Sunday, March 12, 2017

Late Night Microaggressions at the Noodle Shop

Last night I snapped when a customer asked me for a knife.  I own a small mom and pop noodle shop nestled in a charming small town in central Kentucky.  We have chopsticks and Asian soup spoons available to customers, and forks upon request.  Occasionally, someone will ask for a knife to cut their noodles and typically, I’d just gently inform them that we don’t have any non-butcher knives on-site. 

But last night I snapped.

Eight months ago when I first left my 9-5 job and decided to create a space that allowed me to share my family’s recipes with my community, it never occurred to me that it was possible that I could be made to feel like a complete foreigner in my own space.  After all, I spent 20 years of my professional life being the only person of color in the room, trying to fit in, blend in, assimilate, and accommodate. It didn’t matter that it didn’t exist out there in the world, I would create my own beautiful space where people from different walks of life could sit around long family style tables and connect with one another over steamy bowls of noodles.   And since we opened, I’ve managed to do just that - we’ve served up over 25,000 noodle bowls to locals, adventurous foodies, weary interstate travelers, and tourists alike.   And most of the time they are happy.  

Most of the time.

The first time someone walked out of my shop after looking over the menu and failing to find marinara or Alfredo sauce as offerings, I told myself that Southeast Asian noodle bowls just weren’t for everyone.  When several members of the local Chamber of Commerce “passed” on my complimentary noodle samples at the ribbon cutting, I thought that perhaps they just ate and were too full to sample my offerings.  Every day I listen to customers tell me that I need to change my late grandmother’s 100-year old curry recipe by “simply” replacing a combination of 3 different kinds of authentic Thai soy-based seasonings with a single gluten-free one.  I don’t take it personally when people tell me to just give them the “normal” noodles when they want ramen, even though rice noodles are the most commonly used noodles in most Southeast Asian cultures. And when customers ask for “American” utensils when referring to forks, nine out of ten times, I just hand them one.  Even the positive on-line reviews often include the descriptor “clean” – as if we are the anomaly and the standards for Asian restaurants are anything but.  Perhaps the most challenging customer interaction I’ve had was last week when a particularly cranky elderly gentlemen (who had clearly been dragged there by his granddaughter) defiantly told me, “I’ve been to Thailand and there’s nothing good about that place” when I suggested he try our Pad Thai bowl.

This wasn’t the first time someone has asked for a knife.  People always seem flabbergasted that a restaurant, albeit a noodle shop, would not have forks and knives readily available for customers.  Of course they are also shocked when they learn that we don’t keep butter on the premises for their kids who “only eat buttered noodles.”  Somehow, our little noodle shop is expected to either operate like the Olive Garden or the local Chinese take-out joint.  Here are some actual comments I’ve heard in the last 8 months:  What kind of noodle shop doesn’t have cheese?  Doesn’t this come with any bread?  Which one is closest to spaghetti?  I wish you would offer those “crunchy noodles” to sprinkle over my soup.  Do you have hot mustard and duck sauce for the egg rolls (which are really spring rolls because they are made with a thinner, egg-free wrapper and stuffed with a different kind of filling)?   

Which brings me back to last night.  I won’t go into the details of the interaction, but let’s just say there was a general tone of condescension and arrogance in the way that I was addressed, and after quietly trying to accommodate these particularly hard-to-please customers for several minutes, I apparently reached the end of my rope when one of them got upset that I didn’t have any knives available.  And so I snapped. I guess it finally got to me.  My entire childhood consisted of me watching my parents eat their Kentucky Fried chicken with ketchup instead of hot sauce, and rolls instead of rice.  I watched my mom discreetly sneak in tiny Tupperwares of chili-infused, garlic fish sauce every time we went to Ponderosa because the A-1 and Heinz 52 just didn’t cut it for her.  I watched my dad slowly and skillfully learn to master eating with just a fork and knife when we were at fancier restaurants, even though at home he ate all of his meals with a fork and table spoon.  In other words, I spent my entire childhood learning how to fit into a specific cultural norm that wasn’t mine, and an entire adulthood politely following the rules of that norm, but God help me if I have to pretend to appease someone else’s norm in my own home.   

Microaggressions, as you may know, are defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”  Like most members of non-white communities, I’m used to experiencing microagressions on a daily basis, but my “home” is usually a safe space.  My home is usually a place where I can just be authentically me:  a second-generation American whose childhood comfort food was a noodle bowl rather than a bowl of mac and cheese.  My home is usually a place where I shouldn’t have to sit back and listen to someone tell me I’m weird, or odd, or strange because of the foods I grew up eating…or the manner in which I eat them.  My home is where my culture is not only celebrated, but is actually the norm.

Last night I snapped when a customer asked me for a knife.  I’m not proud of it, but it was a long time coming.

Note:  For every instance that I’m made to feel like a foreigner in my own home, there are a million instances that customers make me feel like family - by celebrating my mother’s cooking and choosing to join me at my dinner table every week. I am grateful for the 15-year old high school girl who invited ten of her friends to celebrate her birthday with us.  I am grateful for Berea College’s Appalachian Center, who invited us to cater a meal for a renowned Appalachian food critic because we represented the growing diversity in contemporary southern cuisine.  I’m grateful for our city’s tourism department who produced a beautiful marketing video telling our story, and for the urban farm for growing fresh greens for our noodle bowls.  I am grateful for every single customer who makes my home feel like theirs.



3 comments:

  1. Yesterday at church I met a girl who was from Berea. We talked about the town and I told her how I love going back to visit. She said she and her husband miss it especially since there is this new fabulous noodle restaurant there now!!! I have never been so proud. "Um, that's my friends place!!! I totally know her. We went to school together!!!" We then discussed all of the amazing and unique qualities about Noodle Nirvana. You are making such an impact, Mae. I'm so sorry that not everyone appreciates it. So amazed by you and all that you do!!! Xoxoxo
    S.Fister

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  2. Mae I totally feel your pain. It's not easy being a person of color in rural Kentucky. But the work you do, the love you and your mom put in your food and the spirit of inclusiveness you inspire in your restaurant are all unique and phenomenal traits that draw me to you every Thursday! You are a true pioneer my dear sister of color. You and your mom, PLEASE keep "putting your foot in your food"! I can taste the love in every bite. You got and will always have my love and support Dear Sister. ~Jacci Boggs

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  3. I remember the first day Cc and I opened our little cafe... We had baked over a dozen different tasty treats from scratch, but we were particularly excited about our ricotta cheesecake! It wasn't basic, it was interesting! Two ladies ordered it and then 10 minutes later came up to the counter and started explaining that they would be happy to share their recipes for 'real' cheesecake with us because the texture of ours wasn't right (ie not cream cheese). After three 70 hour weeks getting ready to open I'm fairly certain I wasn't particularly gracious about their feedback. And over the years, 'helpful' feedback ran the gamut. I'm afraid I registered the negative feedback far more deeply than the positive.

    Your grandmothers' curry noodles are about the best noodles I've ever had, and I've been to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan... and let's not forget LA and NYC!!!

    Keep your head up and keep doing whatever you want to-it's your place, it's wonderful, and you are already beloved by your community and its visitors. You're doing something different and being different always attracts a response... but responses are a good barometer for whether or not you're staying true to your intent.

    Much love to you all!! Xx-esther

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