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.


Rebel said...

These questions are always interesting because what I think I would do is often different from what I actually do.

I think I would have stayed... especially if the kids didn't see what was going on. I don't think I would have made a stink about it at the time, but I would have sent a letter to the restaurant & the dept. of health as I'm a big believer in writing letters.

I wouldn't go back to that particular restaurant though... at least until I got some feedback from the health dept. etc. Hopefully there are other (cleaner) chinese restaurants in town.

I hate rats/mice/etc.

Phineas said...

I agree, what you think you'd do and actually do can easily differ. I'm comfortable with my choices, but spent a fair amount of thought reaching that state.

Michael5000 said...

I've been meditating for a long time (obviously) about whether I should 'fess up to why I am the not the right person to take on this sort of question.

When I was a student teacher, I dazzled and amazed my supervising instructors by continuing to go to the little restaurant across the street after I found -- there's no nice way to say it -- a cockroach in my nachos.

My rationalle --

1. Vermin, although not great, is less dangerous in a single instance than we would probably think. Visceral horror, I can deal with.

2. Everybody makes mistakes.

3. I got outstanding service after that, and lots of free stuff.


1. A roach is a roach, but a rat is a rat.

2. It's one thing to play the "vermin is overrated" game with your own body, and another to play it with those of children.

3. I'm a freak.

Respectfully submitted,

Phineas said...

M5: in 1995 I ate in a restaurant in China where the next day from my hotel window I watched them wash dishes in a storm drain. That same restaurant served one of the singularly most memorable dishes I've ever eaten. Sadly, it is now gone.

There was far too much verbiage in my post describing this situation and my rationale. But I really believe it boils down to simply this:

Rats, roaches and senseless disregard (in the kitchen) by employees is a fact of life in most restaurants. It's simply unfortunate when it gets exposed to us publicly. Otherwise, it's business as usual.

Thanks for your reply. You have communicated more timely than the restaurant so far.


wendy said...

Hi Phineas,

I was trying to find an email address for you, but to no avail and then I got busy. When I saw you on Rex today I remembered I had dropped the ball, so I wanted to thank you for your comment on my blog. Glad Nature's Way brought back some memories for you.

No commentary on the rat situation; I really couldn't read what you wrote or I'd never eat out again, I have a feeling.