Tonight we suppered at TGI Friday's to celebrate Aaron's homecoming from Guilin. Ahh, Fridays. A tidbit of America in the heart of Tianjin.
The wait staff wear the Friday's uniforms, though maybe with not quite as much flare on their suspenders. There are red and white striped table clothes, just like America. And interesting things mounted on the walls: antique tricycles, a canoe, lots of old photographs and postcards. While the wait staff are generally kind and speak English, they spend a lot of time standing around picking at their fingernails or having small, friendly slapping fights with each other. But the food is good and when you order a Coke, you get a jumbo size with free refills. If that isn't quintessential America, I don't know what is!
Tonight we ordered soft drinks along with our food.
"And can we get waters for everyone, please?" Aaron asked our waiter.
The waiter grunted in reply and stalked away.
Aaron and I exchanged glances. "That was weird," he said, and I agreed. Since when was ordering water an inconvenience?
He came back a while later with our assorted drinks.
"And can we get water too please?" Aaron asked again.
"No, no, no!" the waiter said. "No cups. No cups. Only this kind of cup." He pointed to our kids' plastic cups.
"Okay, well, we'll take that kind of cup," Aaron said.
"Wait a moment. Wait a moment," the waiter said, scurrying away.
He never came back with the water.
We glanced around the half-empty restaurant and wondered how on earth a TGI Friday's could run successfully without enough cups. Is it that they have to give away the water for free, so they are losing money washing the cups we use to drink water? Is there an unwritten rule that each customer is only allowed one cup?
Still, it was a fascinating study on the difference between our two cultures. In Chinese culture avoidance is an acceptable form of refusal; you can't lose face for not doing something if you pretend that you don't need to do it. Just ignore the problem -- ignore the customer. It will eventually go away. So will the customer. And there are plenty of other customers in a country of billions. Nobody's going to miss you.
We felt instinctively that it would be wrong for us to ask for water a third time. Maybe we're just wimps, but then again, we're used to it here, and making the waiter lose serious face by having to refuse us water for whatever bizarre reason he had to refuse us water, just wasn't worth the water.
So, we finished our dinner feeling only mildly annoyed, and left to enjoy our water at home. Where there are plenty of cups.