Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The teacher and the student

I entered the tiny unassuming Viet restaurant in Chinatown with an empty stomach. I was hoping to get a small table by myself, preferably in a corner, where I might be able to pass myself off as a potted plant and partake of sustenance, unnoticed and unmolested. Instead, I was given a table, a large one in the center of the dining room, that could probably have seated eight people. My palms began to sweat. But I was hungry and I needed food.

I flipped through the menu with strange exotically named Vietnamese dishes and found what I was looking for. "Seafood Satay rice noodle soup", I said to the deferential waiter. The picture of a chile adjacent to the menu item advertized it's spiciness. I began to take in the room.

It was filled to the brim with Oriental faces. And bodies, of course, attached to those faces. I felt out of place, like a fish out of soy sauce. I felt a tenuous urge to run out the door, but the mystical lure of satayed seafood kept me from acting on that urge. I glanced back at the table. A steaming bowl of rice noodle soup had materialized in front of me as if out of nowhere. A steaming bowl and a pair of chopsticks. My mouth went dry.

Now, I belong to that class of people who, if given a pair of chopsticks, would immediately use those to start drumming a rhythm on the table, while waiting for a knife and fork to appear. I have no experience of using chopsticks. Believe me, I have tried. And believe me when I say I have failed miserably.

So now, I looked at the bowl sitting before me with more than a bit of trepidation. I looked around it, I felt behind it. There was no sign of a fork or a spoon. Hunger and frustration arose inside me, each competing to be the dominant emotion. I had two choices. I could ask the waiter to bring me a fork and a spoon. But I could only imagine the scene that would follow. Faces until now, slurping busily inside soup bowls would emerge, bearing such scorn and loathing, that I would not be able to stay there and continue my meal. Humiliation would ensue. There was only one thing to be done. And that was to use the chopsticks.

I gingerly lifted the cursed things. As gingerly as the first time I had lifted a pair of scissors to snip off my nose hair. They felt comfortable to the touch. But the moment I immersed them in the hot liquid occupying the bowl in front of me, I lost all my brash confidence. I was lost. I looked around, broken and defeated.

And then, I saw him. He was young, probably five years younger than me and five times wider at the waist. He was industriously trying to surround what looked like a small tree trunk with what looked like his mouth, using nothing but a pair of chopsticks. I looked on, hypnotized. The tree trunk went down his throat as easily as a pet Pekinese inside a neighbour's boa constrictor. He started on his noodle soup. And then, something magical happened. He became my teacher, my Sensei. And I became his student. I began to observe his actions closely. In fact, he became me, his hands became my hands, his eyes became my eyes. I began to replicate his maneuvers inside my own soup bowl.

Here is how you eat rice noodle soup using chopsticks. You plunge your chopsticks inside the mush, swirl them around. Then, using a swift jerking motion, using the sticks as a base, pinching them together and holding them in parallel, you create a heap of tangled noodles on top. The tangledness of the heap prevents the noodles from succumbing to gravity and sliding down back into the goop. Continuing to pretend that gravity doesn't exist, you then gently raise the sticks along with the noodles out of the hellbrew. You put hot sauce on top of the heap, and slowly raise the heap into your mouth. Finally, creating a vacuum inside your mouth, you coax those tangled babies inside, making sure you generate an audible slurrrp. And that is it. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

I had it down to an art-form. I looked at Sensei with gratitude. Sometime within the past few minutes, Sensei, it seemed, had become aware of my intense scrutiny of his masticatory techniques. Sensei did not seem to be aggravated by the attention, in fact, he appeared to be mildly gratified. Giving him a smile, I continued on to the consumption of more difficult and dangerous things swimming in my bowl.

There was something flat and fried that I assumed was a slice of scallop. Piece of cake. Next, I found some kind of a twisted rubbery item which I assumed was kalamari. That too, was not too difficult. I carried on. Suddenly, with no warning, the music switched from Chinese to Italian. "Hey Mambo, Mambo Italiano" yelled the singer. The kalamari dropped from my startled chopsticks into the soup, splashing it all around. I stole a glance at Sensei. Sensei met my glance with one of stern disapproval. He appeared to be displeased with my clumsiness. I returned what I hoped was a look of humble penitence and continued the battle.

But then, just as I was about to declare victory, I saw it. It was a ball of some kind. A big fat round ball nestling inside the soup. There was no way I would be able to lift it up and roll it into my mouth, using my chopsticks. It was a physical impossibility. I was confused. I looked to Sensei for counsel.

My gaze met with empty space. Sensei had disappeared. I felt alone and intimidated. I did not know what to do. And then, from within, I heard Sensei speaking to me. "Observe, Analyze, Eat", he seemed to be saying. "Are you sure, Sensei", I quavered, "It just seems impossible". "Do what I say. Let your mouth guide your heart, not your brain", commanded Sensei from his remote location. I complied obediently. I began to observe the ball, taking in all it's details as minutely as if it were a quarter I had just found on the men's room floor.

Suddenly, I noticed something I hadn't noticed before. The ball was slightly flattened at two opposite ends. Flattened in order to be lifted? It was worth a try. I cradled the ball inside the chopsticks, holding them so that they touched the ball at the flattened ends. I tested lifting it up. My technique seemed to be working. Slowly, oh so slowly, I raised the ball to my mouth and half a moment later, it was in my mouth. I had done it! Thank you, Sensei, I murmured under my breath. Thank you.

I finished my meal and walked out, victorious, into the bright crisp Pennsylvania sunlight, secure in the knowledge that I now possessed the skills necessary to duke it out with all the rice noodles in the world. Or sushi. Heck, with the training I had just undergone, the world was my soup bowl.

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