How to Suck at Tipping

September 11, 2012

in therapy in session

I know that I suffer from a severe case of liberal guilt and that’s why I don’t think I can truly relax in places where there is a clear demarcation, often times physically, between the privileged and the underprivileged. You can accuse me of being a hypocrite if you want. I would not know how to defend myself. So there. 

I am in Shanghai now on a business trip. I never feel truly comfortable when I am in China because people mistake me easily for a local (I can fake a Beijing accent when speaking Chinese vs. my natural, Taiwanese-accented Mandarin Chinese) and yet they could tell that there is something off about me. They’d ask me where I am from. When I explained that I grew up in Taiwan and now live in the US, inevitably there would be lots of questions about the comparisons between Taiwan and China, the US and China, and the topic always leads to, uncomfortably at least for me, how I have a much better life.

“You went to good school.” They’d conclude with regret or longing or something in their voice, if the person I’m speaking to is from outside of the upper-middle class.

The hotel I am staying in provides massage services until 2 am. It sounded like an awesome idea: travelers with jet lags will LOVE to be able to get a massage when they have trouble going to bed anyway. So I called the extension and booked a 60-minute acupressure massage session in my room.

“So where are you from?” My masseuse asked as she tried to figure out in which direction I should lie on the bed. I was still confused because she had come in with nothing. Where’s the oil? The lotion? The blanket? The towel?

“Taiwan? Wow. It must be a lot nicer over there.” I tried to deflect the conversation by suggesting that people love coming to China nowadays because of the opportunities.

“More opportunities?”

“Yeah, you know. More land. More people…” My voice trailed off as I backed myself into a corner. Sure enough, she told me that she’s not from here. “We came from [another province].” Instinctively, I understood that she’d meant “we, the masseuses working at this hotel”. She was here, like many other migrant workers from rural China, by herself leaving behind two children and aging parents.

She told me about the farms back home, how before she got married at 23 she was already considered to be an old spinster, how massages were unheard of because god forbid if the neighbors got wind that either you got a massage from a man or you gave a man a massage.

She said that she wished she could visit Taiwan some day. I suggested jokingly that perhaps she should visit other places before Taiwan if she ever has a chance. “But when will I have a chance to visit another country? It costs so much!” I simply forgot how much it costs to travel, to fly on an airplane overseas. My plane tickets to Shanghai cost almost $2000 USD, which translates roughly into 4 months of her wages if she works every single day.

Finally came the question I dreaded the most, “How much are you paid over in the US?” (Yes, people do ask you this question sometimes.)

I gave a lame response of how salaries may be higher in the US but our costs of living are higher and also we have to pay more taxes. Lots more. She didn’t seem to mind my not answering her question.

“I am paid 100 yuan a day. I did so many massages today but I will still get 100 yuan.”

I was surprised. And embarrassed somehow. In my panic, I also wished that I had pretended to speak no Chinese. Then I felt extremely guilty and ashamed of myself.

“You know, you are smart [why’s she so sure of that?] and you went to good school [ibid]. Me? I don’t know how to do anything. No skills. No brains.” She said, matter-of- factly.

Fortunately for me our conversation veered off when she got to my derrière. She said jokingly, “You look so thin but oh your [backside] is so big!” I was not offended the least because I was so relieved.

“Hey. That’s what they call Son-bearing hip, ok? All the grandmothers loved me when I was young. They know I’d be popping out boy babies.”

“Oh, my butt is huge too.”

We bonded over son-bearing hips. And thick thighs. Yes, once I turned to lie on my back, she was surprised by how “there is no meat on your face”. She proceeded to wonder out loud how it’s possible that I could have such thick thighs since my arms and my mid region looked great. I wanted to hug her for the compliments. These were sincere and not backhanded at all.

By the end of the session, I had determined to give her a great tip even though tipping is a complex matter in China. Yes, hotel workers cater to Westerners may have come to expect tips, most Chinese are not accustomed to it. Some people actually resent the thought that “foreigners are training workers in China to expect tips from all”.

“I don’t have the exact change. How about you bring these to them and keep the change. Will they let you keep the change?”

She looked utterly confused. “Don’t you have exact change?”

“No. I am sorry. That’s what I meant though: go downstairs with the money, and keep the change. If I give you these bills, will the change go to you at all?”

“Oh no. No. They’ll never give me the change.”

“Ok, here’s what you are going to do: Give them the bills. Tell them I asked you to bring the change up to me. But then just go home.”

Now she looked scared. “They may catch me leaving with the money… I will bring the money to your room.”

As she hurried out, it dawned on me that this might not have been the best idea because what was I trying to prove? What was I trying to do to this poor woman so I could feel better about myself?

A knock on my door.

“Hi. Good evening. Here’s your change back.” Standing there, holding out the money was not my masseuse but a better-dressed, more cosmopolitan-looking young woman.

Somehow I was not surprised. Of course they wouldn’t allow her to bring the change back to me. I was saddened, imagining my masseuse’s disappointment caused by me.

Why did I try to meddle in somebody’s life?

Another knock on my door.

“Oh, I was so scared! Did she bring you your change?” Now she’s embarrassed. “I just want to make sure that you’ve got your change. They told me that I could leave. So I made a turn when nobody’s looking and came upstairs.”

Giving someone a tip should not made either the giver or the receiver feel as if they’re having an illicit affair. I was really upset at “them” by this time. The irony did not escape me of course.

Her eyes widened as I pushed the change into her hand. “What are you doing? You are nuts.”

“Well, you know. I used a coupon and I think you the person who did all the work should enjoy this reward and not me.”


