Tonight I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Lusaka, Zambia. The premises were quite opulent and luxurious: the large two-story brick building was brightly lit and easily spotted at a distance. After having waded through the layer of large mots that also had followed the headlights from afar I entered. Wow. It was huge, 6 meters to the ceiling and about 15 tables at the ground floor. Two Chinese women stood behind the front counter/bar while the seven idle Zambian waiters rested their backs and shoulders against the counter or walls. No one shouted Huanying Guanglin, the standard greeting when you dare approach a restaurant of this grandeur in China. I was silently but politely led to the table chosen for me. The other customers were five Chinese and another fellowship of Zambians devouring classic dishes of the Cathay around the larger tables.
The menu in English given to me, did strike me as a bit boring and bland. Nurturing the hope that maybe the Chinese menu would show more variety, I Instead asked for the menu in Chinese. With it came the Chinese lady in charge. After I had ordered my spicy beef shreds, fried Yangzhou rice and sweet melon cakes, she asked me if I was of European descent. I acknowledged that that indeed was the case. Then she could not help but immediately tell me what she had experienced last Wednesday here at her restaurant. A company of people from the Swedish Embassy had ordered several dishes, one of which was sweet and sour pork. As those folks didn’t appreciate this particular dish, they called the waiter to the table and said no way – never – were they going to pay for this awfully prepared dish. The Zambian waiter went to ask the Chinese chef what could possibly have gone wrong. He shook his head and said nothing was wrong. The effort was made by him to explain that this was how the dish was prepared in Jiangxi Province of China. At this stage, the Madame in charge of the establishment had then intervened and asked – what was the matter? The gentleman who spoke for the others assured her he did not want to hear any more explanations, he was not going to pay for the dish. Then Madame had exploded, without him paying she was going to call the police to sort this out. The (gentle)man had shouted back at her that that was no use. They were all diplomats, see. Then it had turned into an ugly slanging match, all-yelling like a bunch of hyenas. In the end they left without paying for the sweet and sour pork. Madame and her husband went out to check the plates of their cars as they swooshed away. Apparently the plates and other symbols indicated that these people were from the Swedish Embassy. Then I interjected and said that not only was I European, I was also of Swedish stock, usually a mild tempered and cautious branch on the tree of humanity. She took one step back, after a while she asked me:
- Is this an expression of your Western culture? The other day when an American was here I asked him and he said that if you’re displeased with the food served at a restaurant you can ask the staff to take it away and that’s just fine.
- Well, I think that happens quite rarely. If you are really, really displeased or even disgusted by the food, then some guests may refuse to pay. But I told her I had never done that, and never seen it happen around me either.
- Whatever, whatever, I used to hold you Europeans and your culture high. Thought it was dignified, courteous and all dignified. Now, I have changed my mind. She began to walk away from my table.
- Surely, you cannot judge a whole country, a whole continent, or a whole civilization from one person’s behavior? Such things cannot be commonplace here?
- It has happened before with other disrespectful Western guests. And mind you he was from your embassy! He was not just anyone, and as he flaunted himself with his diplomatic immunity. If you continue with this superior and overbearing attitude against us Chinese, we will surely act accordingly
The unhappy ending
Feeling somewhat awkward in this storyline, the waiter who delivered my food said the incident had happened just a few days ago, so Madame was still a bit upset. The waiter then elaborated how Madame had also been angry with her, for not having properly explained in detail to the guests how this dish tasted and was prepared. A little later, as Madame approached and a bit anxiously asked me how the food was, I said that it was great and that I would surely make the full transaction later on. I soon did and left. When I retold this story to the taxi driver, he said:
- That lady, I know her. She is very rough, very rough. I worked as a driver for her one month last year, December it was. Once I took her and her much milder husband to a shopping center. They told me to wait there until they were back. They never came. I waited and waited. Then I went to another shopping center in another part of town. Happily I spotted them. But Madame was very angry with me. She said: “you stupid Zambian, I told you to wait over there, did I not?” That very day I walked out on her and never came back. She has some nerve to speak of courtesy and being superior. And by the way, she was wrong in her conclusion about Europeans too. If one Chinese behaves like a criminal, should we say 1 billion Chinese are all criminals?
- Well, I said. She did score a point though. If they were embassy staff, they did not just represent themselves. They represent a country, even the European Union.
I have not heard the European/Swedish side of this story (yet), so it is difficult to pass out any final judgment. One thing seems pretty obvious though, the least arrogant in this story of intercultural exchange in Zambia are – the Zambians.