Sunday, January 27, 2013

What to Know About Service in China

It always helps to understand some of the cultural norms and nuances when it comes to service, navigating restaurants, stores and the like.  So, while we're still learning (and miss a lot of subtleties with no language skills), here are some basics that might help if you're visiting Shanghai:

1.  Flag down help when you want to order or need something.  You will typically be seated (just gesture with the appropriate number if your language skills are lacking)and provided a menu, then left alone.  You will need to call your server--or a server (just raise your hand and look up) to order.  Similarly, do so if you need something or want the check (the universal sign for check works fine).

2.  Napkins are scarce.  It is always handy to carry small packets of tissues in China.  They are useful for times when toilet paper is missing and for use in restaurants when you get no napkin or one tiny square to deal with a messy meal.  Fortunately, it seems like eating meals with chopsticks tends to be a less messy experience (though I guess the opposite could be true if you're at a loss with chopsticks--oh yes, and practice your chopstick use).

3.  Many menus here have English translations (albeit quite humorous at times) or pictures, so you can get by pretty well at even more local establishments.  Point to what you want and indicate the number (i.e. point to the word/picture--and if it is in English, make sure the server can see the Chinese words, and hold up fingers indicating how many of that dish you want).  If it is a very small place with no English/picture menu, you might get by with pointing to what someone else is having or practicing a phrase such as asking for their best or most popular dish.

4.  You will often be given your bill/asked to pay shortly after ordering.  This isn't typical at western or very upscale restaurants, but it is pretty standard many places.  It can seem odd the first time and catches you off guard, but it's convenient when you're done and you can just get up and leave.  Some places will also place a little marker on your table when paid and others have a cashier where you pay instead of paying your server.  Just go with the flow...

5.  Don't tip.  This is always a guilt-ridden challenge for Americans, the mega tippers of the world.  In so many parts of the world, things work completely differently and the wage and tipping system is vastly different from ours.  We got used to this in Spain (maybe too much so-it's a tough adjustment coming back and being expected to give 20% for anything adequate), where small change is enough for good service in most cases.  In China, tipping is not the norm and has actually traditionally been considered somewhat insulting as it perhaps implied that the person did not make enough money.  As thing modernize and globalize (and we spread our big-tipping ways), there is more exposure to tipping and it would not likely be seen as insulting by most...but it is rarely expected. 

In fancier restaurants, they will typically add a service charge, about 10-15%.  We have been to a few places with this charge and the service was extraordinary--the kind of place where your glass will not be empty for a second and if your napkin falls to the floor, you'll have a fresh one before you notice it.  In other words, the type of service you'd expect to pay well over 20% for in the U.S. This may not always be the case, but it is often what you find.

6.  When it comes to services such as the bank or mobile provider, most businesses have a number system versus a line.  There is usually a machine at the entryway (almost always "manned" by someone to make sure you get your number correctly--another example of what sometimes feels like "how many people does it take to...?").  You get your number and grab a seat (most banks and other services have rows of seats) and wait for the number to be called/displayed on the LED screen above the station where you will be helped.  A lot of business is still done in person here (you'll soon learn why there are so many bank branches) so there is often a fairly long wait.

Most of these larger businesses in Shanghai have English-speaking employees who can help you.  Sometimes it is wise to point this out to the person manning the number machine, as they may need to route you to a particular person.  For example, at our local China mobile store, we typically get sent to the special desk in the corner, where the most efficient young man seems to help all the problematic situations (or customers).  This can be a nice benefit when there's a big crowd.

7.  Observe how things are done in different situations.  This is not country-specific advice but something we have picked up from shopping and dealing with other services in various countries.  I never would have thought that living in Europe would prepare me so well for China, but you learn how many little things can differ and how to adjust (and throw your expectations out the window).  Supermarkets can be a minefield of mistakes.  In Spain, for example, you lock up your rolling cart (if you have one) in the little area at the front of the store, put a deposit in for a cart (or get a free basket) and then collect your cart again when you are ready to pack up in line (I rolled mine around the store for at least a month before figuring this out).  While we were there, the grocery stores started charging for the plastic bags, which is becoming common everywhere.  Many places, you have to weigh your fruits and vegetables in the produce section, which you rarely do any more in the U.S.  There are also norms about touching fruit and vegetables (don't do it in Spain unless wearing plastic gloves or use the bag). 

If you look around for a bit, you will catch on to how things are being done.  And, usually you'll be told if you're not doing something right that really can just make for an awkward and confusing experience.  I'm sure I'll have plenty more of those, but it always feels like an accomplishment when you navigate services that you wouldn't think twice about at home.

1 comment:

  1. You could be the next Frommer's. Excellent explanation on navigating. Looks like you are having fun. Tami