Tipping like an American

“Gosh,” I cried after I left a restaurant, “I forgot to pay tips!”

Being a Chinese, I take it for granted that I don’t need to tip for service. In fact, my first tip to my non-Chinese friends when they visit China is “You don’t need to tip the bell boy or the waitress,” I say. “It’s not our thing.” Plus, in most high-class restaurants in China, the service charge, at about 15 percent, is already included in the bill — which usually comes to very little compared to American restaurants. It’s a national disgrace that Chinese workers are willing to work for so little.

So in addition to my poor math, I’m just not used to figuring out how much I should pay in total for a meal in America. To avoid that embarrassment, I’m not a frequent restaurant goer as I would be in my country. I’d rather shop and cook at home in my own kitchen with my own invention of recipes. No tip needed!

I remember last year when I travelled with my classmates and my teacher to New Orleans, I deliberately brought a calculator with me for fear I would embarrass myself in the go-Dutch scenario. Luckily, my travel mates were more familiar than I am adding up and dividing the tab. With their quick math skills, the result of how much each should pay was crystal clear. I saved my calculator for the next trip.

“What will happen if I don’t tip the waitress?” I asked naively.

“Huh,” my American godparent gave me a surprised look, “You’ll not get good service next time, and it’s considered very bad manners.”

“But what if I dine in that restaurant only once?” I argued. “The waitress might never see me again. Does my tipping matter?”

“Yes, you don’t want to disrespect others. Frankly, the servers are living on your tips. Unlike the cook, they have very low salary.”

“You see, I’d rather the bill comes with a service charge like the restaurants in China do. So I don’t need to figure it out on my own. Plus, isn’t tipping voluntary? Is there a law in America that customer must pay tips?”

“No law restricts it, but tipping has become a custom here. It’d be unusual not to pay a tip in a restaurant.”

I guess I can’t win the debate. After all, tipping is an unwritten practice in America. I have to tip my server even when they give bad service. In America, I must do as the Americans do.

I rushed back to the restaurant, caught the waitress’ eye, and dropped three dollars on the table.

Filed under: Prose, Songyi Zhang's America