A New Dining Experience

ID # 3738

Asia, Hong Kong
Hong Kong


When I was in Hong Kong, some of the particularly busy cha cha tangs (restaurants that were often cramped but reputed to have delicious, cheap food and traditionally brewed milk tea) would seat customers – who were strangers to one another – at the same table. At first, this startled me. I felt slightly uncomfortable, even though I was with my friend, when the waitress had pulled up two plastic stools from the corner and shoved them next to a round table, where three other occupants were seated. They were slurping their congees, indifferent to our added presence, a pile of fish bones stacked between us. There was very little table space, and I wondered how I would be able to carry a conversation with my friend when there was hardly any privacy. In addition, we waited forever but the waitress never came back to take our order. Later, we realized it was our responsibility to shout and wave the waitress over, and tell her what we wanted. It was a miracle to me that she remembered which order belonged to whom, and was able to deliver everything to the right person – because the process of taking customers’ orders was neither chronological nor organized.

Reading the assigned articles in class and learning about different communication styles in class has shed light on many of my initial experiences in Hong Kong. It never really occurred to me before that space could have such a big influence in behavior and mentality! But in hindsight, it makes complete sense. People growing up in Hong Kong are used to having very limited space. That is why the city continues to expand vertically, whereas America is full of sprawling suburbs. It would take forever if the cha cha tangs seated everyone at a separate table. Especially in a city where time moves at such a fast pace, nobody would have the patience to wait in a long line, and the restaurant would lose business. What at first glance seems contradictory to the aforementioned (but is actually supportive) is that people in Hong Kong also value taking one’s time, and respect the fact that each person does things at a different pace. This is why waiters and waitresses don’t always ask you what you want to order. It’s not that they are being rude and ignoring you; it’s because they don’t want to make you feel like you’re being rushed. To their understanding, you will let them know when you are ready.

Ned Crouch’s article fascinated me, because it highlighted some of the reasons why I felt so uncomfortable being seated next to strangers in the restaurant. Born and raised in America, I am used to having my own personal space. The example he uses of the gringo wanting to be alone on the beach is similar to how I wanted my friend and I to have our own table. And I think Crouch definitely has a point when he talks about the infrastructure of American homes, and how there are so many walls. Looking back, most of the apartments in Hong Kong were far more “open”, and that applied to food too – which is another thing I noticed: when I went out to eat with locals, we’d order together and share all of the different dishes. That is rarely seen in restaurants in America, where individuals only eat the food they ordered – occasionally sampling a bite of their friend’s.

Eventually, however, I grew to appreciate these features which at first were uncomfortable to me. Sometimes I had wonderful interactions with the strangers I shared a table with. Once, a couple kept listening in on my friend and I’s conversation, and laughing at our jokes; perhaps this would be seen as rude to some Americans, but I found the couple to be quite kind, and welcomed them in our conversation. Also, splitting dishes with others made me feel closer to them. There isn’t a bonding experience quite like being forced to sit so close to your friend that your arms are touching, the two of you taking turns passing the bowl of noodles (you’ve agreed on 3 toppings: chicken wings, kale, and mushrooms) between each other.