FIRST-TIME visitors to the United States are always confused over the practice of tipping. In fact this is the common question Im asked when we go out to a restaurant.
Tipping is more or less mandatory, irrespective of whether the service is good or not.
But what happens if you dont leave a tip or the tip is considered too miserly? Well, you could be hauled to jail!
Recently, Long Island resident Humberto Taveras, 41, was arrested for failing to leave the required 18% gratuity for parties of eight or more at a grill in Lake George in upstate New York.
He claimed that the required gratuity was ludicrous, left just 10% and walked out of the restaurant.
Owner Joe Soprano went after him, saying the tip was unacceptable.
Taveras shouted back and the police were called in. He was arrested and charged with theft of services.
However, prosecutors dropped the charges, saying that the wording on the menu meant a tip rather than a surcharge.
Malaysians find it hard to understand this tipping culture, not that they dont believe in tipping for good service but when the tip is anything between 16% and 25% they just shake their heads in disbelief. (As a guideline, the tax is usually about 8% and the tip should be at least double that.)
Some westerners just refuse to tip. An Australian woman friend once said she did not feel like leaving a tip because the service was lousy and the food was no better. She walked out of the restaurant leaving the waiter dumbfounded.
That was in Florida I dont think she would have got away with it that easily in New York.
For big groups, there is a surcharge while some restaurants owners who see no consistency in the tipping have worked out their own formula and included the amount in the bill. It is usually much lower than the 16% average.
New York City law allows restaurants to impose mandatory service charge or gratuity for parties of eight or more people. The charge cannot be more than 15% of the bill and must be disclosed before the patron orders.
Restaurant workers in Chinatown are lowly paid and many need the tips to survive.
Last year, workers of a big Chinese restaurant in New York sued its owner who had collected hundreds of thousands in tips meant for workers but refused to give the money to them. They won the case but by that time the restaurant had gone bankrupt.
Malaysian journalists have learned the hard way about tipping. After lunch at a Manhattan restaurant, they left the change as tips. The waiter followed the group out and returned the money, saying this is not a tip.
Recently, I was among several other Malaysians who were at a self-service restaurant in Flushing for breakfast. A friend who had ordered wanton soup forgot to take it from the counter. A worker later brought it over to our table.
As we walked out after our meal, the waiter shouted: Where's my tip?
Although it was a self-service place, the worker had served the bowl of soup. (We gave a tip.)
A former restaurant operator said that foreigners, particularly Asians, usually did not tip well.
So the next time you eat out in the Big Apple, make sure you tip properly or you may end up in jail.
n Artistic ambassador
BRUNEIS Permanent Representative to the United Nations Shofry Abdul Ghafor never took up art seriously in school. In fact, he never touched a paintbrush.
But painting was something he always wanted to do. So last year he attended evening art classes at Tenafly Middle School in New Jersey and before he knew it his tutor was telling him that his work was good.
Last week, Shofry held a joint exhibition with Smith Georges, son of prominent Haitian artist Duclavier Goerges, at the Brunei Mission across the road from the United Nations. Anyone looking at the paintings would think that Shofry is an accomplished artist.
In the 11-day exhibition Bridging the Gap: Celebrating 11 Days of Global Unity Through the Arts, Sofry is displaying more than 30 of his acrylic works of scenery and life in New York.
The Brunei diplomat, who has been in New York for eight years, has also served in Jakarta and Washington.
I had always wanted to paint but never had the opportunity nor the courage to pursue it as a career. Now that it's a hobby, I paint whenever I have the time, he said.
Sofry said that what motivated him most to paint was the desire to present the United States in a more personal way.
At a time when our perspectives and perceptions are mostly being driven by sensational news stories, we tend to lose sight of the humanity and little beauties that we are used to in this country.
Through my paintings, I wish to express the splendour that America has to offer and can in a small way narrow the worrying gaps in perception among us, he said.
o Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)