I had the pleasure Friday of taking two Indian visitors from my company out to dinner. (These were not “woo-woo Indians,” as my friend Danny from college used to distinguish Native Americans from South Asians, but “dot Indians.”) My wife joined us for what turned out to be a fine evening of fellowship.
I wanted to be sensitive to the cultural difficulties likely faced by two foreigners on their first visit to the U.S. I wanted to do better than I had some seven years ago, when I hosted another pair of visitors from the subcontinent.
Those earlier two were unfortunate victims of my best intentions to show them all that American excess could offer. I had taken them to the Cheesecake Factory.
As you might imagine, this turned out to be quite overwhelming for natives of a land where a bit of rice was treasured sustenance, not an after-thought side dish next to a towering mound of chicken and cheese.
“You might enjoy the eggplant,” we had suggested at the time, knowing these Hindu men were probably vegetarians.
“No, no,” came the polite protest from Krishna. “No egg. Only veg.”
This time, I was determined to select a restaurant that didn’t intimidate diners with cake slices the size of your head. Beth and I discussed several options we knew were close to their hotel as we drove to meet them.
“I wish we could take them somewhere typical of the Carolinas,” I said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know any restaurants that serve Slim Jims and Mountain Dew.”
We finally agreed to give them two options to choose from: an upscale Indian restaurant named Saffron, and a more casual Italian place called Portofino’s.
I wanted to be accommodating of their tastes and limited familiarity with America, but I didn’t want to be patronizing. I felt that these folks were relatively sophisticated and might be put off if we treated them too gingerly. At the same time, I knew from first-hand experience how disorienting it can be to eat dinner in a foreign land. I didn’t want them to order angel hair pasta and be disappointed when they got slim pasta noodles instead of actual hair.
We met the Indians in front of their hotel. Both Akshay and Jenny greeted us warmly, and we all decided to walk the short couple of blocks toward the restaurants. They said they’d probably prefer the Italian place, since they ate Indian food “all the time.”
“Are you familiar with Italian food?” I asked. “You know, spaghetti, pizza, pasta dishes …”
“Yes, yes,” Akshay assured me. “We have Domino’s.”
I thought about explaining that Domino’s was to Italian food what McDonald’s was to Scottish food, then thought how much I’d prefer haggis to a Quarter-Pounder and let the analogy drop. We had arrived at Portofino’s by now, so all I could do was hope for the best.
The place wasn’t too crowded for a Friday night, and we were seated promptly. Menus were passed out by our server — she described herself as “Melanie,” though I had no plans to become acquainted on a first-name basis — and she started by collecting our drink orders.
I didn’t know my guests’ position on the propriety of consuming alcoholic beverages, and they probably didn’t know mine either (I’m in favor of it, as much and as frequently as possible). But when Beth broke the ice by ordering a glass of merlot, I was glad we took the lead. Turns out, they were quite familiar with wine, and sought to become even more familiar with it during dinner.
We alternated studying our menus with chit-chat. I tried to gauge how well they were interpreting what seemed like a pretty exotic bill-of-fare. All the pastas were listed on one page, with names like “puttanesca,” “arrabbiata” and “boscaiola,” while the protein dishes came under the headings “vitello” (veal), “pollo” (chicken) and “pesce” (seafood). Even I was struggling with what would be a good choice.
When the server returned, we placed our orders. Beth got the eggplant parmigiana and I got the fettuccini primavera. Jenny opted for the chef’s salad while Akshay ordered the “salmon mediterraneo”. We sipped our wine and conversations became gradually more casual as the alcohol took effect.
Akshay, who I knew from my business trips to the Sri Lanka office he heads, told us he’d spent the late afternoon trying to walk to the nearest Walmart. (I wondered whether he actually needed to buy something, or simply felt this was a requisite pilgrimage for anyone visiting North America). I said I too liked to walk, and we laughed about the time I wandered into a tear-gas-soaked demonstration on my way work during the recently concluded Sri Lankan civil war.
“That was fun,” I laughed. “My visit, not the civil war.”
Before long, the food arrived. The plates were steaming hot, which gave me plenty of time to worry whether Akshay would know how to handle his dish. The salmon came festooned with open clamshells around the edge, and I was concerned he’d try to eat these whole. Should I say something? Or should I hope he was worldly enough to recognize that razor-sharp shells would cut his GI tract to ribbons?
While Akshay picked at the edible parts of his meal, Jenny was talking to Beth. I’d heard that the Indians are a naturally inquisitive people, and that Americans could expect unabashed questioning about topics we’re not used to discussing with relative strangers. Jenny wanted to know more about the everyday life of U.S. citizens. I was afraid she’d ask how often we invaded our next-door neighbors, or if we felt at all guilty about driving indigenous peoples from our subdivision. Instead, she asked simply “what is it that you do for fun?”
Beth and I looked uncomfortably at each other. We’re in our late 50’s, have a mortgage, worry about the soaring cost of healthcare, and wonder if our dreams of retirement have completely evaporated in the current recession.
Fun? Not really on our radar.
“Uh, well, we go out to the movies sometimes,” Beth said.
“I like to play Words With Friends,” I added.
I think Jenny got the hint and tactfully abandoned the topic of pleasure.
We returned to our food and finished up with little additional conversation. Both my guests seemed comfortable in their surroundings, and I was glad I had restrained myself from explaining the purposes of the fork, and how I was going to use the “magic” of a “credit card” to pay for our meal.
Beth and I asked for boxes to put our leftovers in, and suggested they do the same in case they wanted a snack later. Such a thing isn’t done in polite company in Asia but, we explained, this is America, and we really, really like our food.
“Do you have a microwave in your room?” I asked. “Do you know what a microwave is?”
“Ha, ha,” laughed Akshay. “Yes, we are familiar with the microwaves and yes, we have one in our room.”
I had made it through almost the entire evening without talking down to these wonderful people. Now, I had finally made my requisite faux pas and gotten it out of the way. I was relieved as we walked them back to the hotel.
The evening was still pleasantly warm. The neighborhood we passed through is one of those “new urbanism” developments, with old-fashioned storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second. Though built from scratch only a few short years ago, the architecture had the look of a much earlier time.
We arrived back at the brand-new Hilton where they were staying and prepared to say our good-byes. Akshay looked up at the Hilton sign, and saw the street address — 1920 — just beneath it.
“This building is well-kept for being almost a hundred years old,” he said.
I passed on the urge to finally be able to use my superior knowledge of the world.
“Yes, it is,” I said.