Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Got Tips?

Tipping – the practice of palming money to a service person – fuwuyuan 服务员 grates on me. In America, one tips door men, taxi drivers, waiters, porters, nail technicians... anyone who renders a non-essential service. In China, no tipping is expected, required or accepted. I'm on board with that.

Especially around the holidays, tips are expected in America. There are magazines and websites that publish guides to fair tipping. Of course, the bigger the tip, the better the service.

And they say China has a problem with guanxi!

I contend that: if you are a service person, why would the quality of your service depend on how much money I slip into your hand? Should there not be pride in service?

Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the service sector is one of the lowest paid. A waiter generally earns less than $3 because of the anticipated tips. NOTE: federal law says minimum wage should be at least $7.25 per hour. Some states pay more but still: wait staff are the lowest paid of the service sector. Thus, waiters go out of their way to be ingratiating in order to earn a higher tip.

Here is a typical waiter interaction example:

“Good evening, my name is ____ and I'll be your server tonight. What can I bring you to drink?” (as he passes out menus). And then: “I'll be right back with your drinks.”

He then returns with the drinks, serves them and asks: “Do you know what you want, or should I give you a few more minutes to decide?” Diners place their orders and off the little server goes, posthaste. Once the food is brought, you can count on your waiter to appear every few minutes, asking if everything is all right, if the food tastes good, if you need more drink, more bread, more... anything.

It doesn't matter that your mouth is full, that you are engrossed in conversation, that you might be weeping or rending or even undressing or kissing. That waiter is devoted to you and wants to make sure you know it, so that you will give him a big tip.

After living in China for 11 months I am intellectually prepared for such assaults on my privacy and pocketbook, although the act still irks me. Why should these service people have to debase themselves, ingratiate themselves and become craven, all for the possiblity of a bit of cash?

Airports offer 'handicapped services' – called mobility services, in Los Angeles. A traveler can request such a service from the airline s/he patronizes. Airlines make the actual request for mobility services, not the person who needs the service. As such I did not reckon that tipping would be necessary. I was wrong.

My first experience with handicapped services, a kind fellow in Dallas airport, pushed me everywhere, even to a food vendor to buy some breakfast. He parked me and my chair by my flight gate, where I could enjoy my breakfast in peace. When the flight was called, he then pushed me down the gangway. We parted company at the plane itself. It was all very nice. I did not tip him, and he seemed to expect no tip.

I expected the same treatment in Los Angeles. That's what I get for expecting.

For one, getting off the plane there was no wheelchair waiting for me. I had to wait 20 minutes, standing on my good leg and balancing with my crutches, until a chair arrived. And then, we waited outside for the van to drive me from one terminal to the other. Once at the international terminal at LAX, I was pushed to the counter...

where I was told I was in the wrong terminal. I should have been at Terminal 2. Again, another agonizing wait for a van to hoist me and chair up, and then drive all around the airport to get back to the terminal I should have been at.

Here's the problem: I only had 1 hour and 40 minutes between my flight from Dallas and my flight to China. Had I been mobile it would have been a snap to catch my connecting flight. As a 'mobility challenged' customer, I was at the mercy of those pushing my wheelchair.

Might things have turned out differently had I tipped? It certainly seemed so.

I missed my flight to China. By the time we got to the right terminal, the Air China counter was empty. My wheelchair pusher told me to just sit and wait till they come back to staff that desk. And then: “You cannot stay in that chair. I have to take it. Please sit down on this bench.” An uncomfortable wooden bench with no back to lean against.

And there I sat, from noon till 9PM. Hungry, thirsty, needing a bathroom and with all my luggage and only one good leg. I asked Airport Police, Transportation Security Administration and Mobility Services for help. They all said I should just wait until the Air China desk is staffed again. When will it be staffed again? Some said 7:30, some said 8:00 and the latest time: 9PM. Come to find out, all were wrong: that desk was not due to be staffed again until the next morning.

Another strange quirk in America: everything is for profit. Those airport carts, provided for the convenience of travelers the world over, cost $5 in America. Had I been fully mobile I wouldn't have needed any help with my luggage. Being crippled, there was no way to manage a full-sized suitcase and 2 carry-ons. Fortunately, at some point in the afternoon, someone abandoned one of those carts close to me. I hobbled over and claimed it, then managed to get my bags onto it. Now I had wheels! I could get to the bathroom and the water fountain!

I couldn't get to any food outlets because there weren't any. Tipping would not have helped.

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