Coming to America from China, I have had wonderful time encountering, learning, and enjoying culture differences. Surprisingly and ironically enough, my biggest “culture shock” came from my experience at Chinese restaurants in America.
One Saturday night, I was dining at the Jade Sisters, a Chinese restaurant in Coralville, Iowa with two Chinese friends. After we finished our dinner, we were given a check that we didn’t need to fill in the tip/gratuity section: the tip was already calculated and included within the check. The service was very good, and the 18% tip/gratuity charged by the restaurant seemed to be fine with us, even though we wanted to tip about 20% or more. However, I was a little bit unhappy that the restaurant deprived my right and freedom to decide how much I tip based on the service I got. And I was even more befuddled by the fact that I was given a normal check with a blank tip section where I can write some numbers with a pen when I went to the same restaurant few days prior to that night with my Romanian friend, who is also an international student, but white.
So I asked the waitress and she told me that they only do it for Chinese customers because many Chinese students don’t know how to tip or tip little. This is understandable: the restaurant does it to protect its waiters and waitresses from fresh off boaters (aka international students) who are not familiar with the American manner. Then, I asked the waitress how could she tell if someone is Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Chinese-American, she told me that she cannot and that the restaurant’s strategy is to automatically charge tip for anybody who looks like Chinese. In addition, she shared with me her personal story: as a Vietnamese (and maybe -American), she was also mistaken as a Chinese student at the Three Samurai, a Japanese restaurant in Coralville, Iowa, and was given a check charged with pre-included tips.”
“If it’s American customers, then we don’t charge it,” she continued, suggesting the traditional perception of America as a homogenous white society, which explained my pervious experience with my Romanian friend, who was always lucky enough to be treated as American customer because she looks “American.”
“It’s their country, they do whatever they want,” My Chinese friend seemed to be annoyed by my making a fuss about something that didn’t really matter, “you have to tip anyway.”
I was shocked and speechless.
Across the street from Jade Sisters is another Chinese restaurant, the Szechuan Village. The owner here established a much more creative double standards to distinguish its Chinese and American customers. The restaurant adopts two different menus: an original for-here menu and a derivative to-go menu with prices of all the dishes 50 cents or 1 dollar lower than the former one.
According to a former waiter working at the restaurant, if you’re American and order the food to go in English, you will enjoy the lower price on the to-go menu, but if you’re Chinese, you will unconditionally be charged 50 cents or 1 dollar more for every dish you order, to match the for-here menu even though you are ordering food to go. More interestingly is the fact that even if a Chinese customer orders the food in fluent English with local American accents, it won’t work. The smart restaurant owner saved all customers’ phone numbers and can identify your nationality right away!
If you don’t believe me, find a friend and do an experiment before the restaurant owner reads this story. I can’t tell you the name of former waiter because he is a college student and he was working black off campus. Everybody knows that many Chinese restaurants in the United States prefer “black” labors that are cheap and uncomplaining.
I had been ordering food to go in the Szechuan Village for almost a year until one day I accidently found out that the price on the check I received didn’t match the price on the to-go menu that came with my check. I went back to the restaurant and showed my receipt to the restaurant owner. He refunded me 50 cents for my “Green Pepper Potatoes,” but refused to refund me the other 1 dollar for my “Szechuan BBQ beef,” nagging and complaining that the meat prices were rising. The owner also claimed that it was a mistake of the out-of-date to-go menu, but when I came back to the restaurant months later, the to-go menu was still not updated. Everybody can tell that the owner was not sincere.
I didn’t go to talk to the restaurant owner because I want my 50 cents back. Actually if I didn’t go, I could probably save more money for gas. I also do not care about paying one more dollar for every dish if everybody is paying the same. I just don’t like the fact that even I am trying very hard to do as the Americans do; I am still treated as a FOB, a stranger from a different shore.
“Why would overseas Chinese treat their own people like this?” When I told the story to a friend, he was more than surprised.
“Well, they used to be Chinese,” I said, “but not anymore.”
However, these are not the only places that I enjoyed different “benefits.” Twice out of the four times I went to Airliner, a pizza restaurant in Iowa City, I had to wait for at least an hour or an hour and half before my pizza reached the table. When I asked a waitress “why my pizza hasn’t come when the people coming in after me have almost finished their dinner?” she simply told me “the pizza you ordered takes longer time to cook.” But when she eventually brought over the pizza 10 minutes later, the pizza didn’t smell like it was in the oven for an hour. The other two times when I got my meal served quickly, I went with a bunch of real American friends.
The other time I went to the seafood buffet at Riverside, Iowa, my table was not served at all. The waitress only showed up once in the end to bring us the check when our table is packed with crab shells. Angry about the service we got, my Chinese friends and I all left a one-dollar bill on the table to demonstrate our dissatisfaction. Of course, our demonstration only reinforced the true stereotypes that Chinese people don’t know how to tip, and the frustration that I can never tip like an American.