He slowly slurps his noodles in front of me, and I take him for a professor, an old man with a certain academic flair. Of course, I have no such reason for thinking so, he could be any old man at this nondescript, jam-packed hole-in-the-wall restaurant (the best kind). A sky-blue collared shirt hides beneath the neckline of his sweater, the kind that men in their fifties protestingly receive from their smiling wives and children on their birthdays that they don’t remember themselves.
slurp slurp slurp he goes, maneuvering his chopsticks to take in the noodles one by one. They are oily, and slide pleasantly off his chopsticks. I’m across from him, waiting for my bowl and writing in this journal, wondering if he notices that I write in English, no way can I write in Chinese anymore, wondering if he picks out the broken Mandarin I offer the waiter (炸酱面 (zha jiang mian)? I offer wiltingly) (it slips out of my mouth and flops onto the floor).
He is methodical, I can see him in the same light in his lecture (Physics? Artificial Intelligence? Geology? Rennaisance Lit?), perhaps pausing thoughtfully after a student’s question (looking up at the flourescent bulbs, absentmindedly twirling the query around his chalk piece as it hovers over the board. So much hesitation: the students wait with bated breath). Then he writes something with bold forceful strokes, saying nothing, but it is profound! I can’t see the board, but it is brilliant and the classroom gasps (but not too loudly, for a Confucian respect of teachers). If you look closely, a wry grin tugs at the corner of his mouth.
Five minutes pass, ten, fifteen. He just keeps his eyes down and soon the eggplant on his plate is gone, the soup lays placid, the red chili oil pools on the plate. I reconsider: he looks uncomfortable, maybe even lonely.
He never looks up to acknowledge my presence, but perhaps that’s because that’s the custom here when strangers are seated at the same table. It was bound to happen (I walked in alone this afternoon; there was no way they would give me my own table at this crowded noodle shop).
That would never fly in the good ol’ USA (God bless the USA). We believe in personal space, as in spacious skies and as in amber waves of grain! God bless the USA where we have six-lane main streets and cowboys and hipsters and Wal-Mart™ and Cafe Gratitude (the Berkeley cafe where the cheesecake there is called “Beautiful”, and to order it you have to force yourself to tell the waiter I am… uh… Beautiful). God bless the USA where everything is Occupied and people are angry and proud and scared at the same time. I too am proud of being American, see my Reeboks™ and crisp English and my silent, snobby mental critiques and my Moleskine™ full of English letters, aye be cee dee yee whoops—a flick of a stray noodle stains a page with sesame oil.
Slurp slurp slurp, the Senior Gentleman in front of me takes it all in stride, which is to say he never notices me. Does he want to leave? I half hope so, because the foreign, American me is feeling awkward sitting across from this stranger. He rummages in his bag, composed as ever, smacking his lips. Standing, he takes an awfully long time to put on his windbreaker, buttoning from the top to the bottom, pop, pop, pop, shuffling as he walks out to pay the bill.
But no, I decide he carries an air of simplicity, not in a shortsighted or fumbling way, but in a sagely manner that quiets me and piques my interest. The way a laoshi should teach. I let that image float for a bit, then get up to pay my bill.