Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Rat


No - not a post about the Year of the Rat - of which I am proud to claim as my birth year. Rather something quite different.

Last week, infamous blogger Michael 5000 posted a
moral puzzle, in which he somewhat satirically posed an ethical dilemma. Four people escaping a sinking ship with a lifeboat that only holds three, who do you save? He didn't just describe who the people involved were, rather he painted a detailed and at times hilarious picture of what impact their lives would have had if they were to survive. It generated a lot of discussion.

The situation I describe below is far from hypothetical and I propose that there were some significant real life choices, including the potential for long-term emotional damage to my children. Well, if not emotional damage, at least long term phobias or really unpleasant memories.

Given the readership of my blog being nearly no one, I don't expect much discussion. But who knows - as this ain't no "black box" problem at all.

What Would You Do If You Observed a Rat Being Bludgeoned Next to Your Dinner Table?

You'd get up and leave immediately, right? Well, maybe it's not as simple as you might first think - depending on who is at the table with you.

The Scenario

Here's what happened, as expressed in my recent communication to the restaurant involved.

Ocean Palace Restaurant
11215 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072

Dear Sir or Madam,

On Saturday, February 2, I brought my family to your restaurant for a dinner celebrating the adoption of one of my daughters from China. We have enjoyed your authentic Chinese cuisine many times in the past and expected a similar experience.

While dining, we noticed a commotion among wait staff and bus staff immediately next to us. Moments later I observed a bus boy beating a large rat to death with a broom. The rat was approximately 6 inches long, with an 8 inch tail. After stunning the rodent, the bus boy swept it into an enclosed dustpan and exited past my table toward the front entrance of the restaurant.

We were seated on the lower level, right side, at a table next to the bus area in the center of the room. Our table was next to the divider between the seating and bus areas. From the seat I was in, I could look straight into the bus area where I observed this incident.

Because I was dining with four children, ranging in age from 4 to 12, I chose not to alarm them by immediately leaving the restaurant, or telling them about what I saw. Neither did I want to give my two adopted daughters from China a negative, if not horrifying, impression of Chinatown and it’s restaurants. However, my wife and I now bear that discomfort.

I am deeply distressed over this incident, and must respectfully request that you refund the cost of my meal, which totaled $105 plus a $15 tip for a total of $120. I have provided my contact information below, and trust that you will handle this matter promptly and to my satisfaction.



Additional Information
  1. At dinner were my wife - to be known on this blog henceforth as Ms. Finn, my three children, ages 4 (4 and 5/6 if you ask her), 10 and 12, along with a 12 year old friend.
  2. My oldest and youngest are girls who were adopted as infants from China.
  3. We are a middle-class family with Irish, Scottish, Dutch and Lithuanian roots.
  4. We have few inherent connections to Chinese culture, other than what we've experienced traveling, reading (albeit extensively) and limited interactions with coworkers and neighbors.
  5. We hold as valuable that some exposure to Chinese culture is an important facet of raising our daughters.
  6. The restaurant is one of the largest and best known in Houston. It seats 1800 people. It is beloved by the large Chinese community, and when we dine there, there are very few non-Chinese customers.
  7. Of the 300+ people in the restaurant at the time, the only customers aware of this situation were me and Ms. Finn.
  8. The presence of rodents is probably an unavoidable occurrence in many restaurants. In all likelihood, their mere presence would not affect the meal you are served on any given day. But it is a possible sign of cost savings on extermination services.

What I Did

To start, as I watched this happen, I was informing Ms. Finn, who fortunately was not able to witness the details, though she heard the broom repeatedly hitting the floor/rat. The kids were busy tormenting each other in innumerable ways, so they were blissfully unaware of what was going on.

Consideration 1: Whether to leave immediately.

If we did that, we would either have to explain why, or lie to the kids. I don't mind a little creative diversion now and then, but after going well out of our way to BE at this specific authentic Chinese restaurant for a celebration, it would have been highly suspect to leave. The older kids would want an answer, and we'd not be able to give a legitimate one.

Worse, we could leave and refuse to give the kids an explanation - and probably scare them equally as well.

Consideration 2: If you stay, you'll be eating food shortly thereafter.

We were within seconds of having our appetizers served. While this lead to some squeamish feelings as we barely nibbled on BBQ pork and sesame jellyfish, I had trouble convincing myself that this one rat would have any affect on the meal we were about to eat. If the restaurant has a rat today, it probably has had them before and will have them again. The kitchen is in a different area than where the rat was. The restaurant serves 1000's of meals per week, and if there were rampant food-borne illnesses, they would already have been shut down.

Consideration 3: Our girls impressions of "authentic" Chinese restaurants, Chinatown and the local Chinese community.

We've balanced a healthy respect for Chinese culture against artificially trying to force it upon our girls. Eating authentic Chinese dishes in Chinatown is one of our few mainstream connections to China. OK - this isn't a deep cultural connection. But at least we're surrounded by Chinese speakers, eating traditional dishes (e.g., ordering a whole live fish) and traveling in an area populated by many Asian peoples. And we're not forcing surface-level activities onto the girls, somewhat pretending we're Chinese. It's a reasonable integration activity.

But what if the rat incident makes it impossible for us to bring them to such a restaurant again? Or to bring them to Chinatown again? Could this incident implant an impression of Chinese people - here and in China - as slovenly people living in rodent infested conditions?

So we considered that potential damage, and decided to stay for the meal.

Consideration 4: Would you pay for the meal?

I'm on shakiest ground here. I was thinking that a confrontation with a manager would send the same signal to the kids that I was trying to avoid by staying. "Why is Daddy over there arguing with that manager?" In fact, I should have spoken to a manager immediately, in private, indicated that we'd stay, but not be paying for our meal. On the other hand, I just watched a rat get beaten with a broom, so I wasn't on my best game. Thus, the after the fact letter.

Lastly: Of course, I reported the incident to the Department of Health. I also plan to never eat there again - despite this being contradictory to why we stayed instead of leaving immediately.......I know.