Episode 11: Small Bills

Each episode is accompanied by a blog post which examines various elements mentioned in the video at a deeper level and draws connections to the world we live in today. The following blog post is by Kiril Bolotnikov, student at New York University Shanghai.

One might think that there is a certain standard restaurant experience no matter where you go in the world. In this episode, Jesse tackles this belief by exploring some of the prominent cultural differences between restaurant service in China and in the U.S. He latches on to certain aspects of Chinese restaurant service that may be particularly surprising for the non-Chinese guest at a Chinese restaurant.

***

“They’re different from American restaurants—for one, there’s no tipping in China. So the waitresses—they’re not even pretending.”

Just as it is anywhere in the world, there are good restaurants and bad restaurants in China. However, as we discussed in the last episode, which was about 家常菜 (Jiācháng cài, home-cooked food), the food itself is pretty good even if the price is surprisingly low—and I would say that the converse is true to an extent: some of the mid-priced food is surprisingly mediocre. So perhaps a better way to judge cultural differences is by the service.

It is true that there is no tipping in China—it’s completely unheard of. Just like in many other countries besides the U.S. and Canada, tax is included and tip is not required. It seems logical that there would be a difference in customer service between countries that tip and countries that don’t tip.

Jesse briefly mentioned the wait staff watching television on their cell phones. This is a sight that I initially found surprising, as it would likely be seen as bad service in the U.S. It is certainly amusingly common to call out to a waiter sitting a few tables away, or sitting by the door, only to be greeted with no response because their eyes are glued to their little hi-def screens. However, it has rarely slowed down the service by much.

However, my Chinese friend Ziqing, who has also spent an extended period of time in New York City made an excellent point about restaurant service in China and around the world. He said, “It’s easy to say that Chinese service is like that, but in reality you always get better customer service at higher-end places no matter which country you are in. I’ve had bad service and great service in China and in the U.S.”

He makes an excellent point. Waiters may watch TV on their phones in their spare moments, but in reality I’ve had few truly negative restaurant service experiences. I don’t expect much from the cheaper places, and the more expensive places tend to deliver.

I believe I can actually point to a couple of really great service experiences in China faster than I can think of any really great ones back home in California, or anywhere else in the U.S. One that stands out in particular is a hotpot chain called Haidilao that is actually known for its customer service. Each member of a party receives a hot wet hand towel, while the waiter constantly checks the levels of the heat and broth in the hotpot. Also, because hotpot splashes a lot, they provide little plastic bags to put your cell phone—which are thin enough that you can continue to use your touch screen through the plastic! As you are nearing the end of the meal, somebody from the kitchen comes out and does a kind of noodle dance, swinging a noodle around their head and everyone else’s, coming dangerously close to the customers’ faces. I’ve even seen a Sichuanese face-changing performance at Haidilao (here’s a short video on my Instagram of the exact performance I saw. Watch closely and you’ll see he changes his mask partway through).

***

“If you ever want a Chinese wait staff to love you, bring a lot of small bills. That’s the way it works—they love their change. And they don’t want to give their change to you. And if you take out a 100 kuai bill, they will look at you like, ai-ya. And then they will lean over to look into your wallet, to make sure you don’t have anything smaller, cuz if you do they will wait there as long as they have to to break, and give them the change.”

There is, of course, a certain amount of generalization here. With that said, I probably apologize at least half the times I pull out a 100 块 (kuai, RMB) bill, especially to taxi drivers. In my experience, taxi drivers are the most begrudging about breaking hundreds. I have also definitely had the experience of someone leaning over to look into my wallet, but even going a step further: I’ve had waiters actually physically reach into my wallet to pull out smaller bills that they see!

Ziqing was able to reveal something more to me about this: “Getting change is really difficult. They have to go to the banks to break bigger bank notes. So, for instance, if you give a 100 kuai bill for something that’s worth 1.9 kuai, it’s almost not worth the effort.”

***

It is worth understanding that these kinds of cultural differences do not make for “good” or “bad” service necessarily. Rather, the fact that it is acceptable to watch TV between waiting on customers is a quirk of the culture that may or may not have risen out of the lack of tipping. Though Jesse’s description of the waitress who is “not even pretending” to care about the customer is funny and not an unfamiliar image by any stretch, I’ve still had enough great service experiences to balance that out.

I hope that you found this post valuable and informative, and that you now have a deeper understanding of some of the differences between Chinese and American restaurant work culture. Please share this article with anyone who you think would find it interesting: friends, family, teachers, students! One more post is forthcoming as we dive deeper into the immensity and many complexities of China.

Asia Society and the China Learning Initiatives appreciate your interest in learning more about China. If there are any topics you want to learn more about, feel free to email us at Chinese@asiasociety.org.