[SEOUL LOUNGE] To tip or not to tip

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[SEOUL LOUNGE] To tip or not to tip

“Thanks Michelle!”

“You’re the best!”

“It’s so good to have you home!”

“I can’t believe you bought us all lunch. Thanks so much!”

“Aww, you’re welcome,” I smiled and laughed and basked in the attention from the friends I’d known since childhood as we all ran out of the restaurant giggling and chatting like in the good old days. Ahhh, home sweet home.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, ma’am, I think you forgot to leave a tip,” the waitress looked a little flushed as she rushed to catch up to us in the parking lot. I was still giggling as I turned around to see her waving the bill.

“What? Oh my God! Did I forget to leave a tip? That is so funny! I live in Korea and we don’t tip there. I can’t believe I totally forgot! Isn’t that SO funny?!”

Although her mouth was smiling, her eyes revealed that she was not amused (a handy little signal I’d only learned to notice once I started living in Korea). I continued to give her a more detailed explanation so she wouldn’t take my oversight personally.

“You don’t have to tip anyone there. Actually, it’s awesome! I love not tipping. It’s so convenient.” I noticed that even her mouth wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Oh! Don’t worry, I’m going to tip you!” I laughed and lightly touched her arm, encouraging her to share in my hilarious cultural mishap. She declined. “Ahem, oh ... O.K., let me take care of it right now.” I quickly reached for my wallet. Obviously this was not the time to enlighten our frazzled friend with my vast and extensive knowledge of the cultural mysteries of the exotic Land of the Morning Calm.

“O.K., Sorry, but can I just quickly see the bill? Alrighty then, so 15 percent, right?” She sighed and crossed her arms. “O.K. then. Um, how much should I leave?” I couldn’t seem to calculate the math in my head. I asked my friends. “Guys, how much is 15 percent of -”

I turned around to give them a look at the bill, but they were gone. There they were, standing around the car, within earshot, but pretending to be caught up in a very interesting conversation so as to enable them to create the appearance of not knowing me. Traitors.

I fumbled around with my wallet and finally gave the waitress a handful of bills. Finally, her mouth and eyes were all smiling, “Arigato Damas” she said proudly. “Naaay,” I mumbled. You have to choose your battles.

I got in the car. “Can you guys believe she followed us out to the parking lot and demanded a tip? I mean, isn’t a tip supposed to be a reward? Something you give by choice for excellent service? Granted, she did bring us our food without much hassle. But I have to say her service was rather unremarkable. I didn’t even recognize her once we were in the parking lot! Maybe all white people are starting to look the same to me now!”

I glanced expectantly around the car but no one met my eyes. The silly, cheerful mood had evaporated. I continued to feed the hungry silence. “And true, maybe she only makes like $2 an hour so she does depend on tips. But still, that was just so rude, right?” My face was feeling very hot. I couldn’t believe that no one else could see the irony of the situation! “Guys! I just forgot! I gave her a good tip just now! I just forgot! I’m sorry. It’s not like I tried sneaking out of the bathroom window to avoid paying the bill!” I laughed. Alone.

The ride home was kind of quiet, and I wondered why Americans were so happy to accept paying obvious and obligatory service charges that were masquerading as voluntary gifts. The rest of my vacation, I was very aware of how ubiquitous the tipping culture in America had become - or had it always been like this?

The hairdresser wanted a tip. The taxi driver wanted a tip. There was a tip cup on the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts. There was even a tip cup hanging in the window at the drive-thru. Everybody wanted a tip! No, everyone demanded, expected, felt entitled to a tip. And everyone else eagerly complied.

But wouldn’t we all rather just pay a little extra up front and not be burdened with a heavy sense of obligation and uncertainty at the end of a haircut, a ride or a meal? It’s like the good advice my grandmother once gave me before a date: a girl should never order the lobster or else the boy might expect “something” for dessert.

In Korea, I go to the hairdresser and they bring me coffee, share their gimbap and give me a free manicure.

At a galbi restaurant, the ajumma will bring me as much garlic and samjang as I want without comment, complaint or extra charge. My taxi driver won’t let me get out of the car without making sure he gives me my 100 won change.

How did tipping become so deeply ingrained in American culture while managing to avoid polluting Korean culture? Is it because Koreans value relationships over money? Or because Koreans do not view “service” as an option? Maybe it is simply because Americans like figuring out percentages in their heads. Whatever it is, I like it.

Kimchi doh-chusaeyo!

*The writer is a foreign client relationship manager at Shinhan Bank.


By Michelle Farnsworth
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