As I’m about to fly home to China in a few days, I realized that one thing I miss the most about being in China is eating at restaurants the Chinese way. When I first came to the US in 2013, it took me a while to adjust to the American way of restaurant service. Three years and thousands of meals later, even though I’m completely used to dining at American restaurants, many things about it still irk me. Here are some of them.
One is eating in courses. In China, most restaurants serve food whenever they became ready, and there is no notion of “appetizer,” “entrée,” or “dessert.” I like eating the savory along with the sweet, the solid food along with the soups, because they balanced each other out. In contrast, in the US, I’m asked to consider “something to start with,” a main dish, and the dessert menu only comes after the plate of my entrée has been completely emptied, which has always created significant pressure for me to finish my food (something I can never do). Whenever I try to ask for dessert before my food was finished, the waitress would look at me with a raised eyebrow, “You want desserts now? Sure…” As if I was infringing on some sacred custom.
But the one thing that I absolutely hate the most while eating at an American restaurant is having my plates taken away after each dish. From the moment my food is put on the table, I feel like I’m watched with hawkish eyes by servers who cannot wait to take the plate away from me, as if they don’t have enough plates to go around in the restaurant. Sometimes even though I’m done eating the appetizer, there is still some nice sauce left that I want to dip my entrée food in. But the server will invariably assume that I’m done with food, and deprive me of my plate with a sweep of motion and the helpful words “Let me get this out of your way!” without even looking or bothering to ask if I was done. I do NOT need my plates out of my way, thank you very much. I would like all my plates to stay on my table, from the beginning of the meal to the end, so that I can eat anything in any order with anything I wish, the Chinese way. The more polite servers would bother to ask what in my opinion is the strangest question ever: “Are you still working on that?” Only in a Western restaurant does eating become “work,” and I feel pressured to work on my food so hard so that my oppressive server can “get it out of my way.”
Another question I hate is “How are we doing?” which usually comes half way through the meal, when you’re perfectly engrossed in a great conversation with your dinner date and is rudely interrupted by this completely useless question that does nothing but to convey that “I’m trying to provide good service here, please tip me well.” Because of the tipping system, servers feel the constant need to check up on customers as if we are kindergarten kids who cannot be trusted to be left alone. When I pay my tip, it feels like I’m paying people to disturb my meal. Please, just leave me alone and let me eat in peace. If I need something, I will beckon you to let you know.
That brings me to my next frustration: I can never find my server when I need him/her. When I first learned that in American restaurants, each table is assigned a single server and that I can only call that server when I need something, I was aghast. How am I supposed to remember this person’s look and find him/her? In China, all servers hustle around all tables; as long as you bark “Fu Wu Yuan!” (“server!”) someone will come to your table and satisfy whatever need you have in an instant. In the US, I feel rude calling out to servers, and have to dutifully wait until my assigned server comes (which sometimes does not happen until half an hour after he/she first appears). Many times, I’m left straining my neck to find my server in the vast restaurant, wondering when he or she will turn up instead of enjoying my meal. I’m of the opinion that the greatest sign of good service in the hospitality industry is that the customer doesn’t feel bad asking for anything. In many Chinese malls and restaurants, a motto is printed on the wall in large characters: “Customer is God.”
Moreover, I always feel ripped off eating at an American restaurant. First, the portions seem to be designed for 6′ 5” burly white men, not 5′ 3” small Asian girls. I usually become completely stuffed when there’s still half of my food left on the plate. Second, there’s always the surprising cost of taxes on the bill. Third, alas, the tips. As much as I sympathize with the low wages of service workers, I’m of the opinion that tipping is a terrible system. It implies that workers need to be financially incentivized to provide good service, when in effect, they shouldn’t—people shouldn’t become servers at all if they are not willing and able to provide good service. It’s just part of the basic expectation of the job. When I was in Japan, where there is no tipping system, the service I received was ten times superior than those I received anywhere in the US. One American friend has suggested to me that Americans naturally have a sense of entitlement, and it’s hard to make them willing to bow down their heads and serve others unless they are provided financial reward. I doubt this deterministic argument, and am glad to see that an increasing number of restaurants here are adopting a no-tipping policy.
I’m aware that my preferences are the result of my upbringing and cultural background. People who grew up in the US seem mostly fine with the way restaurants here function. But I do think there are some areas where American restaurants can look to Asian countries like Japan and China for useful lessons. The best service is intrusive and humble. It does not want to be noticed, nor does it scream for attention and tips.