Dim Sum and Polyamory

By Tom Limoncelli, 11/21/1999 (and updated 9/7/2001)

Our local polyamory support group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/njpoly/) occasionally has a social event at a local Dim Sum restaurant. While attendance varies from medium to small, I always attend because I find Dim Sum to be a delightful metaphor for discussing polyamory issues.

Most people have never heard of Dim Sum, just like most people have never heard of polyamory. So, the first time you explore it, it can be useful to explore it with someone that already has a bit of experience with it. Just like polyamory.

Sometimes people walk into a Dim Sum restaurant without knowing anything about it. They were hungry and this is what they found. They are confused about how things are served, how they are priced, what the items are, etc. They stumble through it. With the luck of the draw things might go well and they might enjoy it. Or, they may be horribly confused and it can be a disaster. Either way, the more flexible each person is, the greater the chance of success. Just like polyamory.

Dim Sum is usually a weekend brunch kind of thing at a Chinese restaurant. It is intended to be an enjoyable and relaxing afternoon with friends and family. The food consists of various kinds of dumplings served in a unique manner. You sit at a table while waiters and waitresses roll carts of food around. They offer it to you and if it is something you like, you ask for a plate of it. If you don't ask for something, you won't get it. They can't read your mind. Just like polyamory.

How do you pay for your meal? Well, the different things that are offered are all from different price categories. When you accept an item, a mark is written on your receipt indicating that you've received one more item in that category. At the end of the meal you might learn that you received five "A" class items, three "B" class items, and one "D" class item. I've never been to a Dim Sum restaurant that tells you how much any of their items are before hand, but a reasonable meal will end up costing $10, $15, or sometimes $20 per person. So, just like polyamory, until you get a little experience, you don't know how to gauge the cost of what you do.

Let's run through an example. A waiter pulling a metal cart approaches your table. He says, "Pork buns". You say "yes, please" and a dish of buns are put on your table. He marks your card in the column that says, well, you don't know what it says because it's in Chinese. But you assume it either says "medium priced tier" or "stupid Americans, they don't realize we're marking random places on this card!" If you are cynical, you won't enjoy this little game because you'll spend all your time worrying. Just like polyamory.

Continuing with our example, now a plate of pork buns is placed at your table. There are four buns on the plate, and there are four of you, so everyone takes one and eats it. Soon another cart has rolled to your table and the process repeats..

I've simplified it a bit the first time through, but now we can dig a little deeper.

This second cart appears and the item is announced. What happens now is that everyone looks at each other with questioning looks. "Do you like, um, squid, um things?" someone asks. "Well, I might." you reply sheepishly. "Well, we can get it if you like it." "Oh, I was just going to get it because I thought you like it!" Wow, this is like polyamory!

Eventually someone realizes that this situation cries for communication and pre-negotiation, just like in polyamory. So you devise a simple system: First, everyone has to be honest when an item is offered. Don't say you like something just to look good or because you don't want to hurt someone else's feelings. If two or more people want the item, you get it. However, you have to pace yourselves so you don't receive items faster than the group can eat. You find out that certain people are allergic to shrimp, or don't eat pork, and you accomodate them. Not that you can't get any pork or shrimp, but that you will get proportionate amounts of other things. After some initial stumbling you now have a negotiated a process, and you proceed. Just like polyam... oh, you get the point.

The next cart offers something that nobody likes, and the waiter is rejected. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. We said "no" and the world didn't end, the waitress didn't yell at you or get her feelings hurt. This is an important lesson to learn in polyamory. You have to say "no" when you mean "no".

The next cart offers pork shu-mai, something that everyone likes. Now suppose there are three of you and there were four shu-mai on the plate. Everyone takes one shu-mai and eats. Now there are three people looking at the one remaining morsel of pork. Nobody takes it because they won't want to be selfish. This is reverting back to our "economics of scarcity" upbringing. There will be future carts with more shu-mai, right? Why be so afraid?

So you decide to grab the one that remains. Wait! Someone else is already reaching for it. Your chopsticks collide and you both give each other embarrassed looks and offer the other person the food. "No, I insist." "No, I insist!" "No, please take it." "No really, I'll wait."

You receive the piece of food. Will the other person be resentful? Maybe the other person really didn't care but you feel guilty anyway. Did you "win" and hurt the other person? Shouldn't we not think in terms of "win" and "lose" but instead in terms of helping each other all get what we want? Wow, are we talking about polyamory or Dim Sum?

The next cart arrives and offers plates of, well, we don't really know. This waitress isn't very good at speaking English. We risk it, and all take a bite at the same time. Ugh, its awful. Now this plate sits on our table for the rest of the meal, a reminder of our bad decision that won't go away. It stares at us like that lamp that you gave me for my birthday that I can't throw out lest I insult your good taste. It is like the store that we don't go to since it was the favorite store of that former mutual lover. We drive by that store nearly every day and get a sick feeling in our stomach each time because we can not let go of our guilt, regrets, or whatever emotions are brought about by the sight. Our inability to let go holds us back. Later in the meal someone spots a bus boy and asks him to take this plate away. We are liberated. The feeling is one of indescribable relief!

The next cart rolls to us and it has huge plates of fish. It looks good and you want it. Someone else wants it too. However, the "if two people want it" rule might not work here. It's a very large plate. Enough for four people. As in polyamory, the pre-negotiated rules don't always fit the extreme circumstances. Everyone pauses to negotiate an ad hoc rule that fits this situation. Big decisions often require more information (just like in polyamory). The waiter is questioned about the type of fish, the spices, is it fresh? It seems that enough people will eat it so you get it. Success!

More carts roll by and more plates are taken. You experience many new things. Some are savory, some are sour, some are sweet. Some are great. Others are just downright awful. Towards the end you receive more of the dessert ("sweet") Dim Sum and relax as you sample delightfully understated treats such as coconut foamy things or yellowish custardy things; we don't know the right terms for these things and make them up as we go along. (Just like...)

Finally you settle the bill and leave with the memory of a good time had by all.

The first time eating Dim Sum we don't know what anything is called. We take things on blind hope. That other table took one of those and they didn't die therefore we can try that too. Some things you like, some things you don't. Sometimes you find helpful information sources, and sometimes you are your own teacher. Sometimes you realize that knowing the name isn't important... you enjoy it nonetheless.

After many Dim Sum experiences you suddenly realize that you have learned the names, the customs, and procedures. You find yourself explaining it all to the new people just as others helped you before. You are now the expert and you realize that we are all the experts. Just like polyamory.


Tom Limoncelli is a 37 year old bi activist and organizer.