Why Chinese Tourists Sometimes Leave Lousy Tips In Restaurants

October 11, 2011 No Comments

chinese restaurant

An Asian couple walk into the restaurant, futuristic cameras slung around their necks and a toddler in tow. Accents betray their nationality as the father requests, “Three, please.”

The servers exchange a familiar glance. We’re all thinking the same thing, “Here we go again…who’s going to get this table?”

My heart breaks a little as they are seated: it breaks for the family innocently coming in for a meal; it breaks for my fellow waitress whose fears are usually confirmed, and it breaks for myself, awkwardly caught in the middle. Why?

Because Chinese never tip.

China’s economic boom has seen foreign tourism expand to unprecedented numbers; stereotypical peace-sign-waving Japanese no longer dominate the Asian tourist population. China’s rising middle class are young, educated and crave luxury goods, international travel and all the consumer amenities that “first-world” citizens enjoy.

They are polite, refined, boast near-impeccable English…and do not tip. The ABC (American-Born Chinese) that frequent the restaurant as well as the Korean and Japanese customers all contribute their 15-20%. It is the increasing volume of tourists from the People’s Republic that are tipping the scales of understanding into the red.

As an American with a Chinese mother, I’ve grown up in the States, yet spent enough time in China to understand the cultural divisions. Likewise, as a recent college graduate waiting tables to pay the bills, I understand that we servers live and die on tips. An entire sociological dissertation could be written on the merits and drawbacks of the United States’ culture of tipping, but like it or not, it’s how I put gas in my car, how my co-workers feed their children; it’s just how it is.

People are drawn to restaurants like ours for not only the food but the experience, the atmosphere and the service. To leave a small gratuity—or none at all—is borderline criminal. Anyone who has worked a service job before knows where I’m coming from.

My co-workers are aware that I was born and raised an American but still come to me in exasperation. “Did they not enjoy the meal? Was my service not up to par? Is it a cultural thing?”

It puts me in a difficult position because I somehow do feel responsible for the behavior of “my people.” I hate that my fellow servers don’t make money on Chinese tables, and I hate the impression they receive of Chinese. Worst of all, I hate the obliviousness of the customers. Being half Chinese, I know the severe humiliation that would be suffered if the customer had any idea what the $ 5 tip they left on a $ 130 meal meant in terms of American social norms.

Chinese are frugal, but so are many “old world” cultures—it’s simply a means of survival. Ask any Russian, German or Irish grandparents and you’ll find the same norms. Hell, ask anyone who lived through the American Great Depression. In transitioning from a socioeconomic environment of survival to one of consumption, something is lost in translation.

I can do my best to explain to my coworkers that there is no “culture of gratuity” for China’s service industry. But how do I illustrate the raucous environment of the Chinese dining experience? How can I make them hear the familiar bellow of “FU WU YUANR!” (waiter!), the standard way of addressing restaurant staff? How can I make them feel the deep shame and loss of face that a family would feel if they knew they were being perceived as ungracious, impolite or worst of all, stingy?

The very essence of meals in China is excess—sharing good food, good memories and good fortune with family and friends. Much of my time spent eating in China was under the watchful eye of Chinese family or friends insisting, “Duo chi ba! Eat more!” whenever I surfaced from an overflowing bowl of delicacies.

I do believe it is the responsibility of worldly Chinese travelers to know better. Surely they are oblivious, for if Chinese truly understood the meaning and importance of tipping in the United States, they would certainly leave substantial gratuities to maintain the cultural standard of generosity. Or is the mentality of the Chinese nouveau-riche changing? Is a rising economic status altering centuries-old tradition?

These questions course through my mind as I watch the young family exit our restaurant and step into a glistening new BMW, driving off into the cool evening as their server reluctantly collects the bill with little or no tip. I recall the Chinese proverb, “Frugality is the mother of prosperity.” Perhaps. But could just a simple tip repair this clash of cultures? Or will it take something more to bridge the gap?

This post originally appeared at ChinaSMACK.

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