Gratuity in Penang revisited

Years ago, early in my time here in Penang, I wrote an article about tipping in Penang.  In summary, I put together a case for why I don’t leave a tip at every restaurant I visit when I go out to eat.  I think back to those days and wonder if I made the right call, and gave the right advice here on this blog.  So this time around, I’m going to put forward some of my thoughts on the subject and perhaps amend my recommendation.

i've got lots of tips for you, son : san francisco (2014)

Gratuity or Tip

My first thought is to change the term I’m using in this article to gratuity.  Why?  Well, I think it changes my mindset.  A tip, in my mind, is an additional fee, an added cost.  It might be because I’m American and I feel obligated in the US to tip almost everywhere.  It stops being a generous gesture and starts being an obligation.  If it is an obligation, is it a gift?  Is it a reward for good service?  I don’t think so.

What I love about living in Penang is that I don’t feel like the gratuity is expected.  That means to me that the expression of thanks is better communicated to the person I’m giving it to.

When I think of a gratuity, I think it is a sign of gratefulness.  It is a sign that someone did something above and beyond their job description and I want to reward them for that.

What else has changed

If you read my original article, I wrote about me and “the locals.”  I feel so embarrassed about how naive I was back then.  In getting to know the people in my neighborhood, I’ve come to realize that the people who are serving me are not in fact “locals”.  They are from Bangladesh and Myanmar and Nepal and Pakistan and Indonesia… The list goes on.  It means a lot to me that they come so far and work so hard to earn so little, and send back so much.

I understand that this is going to be a touchy subject.  There are many people who live here who would rather not have these migrants and refugees living among us.  You only need to scroll down to the comment section of any news portal site to read the racist fear mongering opinions.

Stop the Us vs Them

I’ve sat at tables and heard many of the stories that these good folks have had to endure.  I’ve heard about dangerous and deadly ocean crossings for the Rohingya.  I listen to them talk about being shaken down for more than a month’s wages by the police.  Who can they call for justice?  There is no person or agency they can turn to.

To stop considering them, “them”, I’ve decided to spend the past two years learning their names.

Usman made the best Nasi Ayam Penyet.

Manik gets my SMSes for ordering mutton biryani and butter chicken.

Sharif makes satay.

Yunus used to have the best Mandi Chicken in Batu Ferringhi before he ran off in fear of immigration police.

So, in gratitude I learn their names and offer them mine.  I wave to them even when I’m not going to visit their shop that day.  My kids and I get the royal treatment when we come in, and when we leave, there’s a little extra in the payment folder or tray, to let them know I appreciate them.  We can call it a tip or a gratuity.


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