by Eric Ginsburg
The right way to handle the situation didn’t strike me until I was standing there, reading over the $6 lunch specials at the counter.
A stranger, probably in his early to mid twenties, had approached me moments before in the nondescript parking lot in front of Fortune Cookie, a new Chinese takeout place in the same shopping center as Da Reggae Café on Gate City Boulevard, near UNCG’s new student housing. He’d said he was recently homeless and wanted something to eat, and asked if I’d buy him something inside. He spoke quietly and I couldn’t hear him at first, but once he repeated himself I’d offered some sort of noncommittal, callous response.
I’d never been to Fortune Cookie and didn’t know what to expect from the food or price point, and my friend Anthony was running late to join me. The restaurant looked small from the outside, and I’d guessed while parking that there wouldn’t be anywhere to sit and that we’d need to eat on the curb or leaning on the hood of my car. But when I realized I could afford an extra $6 meal and saw the two tables and a few barstool-type seats, I quickly realized what to do.
After ordering two meals, I walked back outside. This somewhat timid stranger still stood nearby. I told him I’d ordered him lunch, and that he shouldn’t feel pressured to say yes, but that he was welcome to come inside and join me, and Anthony who would be arriving soon. We shook hands and exchanged names before walking back in together.
Now, more than a week later, as I think about that meal, I remember the General Tso’s chicken of course — Anthony ordered it for himself without knowing I had, too, picking many people’s go-to Americanized Chinese food choice — especially because Fortune Cookie served it with chicken fried rice that also had other chicken in it, making for a particularly meaty meal. And I’d say the beef lo mein was as tasty as any I’ve tried around here as well.
But what I mostly remember is the array of thoughts and feelings associated with inviting a complete stranger to sit and eat with us.
I don’t know exactly what compelled me, likely a combination of reflecting on what I’m thankful for after our recent national holiday, a spate of YouTube videos about homelessness and compassion I’ve watched on Facebook, and in part some underlying values.
I grew up in a Jewish family, and that’s the kind of thing our religious teachings impressed upon me. My Torah portion — what I read during my Bar Mitzvah — focused on the importance of donating a portion of your crop or fortune to those in need. During Passover, we talk about the importance of inviting in the stranger, but at least in my house, this was always an abstract ideal rather than a practice.
Maybe the fact that this happened during Hanukkah had something to do with it, or that I’ve been privy to several conversations about the irony of people celebrating Thanksgiving or recounting the story of Jesus’ birth while simultaneously turning their backs on the latest wave of refugees to this country.
My family was once refugees, though I don’t think they technically received the official status as Jews fleeing violent persecution in eastern Europe a couple decades before the world wars. And growing up Jewish with the horror of the Holocaust imprinted in the minds of previous generations, my innate feeling of outsider-ness has frequently aligned me with marginalized people’s struggles for justice.
But I had never actually invited in the stranger before, never sat with him and asked about what he was studying at North Carolina A&T University and what brought him here from Baltimore. I’m not, in all honesty, even in that habit of giving people my spare change when they ask for it.
I make all kinds of excuses for myself, in my head, saying I’ll donate to an organization like the Interactive Resource Center instead, or that my mode of making a difference in the world is through journalism. But the reality is that the donation is never made, at least in the form of cash, and that for years I’d been feeling like I needed to be better about looking out for No. 1.
But that’s not the person that I want to be, and it isn’t how I was raised.
When my Catholic grandmother donated to Triad City Beat’s Kickstarter campaign, she chose a reward that granted her the chance to tag along while I explored a restaurant for a food article. But given that she lives in Ohio, she asked that I buy meals for homeless people here instead. And that I actually sit down and eat with them.
I didn’t leave my meal at Fortune Cookie with Anthony and our new acquaintance feeling self-congratulatory for my spur-of-the moment decision. Despite my beliefs and upbringing, in many regards my invitation was contrary to my previous behavior.
And that contradiction, that switch, is what I keep coming back to in my mind — that being more open only takes an ounce of willfulness, that any momentary awkwardness will subside, that we can stop making excuses or waiting for others to fix our community’s problems and engage more actively in alleviating them ourselves.
I resolved to try harder to commit acts of solidarity with my neighbors experiencing food insecurity and to invite the stranger in more often. And I planned to return to Fortune Cookie as well, because although the gravity of our shared meal overshadowed the culinary experience, I’d argue that this fast food is among the top Chinese takeout places in a city with surprisingly few worthwhile venues of the type.
Chinese is an increasingly popular choice for Christmas food, not just among members of the tribe, but gentiles as well. Maybe there’s a way, as you mark this holiday celebrating Jesus, that you can invite a stranger to join you for some General Tso’s as well. I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would — and all of us who can, should — do.
Visit Fortune Cookie at 805 W. Gate City Blvd. (GSO) or call 336.271.8180.