It turns out it can actually be a challenge to be truly thankful. We Westerners are brought up to take pride in being self-reliant and independent--so much so that it sometimes becomes difficult to say "thank you" when someone else performs an unsolicited, unexpected, authentic and selfless act of kindness. Rather than be truly appreciative of and celebrate that person's generosity, we find ourselves guilt-tripped into doing something equally generous out of a sense of obligation, Hammurabi's "eye for an eye" principle applied to philanthropy. The irony is that giving out of guilt does not feel satisfying at all.

Last night, a 70-year-old man in a suit sitting next to me at the bar at Avec paid for my dinner. Both of us were there alone, looking to have an exceptional meal (it was) on our business stay in Chicago, and soon found ourselves sharing our small plates with each other and with the couple on the other side of him, and exchanging stories about the other incredible meals we've had while traveling the world. When our bills came, he insisted on paying for mine and I relented after a minute or so of protest. Walking back to the hotel still trying to process what had just happened (and realizing that we didn't even know each other's names, having skipped the formal introduction part of a typical first meeting), I was momentarily overcome with guilt. Did I give in too easily? Was he regretting his choice? Should I have given him a hug or a granddaughterly kiss on the cheek to show how moved I was, even if it wouldn't have felt completely genuine? I felt buhao yisi, a Chinese phrase that doesn't have a succinct or accurate translation in English but generally feels like a combination of undeserving, ashamed, appreciative, and touched, all at the same time.

A brisk walk in the crisp, cold Chicago evening cleared away all of the negative/doubtful emotions and I convinced myself to simply feel blessed (for lack of a better word with less of a religious connotation), and to appreciate and remember mankind's capacity for giving.

A side note on environment impacting behavior: while other restaurants with more sophisticated or romantic atmospheres that I passed were rather empty and sluggish on a Monday night in a slowing economy, Avec was packed and bustling and couldn't keep a line from forming in its narrow entryway. I'm convinced that it's not just the food that brings people back, but also the sense of community that is fostered by the long bar and long tables where singles and couples are forced to sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers as they enjoy sipping from an impressive selection of imported beer and wine, and savoring the delicious concoctions coming out of the kitchen. It's hard not to want to talk about the food with neighbors when it's so good, and the structure of the restaurant makes these kinds of exchanges easy.

Photo courtesy of tellersfood.blogspot.com

3 comments:

    Oh, that is just fantastic when it happens (not getting someone pay for your bill, but having such random encounters with people).
    I think most of the people want to be social when they leave home, but somehow the existing structures don't encourage it - people have to actually make a personal effort to casually socialize with strangers with the risk of being rejected as weirdo (depending on the city though: San Francisco is pretty good at this - plenty of weirdos and outgoing people to have a conversation with).
    The long table from Avec is such a great simple example on how by setting the environment the right way (signaling that 'it is OK to talk to people around you') people feel like the permission to do it is there because they have freely chosen to have dinner there.

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