The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


While my executive search firm specialized in finding accounting and information technology people, we would occasionally get an assignment that was a little outside our normal expertise.  One such assignment was given us by a client who was looking for a Senior Labor Arbitrator.  After hearing their specifications we felt that we would be able to handle it and began our search.

In the course of recruiting for this position I happened to speak with a man in a similar position at U. S. Steel.  Although he was happy in his position he agreed to meet me for lunch and suggested that he might have some friends who would have an interest in the opening.  So a few days later we met.

Larry MacDougall and I absolutely clicked.  It was as though we had known each other for years and were the best of friends.  In the course of our conversation he shared his background with me.

He had started working for U. S. Steel right out of high school – in one of their foundries.  He came from a blue-collar family and was the third generation working for the company.

He saw where this work had led his father and grandfather – a life of labor with very little to show for it – and started attending college at night.  He earned his degree and a Masters in Labor Relations, got married and had three children with his lovely wife (a first generation American whose family had come from Iran).  He was a true American success story – one of which Horatio Alger would have been proud.

As it turned out, Larry had prepared a list of associates whom he recommended for the position and I was able to find a candidate from among them whom our client hired.  I called him to let him know and told him that I would enjoy his company if he would allow me to buy him lunch.  We agreed to try a new Chinese restaurant that had just opened and was conveniently located about half way between both our offices.

When we got to Leong Chi’s we found a very brightly lit establishment with an almost high-school cafeteria layout.  The place was busy and we had to wait a few minutes to be seated as we stood at the podium trying to avoid being run down by the restaurant’s very busy waiters.

Our waiter came to our table and handed us our menus and immediately asked if we were ready to order.   As we had no opportunity to see what they had to offer we asked him to give us a few minutes to decide – which caused him to look rather disappointed but he left us to our own devices for the two minutes he allowed us to read the Bill of Fare

Larry and I both ordered the “Chef’s Special Combination.”  This was Americanized-Chinese food raised to celestial heights.  The meal consisted of a large quantity of pork fried rice, an egg roll, two spare ribs and two fried butterflied shrimp.  We ordered a pot of jasmine tea to accompany our meal.  An unexpected accompaniment to the meal was that when it was served so was our check.  Can you say turn the tables as fast as possible?

Despite the rather hectic atmosphere and sense of urgency that the diners should “eat and get out” we enjoyed the food and began a ritual of returning every four or five weeks to have luncheon together.  We always both ordered the “Chef’s Special Combination” – and we alternated paying for our meal.  This went on for over five years until Larry and his family relocated to California.

We had been going to lunch at Leong Chi’s for over two years when at one of our meals Larry decided he had more of a taste for shrimp that day than for spare ribs.  When our waiter came to our table – (by now I think the staff recognized us as somewhat irregular regulars) – Larry ordered the Special Combination but asked, “Would it be possible to get that with three shrimp and only one sparerib?”

Our waiter said in his pronounced Chinese accent, “Special Combination come with one egg loll, two shlimp and two spale lib.”  Larry said that he knew that but was wondering whether they would be kind enough to make the substitution that he had requested.  Our waiter seemed very upset at this request.  “Only come one way with Special Combination.”

By now it was more of a challenge than a desire but Larry asked if our waiter would be kind enough to ask the chef if he could give him his Special Combination as requested.  Our waiter turned to me and asked if I knew what I wanted.  I said that I would have the Chef’s Special Combination.  He said, “Rike on menu – or you want diffelent way too?”  I said I would take it as is.

While he went to the kitchen, Larry and I joked that his request, if granted, would probably completely screw up Leong Chi’s whole inventory system – resulting in one too few butterflied shrimp and one too many spare ribs.  It could signal the collapse of their entire accounting system.

Our waiter returned carrying two plates of the Chef’s Special Combination.  Both had been prepared as originally listed on the menu.  He said, placing Larry’s plate in front of him with a sort of inglorious thud, “You eat – you rike it.  Chef say is good this way.”  Having delivered this lecture he left immediately – after dropping the check on our table.

I moved my plate over to Larry’s side of the table and we swapped one of my shrimp for one of his spare ribs thus resolving the problem.

