Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Americans! (shakes fist in the air)

tuk-tukin' through the mean streets of Siem Reap.
German Woman: You greedy Americans. You think you're so entitled. You ruin everything.
Frances: A lot of us feel really badly about that. 
- Under the Tuscan Sun

If you're planning a trip to Cambodia to visit the Angkor Temple Complex, you'll want to eat at what's considered the best restaurant in Cambodia (per my Google fu). It's called Cuisine Wat Damnak and located on the other side of Siem Reap from where our hotel was, near the monastery where our guide Rottana grew up.  The husband and wife team who own and run the place take local northern Cambodian flavors and techniques and blend them with their French culinary background (the chef hails from France). We managed to eek out an early reservation at the last minute, and our tuk-tuk driver drove like a bat out of hell, careening all over the place and ended up on the sidewalk to circumvent all the traffic on the main road in town. It had been a really long time since I laughed that hard.

I try to be a gracious tourist. I really do. I'm a guest in this part of the world, and it's all new and fascinating to me. So I get really irritated with other tourists who don't act the same way. And i'm sure this will come as no surprise to a lot of people, but the most annoying tourists i've encountered are Americans (I feel as though i'm allowed to complain about my own people, so i'm going to go ahead and do just that).  Of course I'm not complaining about all American tourists - i've met some really lovely ones like Sheila Dee and Evo Terra who run The Opportunistic Travelers site and are really wonderful in person (they're currently gallivanting around Australia, you can follow them on their podcasts too).  But sometimes you wonder why in hell people left the comfort of their own homes back in the US and fly in a tin can over the big blue Left Pond if they're not even going to embrace different cultures once they've arrived. Which is the main reason why I won't live in Saigon's District 2, but that's another story for another day.

holy basil martini. delightfully tasty.

While we were dining at Cuisine Wat Damnak - and having a grand ol' time, fueled at first by a Holy Basil Martini (holy basil, lemongrass, Thai ginger-infused gin) followed by wine, an American couple came in and were loud as hell. The menu at CWD changes every few days or so, and it's comprised of two different tasting menus. That's it. That's perfection. That's all it needs. You choose one or the other. So this couple marched in and I experienced one of those moments where you want the ground underneath you to open wide and swallow you up because you're so embarrassed.  Talking in loud, nasally, opinionated, and haughty tones, they held court with their server, who happened to be the wife and owner of the place. The conversation went something along the lines of this:

"I'm gluten-free. GLOO. TEN. FREEEEE. Do you do gluten-free options here? Can I switch things around? I like the sound of this menu but I don't eat most of these things. What is Sanday Fish? oh, it's like grouper? I don't like grouper. Can I substitute pork instead? Ew, frogs legs. Who eats that? I don't want that. How about these mushrooms, can you get the chef to take those out? Shouldn't be too hard, right? How spicy is this? I don't do spicy. Can I mix and match from these two menus? I don't eat dessert. Do we have to have dessert? What's a winter melon? Is that sweet? Oh, never mind. What is m-a-n-g-o-s-t-e-e-n? Can you make that dish without the peanuts?"

The owner was totally kind and courteous and let them pick apart her carefully crafted menu. After monopolizing her time for upwards of 10 minutes while they hemmed and hawed, they finally settled down with satisfied looks on their faces, as if they'd completed a job well done.

I felt like the shame and embarrassment they ought to have was suddenly heaped upon my own shoulders. Their projection onto me, if you will. And though none of the other diners said a word except listen to that horse shit while they ate in silence, they joined me in sending exasperated snarling glares towards that couple. But sadly, the joke was on us. The Americans were in a state of denial and sat there, scrutinizing and frowning at their food as each dish came out. And I felt sorry for them. They'll never get it. They'll never understand the subtle nuances, the time it took the chef to lovingly create the best dishes he could with local products, the love and pride that you could taste with every bite. They'd probably read that New York Times article and figured they'd be Worldly and Check In on Facebook so their friends could be jealous at their Keeping Up With the Joneses. Ok i'm generalizing and probably making that last bit up; I do have a vivid imagination. But you do wonder about these people and their brethren who have the same attitude when visiting foreign countries the world over.

grilled Sanday fish in galangal leaves with rice paddy herb, fresh and fermented watermelon salad. from Cuisine Wat Damnak

I had another such experience when sitting at Pasteur Street one day. An American couple were having an animated conversation with a lone guy at the bar, who also looked like he wanted the ground to open and swallow him up.  They were going on and on about a recent trip to one of the Killing Fields locations. "All those skulls!", the husband shouted. "So cool looking! Honey, show them those pictures you took of the skulls. All lined up and stacked up like a wall! And so cool! I'm gonna base some of my art work on that.  How cool would that be? Big fucking paintings of skulls. No, not that one honey, show him the OTHER pictures. He's gotta see those skulls!".  Horrifying, and not to mention a complete lack of respect for the subject matter they deemed themselves experts on.

I tend to complain a bit on social media and this forum sometimes about some exasperating things that happen in my daily life here, but i try to remind myself that it's a different culture here, and i'm not here to change it. I'm here because I want to be here and I want to experience it. I do get frustrated with things lost in translation, with certain customs (men peeing on our front gate in broad daylight, for instance). But these are little things in the grand scheme of things. And those frog legs and Sanday fish? Fucking delicious.

grouper in game style with mushrooms and loofah, spicy pounded pea, eggplant, wild mangosteen leaves at Cuisine Wat Damnak

2 comments:

Evo Terra said...

I'm with you on the issue of frog's legs. Yum!

We've had plenty of cringe-worthy moments like this. Sadly, the offenders aren't always carrying the same color passports as ours. Assholes, it seems, are everywhere. :)

Thanks for saying nice things about us. See you when we hit Saigon next time! We'll be back in SE Asia in a month or so if all goes to plan.

french tart said...

Just after I posted this, I went to lunch and experienced a Frenchman (who from the sound of it, lives here) openly bitch to the hostess about how he had to wait 20 minutes for his lunch and it was unacceptable because he had meetings to rush to. But when he got his food, he took his time, chatted with his coworker, got some dessert, lounged a bit, then spent 10 extra minutes paying his bill at the counter. Then - this is the part that pissed me off - he grabbed the hostess and took her outside where I heard him bitching at her again for how late his lunch made him and how it was all her fault. She came back in looking like she was going to cry. So yeah, sadly, assholes are the same the world over.