Most likely, this delivery man is simply taking whatever job he can get, in the manner of the new arrivals from China, who tend to find ready work in restaurants and laundries, providing a main source of inexpensive labor in the city, taking on those menial jobs that more established residents would not accept. And Manhattan, with its large number of single households, provides a ready market for services such as his.
"The whole labor issue makes me feel guilty," I notice someone has written online in one of the restaurant reviews, echoing my thoughts.
Nonetheless, I'm not sure he would agree. Obviusly in the tradition of American immigrants who hail from varied places, he must feel he is better off here, has more opportunity than in the land where he was before. And interestingly, since China commands the largest fleet of bicycles in the world, which are a mainstay for commuting there -- and even serve as a way for an enterprising native to get work by making deliveries by slipping in and out of the jammed traffic in the crowded cities, that same skill obviously gives him a foothold in the economy here. And he, like many others here, does not hesitate to apply it.
In this economically diverse city, the little job he has is one of many that has served as a stepping stone in this country, and he is happy to do it with courtesy, competence, and grace, in the process making a telling statement on the  nobility and dignity of work. Whatever job he does, he obviously demonstrates by his demeanor, is worth doing well. And unlike what I can say about the many places and people I come across who provide surly and indifferent service in this anonymous and often not-so-gracious city, I certainly would order from this restaurant again and would be most pleased to re-encounter this man, who is so culturally attuned to the niceties of a human exchange.
And indeed, the next time when I do so, on a rainy night when I get home at eight o'clock and am tired and hungry and call for take-out, he arrives, and hands me my order, and and we just look at each other in recognition and smile. I give him an extra three dollars and he keeps returning it, pointing to the total on the bill, I guess still not comprehending the American concept of a tip.
"No! No"! I insist, and as I hand him the money back this time, we both laugh.