Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Paradise Lost

Monday night marked the end of an unrelenting year-long quest for me: I ate at a Chinese buffet in New York City. Well, technically it was in Queens, because no actual buffets exist in Manhattan. Even so, most everyone I've asked since I moved here has sworn that they've seen one, but of course can never quite recall where it is. I've learned that the odds of seeing a Chinese buffet in the city are just above those of spotting the Abominable Snowman.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a lover of food, but particularly Chinese buffets. As a quantity-over-quality guy, I can't help but not get excited about the vast array and endless amount of Chinese food you can get for under 10 bucks. So what if it's not P.F. Changs? The sheer selection alone is something to celebrate.

Having been away for a year, merely standing inside the Chinese buffet was exhilarating. "Is this heaven?" I half-joked to myself upon surveying the glorious smorgasbord of a scene. After such a long wait, it sure seemed like it.

But once the initial excitement wore off after my third or fourth plate, I looked around objectively and finally began to understand why many people aren't fans of Chinese buffets. You can take issue with the number of overcooked, dried out, overly greasy, and high-sodium dishes that were put out two hours earlier. Or the damp funk of the bathrooms and the old stains on the worn-down carpet. Not to mention the semi-permanent odor that clings to your clothing and still reeks of buffet until the next morning. I dunno—I might argue that that's a good thing.

But those universal qualities aside, the New Grand Buffet had a few of its own funnies. For one, the numerous signs around the facility. Most warned parents to rein in their kids ("Please no letting children running", "For your children's safety, please accompany with them while taking food"). But there was one near the sink in the bathroom that read "Wash hands at own risk." I found that funny for some reason. Well, maybe I shouldn't wash my hands.

And then there were the employees. Upon putting water on the table, my waiter, apparently sensing that I was in it for the long haul, prompted me for a big tip later. If that wasn't enough, he made sure to shamelessly remind me every other visit to the table. "Here you go, my friend. You leave me good tip?" Question: What about me made him think that I would lowball him—or worse—dine and ditch? I'm not sure I'll ever know.

Besides stuffing my stomach silly and shutting the place down past 10 p.m., the highlight of the night came when the four waiters gathered to sing "Happy Birthday" to a lone Asian man enjoying his crab legs. A cheesy, exuberant rendition of the song started playing on the speakers, and I glanced to my left to see how they were doing. None were singing, just awkwardly standing in front of the stranger, half-heartedly clapping, and impatiently waiting for the extended song to finish its third chorus. One woman was looking aside with a painful "please let it be over" look, while another continually struggled to sync up her hands with the clap-clap-clap meter of the song.

But none of it really mattered, because the birthday man was happy. The best part, though? Three more people all shared the same birthday that night.

Chinese buffets: sad and beautiful all at the same time.

My fortune: "You will be free of the heavy burdens you have been carrying."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Hope

This morning I woke up, not sure if what I witnessed last night actually happened. It's the same sort of feeling you get when you wake up the day after your favorite sports team wins the championship, and you're not sure if it was all just a dream. Only, in the grand scheme of things, Barack Obama's victory last night is more important than any football or hockey game that I can remember.

It's not because I'm a huge Obama supporter, because Ron Paul was my guy. But after eight long years and two "elections" that have left me feeling powerless and defeated, Obama's victory has renewed my hope for this nation.

It's not to say he'll be a savior, or even close to perfect, because he won't be. But for the first time in a long time, I feel that America has a chance. And in our troubled times, that's something to be optimistic about.

For some reason, I hadn't given much thought to the implications of Obama winning, mostly because I didn't want to get my hopes up. But once he clinched it, the obvious realization set in: A black man will be President of the United States. A simple but astonishing thought. And now I can say that a minority is the leader of my country—much less the free world. I've never been more proud.

Watching Obama stand alone, triumphantly, at his acceptance speech is one of the greatest things I've ever seen. And when I heard the horns honking outside and saw the tears of joy on TV, I couldn't help but be moved to tears myself. Because after all that African Americans have endured in our nation's history, they're empowered like never before, and another part of Martin Luther King's dream has come true.