Sunday, April 15, 2007

Muslim Humor And The "Secret Chinese Menu"

I'm currently in Manhattan, working for one of the numerous ad agencies on Madison Ave. I've had the opportunity to have an interesting chat with a couple of the folks in their IT dept. which I think you'll find interesting.

The lead sysadmin is a resident alien and a Muslim. He looks the part too, brownish with a formidable beard and a noticeable accent. Normally I wouldn't consider those details to be particularly relevant to anything, but in this case its germane backstory: he works in Manhattan and "looks like a Muslim".

He has an interesting take on the challenges of being a Muslim in American today that I haven't really ever run across before. He seems to regard it as an inevitable part of the process of becoming Americanized (direct quote: "The same thing happened to the blacks"). His take seems to be that if Muslims just keep their heads down and endure they'll eventually be accepted into American society. I really have no idea whether that's true or not, but its interesting to hear a Muslim say it.

I find his entire attitude to be somewhat remarkable; I didn't get any sense of anger or resentment on his part. Really, he's really very stoic about the indignities he's had to face since 9/11. That's especially unusual considering that he was interviewed by the FBI in the aftermath of 9/11. His name turned up on the roster of a convention or conference that was also attended by some fairly well-known terrorist (prior to becoming well-know). He registered for the event but didn't attend because he couldn't get time off. The FBI still wanted to talk with him to see if he knew anything about the terrorist in question, came to his house and asked to see his immigration papers, the whole nine yards. I'd be more than a little annoyed if that happened to me, but he didn't seem that perturbed.

He's very open about the difficulties he faces as a Muslim in NYC; he really has a sense of humor about the whole situation. For example, he said that he never has a problem with crowded commuter trains; for some reason nobody wants to sit next to him. Or his kids, who have a different last name than he does. When their teachers ask about that he says "their mother is my second wife". He says that he has to have a sense of humor; he couldn't put up with things if he didn't. A fascinating fellow... glad I met him.

Now, on to the "Secret Chinese Menu" portion of the post. Allow me, if you will, to speak on my experience with Chinese food. I've eaten a lot of it, all over this fine country of ours, and my opinion is that it generally sucks. I'm not even certain that I've ever had good Chinese food, and that's saying a lot. I know that I've had good Japanese, good Italian, good Mexican... hell, I've even had good Moroccan. But its seems that, wherever I go, Chinese food falls into one of two categories: "mall Chinese" or "hole in the wall Chinese". Mall Chinese would be something like you get at Asian Chao or Panda Express... it's OK quality-wise, but not terribly interesting. Then there's hole-in-the-wall Chinese, which is what you get at all those little hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants that can be found in every strip mall in America. At these establishments you usually get some stir-fried medly of vegetables and meat in a bland sauce, different in character from what you get at the chain places, but about the same quality. Both varieties are generally lacking in any sort of culinary artistry.

Another one of the guys I've been working with is Chinese, and a couple of nights ago he picked the restaurant from which we ordered take out. We got dinner from Wu Liang Ye, at 36 W. 48th St., and man, that was some good Chinese food. I had mai fun with egg and shrimp that had been dry stir-fried (or nearly so) in something curry-ish. The Chinese gentleman had some kind of lovely looking soup with whole baby bok choy. He said that he has trouble finding good Chinese too and that Wu Liang Ye is the best in the city.

So we got to talking about food, and he mentioned "ordering off of the Chinese menu", and which point I stopped him and asked for a clarification. Like many round eyes, I'm sure, I've often have had the suspicion that if I only spoke Cantonese I'd be able to get much better food at a lot of Chinese restaurants. Well, it's true, there is a secret Chinese menu, at least at some places. So I asked this gentleman what was on this special menu, and he said that its usually things that just wouldn't fly with Americans: diced jellyfish in some kind of hot-sauce, a jerky-like pork product stir-fried w/ veg and sauce, etc. So this little bit of urban lore does have some truth to it.

That is all. Right now I'm calmly waiting for Manhattan to be washed into the sea on account of all the rain.

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