It’s now past 3 am here. I am not sleepy at all. I don’t know what I am trying to say by recounting my encounter with my impotent conscience.

Maybe I am hoping that one of you will call me out on it as an atonement.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Cecilia October 1, 2012 at 9:36 am

Amazing post…(am happy to have found you via Justine). I’m Chinese American too, and I’ve experienced smaller versions of what you describe. I was getting a foot massage in Shenzhen once, by a young man. At the end I gave a more-generous-than-normal (for me) tip but the man was visibly disappointed. He had expected more, knowing I was American. I did not know how to respond to that, and was a bit put off by his reaction although I tried to understand where he was coming from. In your situation though, I would have done the same as you…Your masseuse sounded genuine, and I would have empathized with her, a fellow mom who could have been me had fate not brought my parents to the US from rural China. I did not see your gesture as interfering at all…we can’t cure all ills but when we’re presented with something in which we can make a small dent, then we try to do it. I felt you were trying to do that.
Cecilia´s last blog post…Recovering


Absence Alternatives October 1, 2012 at 10:02 am

Thank you so much!!! Yes, I’ve encountered people who expected a bigger tip because we are American despite what the guidebooks say about China being a no tip country. And of course we are hated by some Chinese for “spoiling” the culture… It’s especially weird when we look like Chinese yet we are “foreigners”, Kwim? I feel that anything I do has the potential to offend some people there. I know I’m over thinking. But I felt so much more relaxed when I am say in Europe… There is no such expectation on me….


Secret Agent Woman September 17, 2012 at 6:20 am

Well, I’m sure not going to call you out on it – you had her interests at heart and you tried to help. And it’s a complicated world. If I had been in your shoes (or, well, naked, I suppose since you were getting a massage) I”d have tried to tip also. And, after all, she did come back and she didn’t refuse it so she must have appreciated it even though it was also a little alien for her.
Secret Agent Woman´s last blog post…Bring it on, Universe – you don’t scare me.


Absence Alternatives September 18, 2012 at 12:17 am

Thank you. It’s hard to know what’s the right things to do oftentimes…


Unknown Mami September 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm

You are blessed and you are aware that others are not as blessed as you are.
Unknown Mami´s last blog post…Hop-n-Play (Sundays In My City)


Absence Alternatives September 18, 2012 at 12:16 am

I also have a suitcaseful of neurosis…


BigLittleWolf September 13, 2012 at 8:54 am

… What Naptime said, about inequalities… But also, how many people who live in this country and do live decently never set foot outside their comfort zone and see the inequities that make some of our bitching pale in comparison?

How many of us venture to another part of the city in which we live – and do the same?

We have all sorts of reasons, not the least of which includes the harried pace of our daily lives, what our children and partners need, our own hamster wheel of activities to make a buck and keep things chugging alone, fear for our safety or simply fear… and that middle class guilt.

I must say, middle class guilt is surely dwindling along with the middle class.

You tried to do a good thing. You didn’t want it to be complicated. You wanted to help. The fact that you wanted to help and acted on it is a good instinct. I certainly wouldn’t beat yourself up for interfering or anything like that.

Back to what Naptime said – about this country. While we are a cultural mish mash (which I like, personally), we could do more in our own communities – extending a hand to level out those inequities any way we can. It may mean a big tip for someone, it may mean offering a hand logistically, it may mean volunteering in literacy programs or with older people and yes, of course I know how crazy busy we all are. But sometimes we have opportunities for kindness and assistance and we let them go. The mention of a name for someone who is out of work. Help with a child on a temporary basis so that person can look for work. There are more ways to “do the right thing” that involve time and caring and simply paying attention, and not necessarily money.

Did you enjoy your massage at all – after all that?
BigLittleWolf´s last blog post…Door to Door, Selling God


Absence Alternatives September 16, 2012 at 12:07 am

Thank you so much for this!!! Have you read Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater? The central character Eliot Rosewater basically feels the need to GIVE IT ALL AWAY otherwise he does not feel like he’s been truly kind. It’s been stuck with me since. What you said definitely helps a lot counterbalancing this extreme thought, so thank you.


Naptimewriting September 11, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Sweet, thoughtful, kind hearted lady.

You don’t suck at tipping. You don’t suck at anything. Just because you were raised in China and have family there doesn’t mean you have to be acutely aware of all the cultural differences all the time. Or that you can’t be pained when you realize an oversight.

Issues like these, though, make me think that 1)We suck because we, as a nation, are so blind to the sacrifices made the world over for basic necessities and 2)China sucks because of its gross financial inequities. But that brings me back to 3)We suck because we have similar inequalities and thus to 4)China sucks because its predetermination of careers shortchanges millions of bright, lovely humans. And that brings me to…

You see how it goes. And you go twenty rounds, too, I’d wager. There’s something mid-century imperialist about the way China treats its provinces. Am I totally wrong to see provinces like colonies even though they share language, culture, geopolitical realities? It all feels so British middle class in India to me. Ignorant, I know. Sorry.

I blame my filmic habits for thinking something sinister happened to her on her way downstairs.
Naptimewriting´s last blog post…A Whole New World


Absence Alternatives September 15, 2012 at 11:52 pm

It’s true that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is getting bigger and bigger as China’s “middle class” becomes a larger and larger demographic. And indeed, the line tends to fall along cities vs. rural areas. (Or, wherever Apple decides to open a factory… )

You must have seen pictures of modern Shanghai and marveled at this being a “Chinese” city, since there is nothing that would evoke “communism” in images of modern Shanghai. But a few blocks next to the fancy hotels and luxury brand flagship stores one can see evidence of people living in the streets. It’s heart-breaking.


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