'New normal' for dining out is simply absurd
Last week my family decided to take advantage of the second phase of relaxed lockdown measures by eating out. The place we chose was an open-air noodle shop. When we arrived we were told to sit at separate tables -- one each. We were dumbfounded.
The owner insisted that we were obliged to strictly observe social-distancing rules, our new normal. With confusion written all over our faces, we nonetheless agreed to follow his instructions.
Yes, I know. The current pandemic requires us to keep our distance wherever we go; be it public places, transport or eateries.
But that would only hold water if we were strangers, as our family arrived together in one car. We parked the vehicle in front of the noodle shop, right next to the boiling pot. What's more, the rule would only make sense if the owners themselves kept their distance from us. They didn't. One of them almost sat next to me, chatting with his family non-stop, without a face-mask.
Sometimes, I find the new rules to contain the virus a bit ridiculous. You live with people day in and day out, finally go out for a meal, share the same car to get there, only to have to dine alone for 30 minutes before packing back into the same vehicle and driving off.
I know it's difficult for the rule-makers to get everything right and it's hard for shop owners to verify if we are really a family. Still, I couldn't help but find the whole situation ridiculous.
This reminds me of a recent "new normal" rule suggested by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation asking people to no longer eat sticky rice with their hands.
Since the beginning of lockdown, Deputy Prime minister Wissanu Krea-ngam expressed his concern over Buddhist practitioners in many Northeastern provinces who are still offering food in the morning by pulling out sticky rice and putting it in monks' bowls with their bare hands. That, he said, can lead to the virus' spread.
The deputy prime minister's comments were taken with a grain of salt. The Thai Health Promotion Foundation for its part launched a campaign for sticky rice eaters to use a spoon and fork, abandoning the traditional way of eating it.
I know these rules are meant for better hygiene, which is necessary in the time of Covid-19, but I have to say the campaign is culturally insensitive and merely shows a lack of understanding on the foundation's part when it comes to other people's lifestyles.
Evidently, the foundation is not aware that sticky rice eaters, especially those in the Northeast who are often low-income workers or underprivileged farmers, don't eat sticky rice at a proper dining table with a spoon and fork like those in the Central region.
Many still have meals on the floor or have lunch by the rice field. What are they to do, pack a picket basket with cutlery to dine in the rice fields?
Growing up in the Northeast, I've seen how farmers and workers eat sticky rice with their hands because of the convenience. Nobody is going to pack a picnic set for the field. Apart from the convenience, I have also witnessed the enjoyment that comes from people sitting on the ground or floor, scooping rice with their bare hands, and kneading it in their palm as if they're determined to turn it into mochi.
They insist doing so makes the sticky rice tastier.
So before anyone starts dishing out advice, they should first understand what is practical for people in their everyday lives.
To maintain hygiene, shouldn't the foundation stick to more practical advice like thorough hand washing before putting anything into their mouths or having their own rice bucket instead of sharing it with others?
While on the topic of food, I will share with you another experience. One Chinese restaurant I know is proud of the clear plastic partitions hanging over its tables. With those partitions, family members are separated but can still share dishes that are served on a Chinese-style dining table, with an elevated spinning platform in the middle.
The owner said the design -- with the partition about eight inches above the table -- has been approved by state officials. But I doubt whether it will really help because when people eat, they have to remove their face masks. It can never be 100% safe when eating out. So if you are not ready to take a risk, I would suggest dining in.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.