Sunday, November 29, 2009

Americano or Cappuccino?

Latte, closup

Eight years ago, I interned with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in New York. Being in New York City for the first time, I tried to squeeze in every possible thing I could do within the short span of 3 months.

Honestly, I loved the city. I even dreamed of living there until 9/11 happened and living the American dream isn’t quite the same again.

There is still one thing about the country that bugs me, with or without 9/11. It’s the tipping system. If you haven’t been to America, be warned that there’s a fifteen percent tipping policy for services at all food and drink outlets. With this wisdom in mind, hopefully, it’ll spare you the humiliation I went through eight years ago.

I went to a bar in Manhattan (coincidentally situated in one of the World Trade Centre towers) and everything was as how you would have imagined it; chic, classy and the epitome of a Sex-in-the-City lifestyle. The women were all dressed in fashionable outfit, sipping their pink-coloured concoction while they flirted around men who resembled Big in many ways.

I refrained from being another Carrie Bradshaw and ordered a glass of red wine at the bar instead. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but suffice to say, more than enough.

Feeling rather generous, I told the extremely good-looking bartender casually, “Please keep the change.”

He took one look at my money and flashed me a menacing look. With his first and middle fingers still clinging firmly to the neck of the wine glass, he said coldly, “I’m sorry, if you want your drink, you gotta give me more.”

I thought he was joking but he didn’t look amused. Suddenly, he didn’t look that handsome after all.

Feeling flustered and humiliated, I fumbled for my purse, rummaged through it and handed him a five dollar note since it was the smallest denomination I had. It was the first and only tip which I had parted most grudgingly in my life.

I could never really understand the American system when it comes to tipping. I’ve heard many times that such policy is necessary to compensate for the underpaid waiters and waitresses. I can truly sympathise with this since I had worked as a part time waitress and bartender during my university years. I know how unjustifiably disproportionate the pays are compared to the labour put in.

But, my understanding of tipping is somewhat like art.

The price of a piece of art work is often valued by how much it pleases the buyer. Sometimes, you look at a painting and you think to yourself, “Gee, did a clown just pee all over it? And they call this art?!”

The next thing you know, someone has offered to pay one hundred thousand dollars for it. That someone is willing to pay that much money for something you consider trash, because he or she appreciates it and hence, is happy to splurge that kind of money to own it.

So, if I’m really impressed or pleased with a waiter’s hospitality, I am more than willing to tip him generously. If not, I won’t bother because he is already being paid to do a job. Tipping should not be obligatory and it’s not part of my responsibility to pay the waiter, especially when I’m expected to pay for my meal.

Frankly, I would prefer if a restaurant charges more for the food in order to cover its employees’ salary. Some might say, “Oh, but how sure are you that the money will go to the employees?” I would say that it’s really not my problem. I dine at a restaurant for two reasons, to eat and socialise, not to do charity work.

So that’s America. You’re expected to pay for something that is implied but not written. In Italy, they do it the opposite way.

Few years back, I went on a vacation to Siena with my best friend, S. We had a great meal at a restaurant and when the bill came, we habitually scrutinized the items on the bill. (We’ve acquired this habit from our parents who are rather careful when it comes to financial matters. Mind you, thanks to this habit, I’ve once managed to rescue RM1,500 from a miscalculated bill at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, which otherwise would have been happily paid by our party host, still in his drunken stupor.)

Everything looked in order except for one item listed as il corpeto. We were convinced that the restaurant was trying to take advantage of two innocent Asian girls and we were not going to let them get away with it. So, we summoned the waitress to explain the bill for us.

We pointed the item out to the waitress and told her that we did not order it. She looked confused, understandably so since she could hardly speak a word of English.

After a few minutes of creative gestures and a lot of si, she nodded reassuringly and pointed her index finger at our empty plates and glasses. She even took away the napkin from my lap, flipped it wildly and all the time repeating the word il corpeto in that strong Italian accent. “Il corpeto, si? Il corpeto?”

After what seemed like hours of gesticulating back and forth, my very intelligent friend finally understood. She whispered to me, “I think il corpeto means charges for the dining utensils.”

“Are you sure they’re not just charging us for the dish washing?” I offered a second opinion. S looked at me quizzically, trying to figure out whether I was trying to be funny.

We finally relented and paid the bill, much to the waitress’ relief.

So, in Italy, many restaurants will actually itemise your bill so meticulously that you know exactly how much and what you’re paying for. Frankly, as long as I understand what the charges are, I’m happy to pay up. At least, in Italy, they don’t harass you into tipping them.

Feel free to share any similar dining experience in whatever country you have travelled to. We’ll thank you for sparing us from looking like fools.

This article was published at The Malaysian Insider on 28 November under the same title.


  1. Well, tipping in USA is really just an implicit service charge. Just go for a 15% every time, irregardless, unless service is so bad, then just give them 2 cents. I am rarely so generous to go beyond 15%, most ever went was 20%.

  2. Dear Observer,

    supposedly service is bad and you tip them 2 cents, will the waiter/waitress give you grief?

    If not, does that mean it's not actually a law/rule? It's discretionary?