Dinner with a Stranger
by Ariel Kane
It had been years since Shya and I had eaten at an Ollieâs Noodle House. In the 80s and 90s we used to go to Manhattanâs Upper West Side to eat there. In those days we would make a special trip to have General Tsoâs chicken or jumbo shrimp, a crunchy fried delight with a semiâsweet hot sauce, on a bed of bright green broccoli. Sometimes we would even bring Shyaâs parents there, when they were still alive, to celebrate special occasions. Eventually that restaurant closed its doors and our lives moved on.
At the beginning of 2014, as if coming full circle, we found a new venue to hold our Manhattan seminars that was back in the neighborhood where I lived when Shya and I began seeing each other. In fact, from our course room in the Skyline Hotel, which is on 49th Street and 10th Avenue, we can actually see the building where we had our first date and eventually lived together. As Shya and I began to reacquaint ourselves with the neighborhood and to explore the area for likely spots to have a bite to eat, we could tell that things had changed dramatically from when we had lived there. Where once it was difficult to find a decent meal, now there are ubiquitous Thai restaurants and plenty of places to enjoy varied cuisine from vegan to steak, Mexican to ramen. So it was with great delight when we came upon an Ollieâs situated midâblock on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.
It was late afternoon when we entered and since it was early for the dinner crowd, there werenât many patrons. Even so, the waitress seated us at a table nestled in a recessed nook against the wall, directly adjacent to an Asian man. After perusing our menus, Shya and I placed our orders and, sipping hot tea, sat back to wait.
Our neighbor had clearly ordered before we did, so it was only natural that he be served first.I was getting hungry by the time the waitress brought his appetizer and I was admittedly a bit nosey, too, for when I go out to eat, I frequently like to check out what other people in the restaurant are having. I have learned about many dishes I never would have considered that way. For instance, I once saw âburnt cauliflowerâ on a menu and the image it brought to mind lacked appeal. But after seeing caramelized flowerets mounded on someone elseâs plate, I ordered some for myself and wasnât disappointed. So when a porcelain bowl of something yummy looking that I had never seen before was placed on the table next to me, my interest was piqued. Inside a blue patterned bowl with a white interior sat a nest of long square shaped translucent noodles with bits of what looked like garlic in a spicy oil and soy based sauce.
âExcuse me,â I said. âWhat is that?â
It had never occurred to me that the man sitting next to me would not speak English but when he held his dish out, gesturing for me to take some, I came to realize that he did not speak my language and also that his culture was vastly different than mine. I experienced a split second of indecision. In my background eating off a strangerâs plate, albeit willingly offered, was taboo. I thought to wave my hands and say, âNo, no, no! Thatâs alright!â But somehow this gentleman and I had bypassed the barrier of familiar speech and shared culture and we were now communicating directly. Of course a cynical view might think he made the overture as an expedient gesture since he had no words to explain, but in his eyes I saw that extending his bowl was a genuine offer.
As the man held out his bowl once again, I glanced down at my pristine chopsticks that I had rested on the edge of a small white plate in anticipation of my order of fried dumplings. Instinctively I knew that to refuse would cause offense. But of course accepting the proffered dish was not exactly altruistic. I was also very interested in what it contained.
Nodding and smiling as I said thanks, I took the bowl and deftly lifted out of a few noodles with sauce, placing them on my plate. After thanking the man, I beckoned to the server who had been watching the exchange.
âWhat is this?â I asked again, for I had never seen noodles of this shape and consistency.
âThey are mung bean noodles with spicy sauce.â She replied.
Mung bean noodles? I had never heard of them before.
âDoes it contain any fish sauce?â I asked, since I have in recent years become allergic to fish â no more General Tsoâs jumbo shrimp for me.
After she assured me that they were fish free both Shya and I lifted a noodle with our chopsticks and tried a bite.
Mmmmm â cool, firm, with plenty of chilies for spice and tiny morsels of something like miso that added a burst of salt and savory at the same time.
We thanked the man once again and gave him space to enjoy his dinner. Shya and I were eventually served what we had ordered and we all ate our meals in a companionable way.
We have gone back to Ollieâs several times since then and my eyes always flick to the corner table recessed against the wall, but Iâve never seen him again. Both Shya and I have ordered mung bean noodles from timeâtoâtime and have introduced friends to the dish as well. Whether we order them or not, we now see them on the menu. Itâs funny how my eyes skip right over those menu items that I have not experienced. Itâs as if many choices donât exist simply because they are untried or new. I donât mind when I am out at a restaurant ordering things that are familiar, things I know I like. But there are a whole host of unknown tastes when Iâm willing to be open to something new. New things are also available when Iâm willing to put my kneeâjerk embarrassment or pride aside and accept a willing gift from a stranger. Iâm certain that fellow doesnât even recall our paths crossing but I do. And Iâm grateful for his kindness. Itâs hard to guess the difference a spontaneous moment of generosity can make. I personally find our chance meeting inspiring. Contained in it is a microcosm of the sweetness that humanity has to offer.
Since 1987, internationally acclaimed authors, seminar leaders, radio show hosts and business consultants Ariel and Shya Kane have acted as guides, leading people through the swamp of the mind into the clarity and brilliance of the moment. Find out more about the Kanes, their seminars in NYC, in the UK, Germany and Costa Rica, the Say YES to Your Life! Meetups their work has inspired, their Being Here radio show or join their email newsletter. (Link: http://www.transformationmadeeasy.com/tasteofexcellence/) Also get information about their five award-winning books. Their newest book, Practical Enlightenment, is now available on Amazon.com. (Link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0134TK10C)