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What I Learned in a Strip Mall Pho Joint

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Last week I popped into a strip mall Vietnamese restaurant for a quick lunch. The place was pretty empty, with a single, young waitress handling the customers. Shortly after I came in, two men sat down at a table near me. The older man ordered oxtail soup. The waitress apologized and said they were out of oxtail. The older man replied, “Then I’m going to have to trash this place,” in a tone that was hard to decipher. Was he joking? Was he actually angry? Both?

The waitress looked down at the floor and explained that today was their last day, tomorrow the restaurant would be closing for a month for vacation, so they didn’t have the full menu available.

“Are you visiting Vietnam?” the younger man asked. She nodded.

The people in the restaurant were mostly eating by themselves, looking for a quick lunch. We sat alone at our tables, looking at our smart phones and tablets, slurping our pho. But after this exchange, the vibe in the whole restaurant changed.

“Are you going back for Lunar New Year?” Someone at another table asked.
”Yes, also to see my grandma, who’s recovering from surgery.” The waitress answered.

It was as if everyone’s expectations changed in this brief moment of interaction. People stopped looking at the waitress as THE PERSON WHO MUST BRING ME WHAT I WANT and started looking at her as A PERSON.

I remember reading this article about ‘The Restaurant of Order Mistakes’—a pop up in Tokyo which only staffed people with Alzheimer’s or dementia—as a means of inspiring empathy. While I was touched by the article, I couldn’t help thinking “shouldn’t all customers be as patient as these?” After all, you never know another person’s story. Maybe that waiter who screwed up your order stayed up half the night studying for an important exam but still showed up to work because bills. Maybe that scatterbrained sales clerk is one of the 25% of new moms who have been forced to return to work immediately after giving birth.

One of the things I don’t like about capitalism is how people are reduced to parts in a machine. Customers have this mentality that someone is always trying to rip them off, and customer service workers have to endure a daily barrage of abuse. When interacting with strangers, it’s always useful to remember I don’t know this person, I don’t know what their day has been like. Counterfactuals like the student/new mom scenario can be useful for expanding one’s empathy. Everyone deserves patience and respect.

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