Despite the way this was handled we continued to patronize the restaurant – although we planned on requesting a different waiter on our future visits.  However, that problem was taken care of for us.  On our next visit we didn’t see the waiter with whom we had this confrontation.

Larry and I speculated that we might have caused this man to have a nervous breakdown and that he might have found employment with the Post Office.  He probably didn’t realize that he was going to have to deal with packages of all different sizes in his new line of employment.  We hoped he would be able to cope with that.

As we sat there eating our meal we realized that we might have been responsible for the change in this man’s career path.  As a result we resolved that we would never again be responsible for causing such a life-changing event.

In the future when we dined at Leong Chi’s we always ordered our pot of jasmine tea and two Chef’s Special Combination luncheons – just the way they appeared on the menu.



  1. I’m having a good laugh! Who knows where the waiter is now? Good conclusion you both came up with. What an experience!

  2. I realize that waiting tables is a difficult job and hard on the feet. As a result, I always reward good service with a tip that goes beyond the guidelines. As I used to travel and very often eat alone, I would try to compensate for the fact that only one seat was being utilized when I calculated my tip – and would leave a gratuity that would approximate the amount that should have been left had two people occupied the table. Generally, the service at Leong Chi’s was a little rushed – but the wait staff was polite in their urgency. This gentleman was just a little over the top.

  3. You are so lucky.

    I once had lunch with a German colleague who visited in Woollongong Australia, where I was managing a company. We were at a top end restaurant and when she complained about her meal, they offered her a complimentary replacement. That evening on the flight home to Germany, she fell horribly ill with food poisoning and landed in hospital for a week. We were prepared to, but she declined to press charges. I usually spent easily $1,000.00 on business lunches/dinners at that place every month. I believe they managed very well without my patronage!

    • Yes, Eric we were lucky. I have run into some people who are in the wait service business – and some of the stories they tell – well they make me feel more comfortable cooking at home!

  4. Having worked and lived in Asia for 30 years I can tell you with assurance westernized Chinese food is a very poor substitute for the real thing. Asia is food paradise. Was amused at your rendition of Chinglish. Reminded me of my daughter preparing to fly back to the US for school and transiting through Taipei on their Taiwanese airline. She phoned us back in Singapore to say when the air hostess wished them all a “Good fright” she wondered if maybe she needed to get off while the going was good. The flip side of the coin is we Westerners cause mirth and sometimes constination when we try our hand at using their own languages too.

    • Thank you, Ian for subscribing to this blog.

      As you are a “newcomer” let me bring you quickly up to speed. My dad was an importer of Oriental art objects and decorator accessories. His business partner was a Chinese born in the mainland. As a result, I had the extremely wonderful benefit of being raised in both an Occidental and Oriental frame of reference.

      I learned to use chopsticks at the same time I was able to employ a fork. And, of course, I agree with your statement about the Americanization of Chinese cusine.

      I was going to end the post by saying that I was going to go out for dim sum. But then I would have had to explain what that was – and I was HUNGRY! (But the wu kwok and congee were wonderful).

      Thanks so much for your interest.

      • Many of my students were Chinese. It was a thrill to see them drink in their education and later rise through the ranks of higher educational and business achievement, then eventually to work with them in administration when I moved from India to handle the Asia Pacific area.

  5. Good for you for taking a stand. In a chaotic world all of us need to do that so that our opinions can be heard.

    I didn’t fault the restaurant for this poor experience – or else my friend and I wouldn’t have returned.

    As you know as a business manager, we try to do the right thing in hiring people who will service our clientele and meet the standards that we have established. Sometimes we don’t get it quite right.

    I’m glad your associate recovered.

  6. I understand your appreciation for achievement. When I was a child I noticed that all those who were involved in shoe repair (a lost art) were Italian. These were people who were at the time the lowest common denominator in society and who found employment in the only thing they could. After awhile the Italians “moved up” and abandoned this enterprise as they found better opportunities. Then the Koreans dominated the shoe-repair business. They were the newest band of immigrants to get their start. Lately I’ve noticed that people in this business are primarily Hispanic. But if we in this country don’t get our act together, we’ll be behind the counters of the shoe repair businesses – and not at the mall.

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