Friday, March 20, 2009

Tip Of The Iceberg

Having lived in the US for a while, I got familiarized with the rigid tipping culture of the Americans. While the concept of tipping exists to the rest of the world, the US just had to take it a hundred notches up -- almost causing people to miss the entire point. I have nothing against rewarding good service. I acknowledge that waiting tables and certain customer-oriented jobs can be jobs imported directly from hell. But the thing is, it's still a job. Some people are good at it, some are not, some enjoy it, some don't. That's the reality of work. If it's fun, then it probably won't be called a job.

I have no qualms at all having to pay for service charge in a restaurant. I mean, that's essentially what we're paying for anyway -- service during dinner or lunch -- if not, then we eat at home. And neither do I have problems shelling out for tips. But here's the thing -- if I leave a tip, it's because I want to leave it and not because I have to. If the 15% tip is mandatory in the US, then bloody put it on the check! If I think my waiter deserves more than that, then I'll leave him or her some extra cash in the cardholder. No big deal! But I don't like it when waiters sneer at me because I only left a 15% tip simply because they're expecting more.

I hate tipping especially because it forces the patron to put a price tag on the server. And as a result, servers tend to profile customers according to how they tip. Surely there are many creative ways to come up with these certain profiles. Though some profiles end up spot on, I'm sure some of it were done unfairly.

In most countries that I've been to (including those I've lived in), service charge is written up on the bill -- and no tips are expected from me. That's because the food and the services are duly paid for. If I particularly like my waiter, then I will leave him a little extra to show my appreciation. But because he is receiving a regular salary, whatever I leave is only a bonus for him. Whether or not he can make this month's rent doesn't depend on how much I leave him (just his financial management methods).

Here's the best part. I can probably swallow having to tip waiters 15% for their service, but why do I need to tip the coat girl for taking my coat? Isn't that her job? Why do I need to tip the doorman for opening the door for me? Again, isn't that his job? Why do I need to tip the bellhop for taking my suitcases to my room? What else was he expected to do? I mean, if I asked one of those people to do something out of their job description like asking the doorman to help me with my bags, then yeah, I'd tip him in a heartbeat. But for simply opening the door for me?


At the risk of being called a snob or elitist, this I will say -- I do have much respect for people who work in service-oriented industries such as hotels, restaurants, and the like simply because it's something that I know I will not be good at. To smile through gritted teeth while a customer raises hell over something no one can control, that's some skill right there. I just don't have the patience. But here's the thing, I also have to deal with clients and assholes in my line of work. I don't expect a tip whenever I answer a client's query. Neither do I expect a tip for fulfilling research assignments given to me. And I don't expect any tips whenever I make a client happy for resolving a data problem. Why?

Because it's my job to do those things!

I was hired to execute particular tasks -- just like in most (if not all) jobs. If lucky, we get a bonus at the end of the year. That is probably the most comparable thing we receive to a tip. But these bonuses are rarely guaranteed. That's why it's called a bonus -- it's something paid above what is due. Once bonuses start being required and mandatory, then it should no longer be called bonuses anymore, eh?

It's the same with tips. What's the point of tipping if it's mandatory? Why can't restaurants just charge for their service directly and place it on the bill? That way, there will be less arguments and less dissatisfied people. Waiters will get their money and patrons will be quantified and judged less.

I tip my hairdresser and my manicurists whenever I utilize their services. I don't have to, but I do so because they know how to make me happy. When I'm not, then I don't tip them or maybe I'll tip them less. What I ultimately loathe is paying for a full 15% tip even when I'm not happy with the service -- if not, my food will have spittle on it or my hair will magically turn purple.

Despite all this, I still think that when in Rome, we do as the Romans do. I had to succumb to the tipping culture in the US while I was living there simply because there was nothing else that can be done. I usually tip 15%, but I do the occasional 20% when a server goes the extra mile. For instance, I tend to give a bigger tip to delivery guys during a snow storm or to a nail technician during a public holiday. Or when a cab driver takes to my destination much earlier than expected.

I'm not a monster, I'm not stingy and I'm not ungrateful. I'm a fair person. I give credit where credit is due. I recognize hard work and outstanding service. I'm not in the hospitality or food/beverage industry but I definitely know how it is to face clients and customers. I can appreciate what patience and willpower not to strangle anyone when dealing with a particularly difficult one. But at the end of the day, we all do it for a paycheck. It's a job. The money that people part with for tips is hard-earned money (well, for many people at least) so we can't blame people if they choose to give it to those who truly deserve it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Existensialism In Kindergarten

I was five years old when I entered the school for the "big boys and girls." And at five, everyone else looked big indeed. There were about forty kids in my kindergarten class -- about half were boys, and the other half girls. Every morning just after the bell rings, the teacher gives us ten minutes to use the bathroom before classes properly started.

In the girls' bathroom, there were two stalls. For some reason, there became an unspoken rule that the firsr two girls that reached the stalls get to decide who can use "their" respective stalls. Great. Even bathroom stalls in kindergarten got bouncers. It's up to those two girls to decide what their criteria for the day was -- only girls with ribbons, only girls with braids, only girls with shiny shoes. There weren't much to choose from really because we all had to don uniforms.

Unfortunately, on days when the 'bouncers' were feeling particularly uncreative, they would usually say "only skinny girls are allowed." My five-year-old self would usually roll her eyes and walk out of the bathroom in search of another one. See, the thing is, I have never been regarded as skinny my entire life -- especially not at five years old. I was cute and cuddly because of the inch of fat that blanketed my body. My rotund face was framed by my Anna-Wintour-bob and my cheeks were smooth like peaches. I lost count of people who would pinch my cheeks and would couple it with snide remarks like "spending a bit too much time in the kitchen, aren't we?" If only my five-year-old self knew how to flip the bird. But you know what? I don't care. I was cute, hmph! Well, that's what my mum told me at least (so I'm sticking to that story).

Needless to say, there were a lot of times when I had to go to class without getting the chance to use the john -- or coming into class late because I had to use a farther bathroom. I would celebrate those days when my friends got the chance to be the stall bouncer. I would even get in even if the criteria only allowed skinny girls to come in. Ah, the power of connections! Nepotism in my country starts pretty early.

One day, for some odd reason, I managed to get to one of the stalls first. The feeling of power was exhilarating! I felt the blood rush through my veins. You see, because I've always been one of the tallest girls in my class and we had to go to the bathroom in single file (from the shortest to the tallest), this phenomenon was virtually impossible. I was usually the last in line. Hence, the delirious excitement for my little self.

It never happened to me again though. It was definitely a glitch due to my permanent disadvantage. I never got to play Stall God anymore. However, one day, one of the stalls had a big fat floater in the toilet. The girls squealed in disgust thereby abandoning that stall. They all flocked to the other one. I'm not sure what the category was that day but I remember one of the girls needing to pee really badly. She asked if she can go in because she was about to literally pee her pants. But the girls were adamant in forming a line and taking turns. The girl buckled her jaw and went for the soiled stall. Everyone watched her in amazement as she bravely peed in the toilet. She was smiling as if to say "Hey, at least I don't have to queue up."

I felt compelled to eat my Cheez Whiz sandwich with her during recess time that day. Now that was someone whom I wanted to be my friend -- someone who didn't give a shit about what people thought. Someone who broke the rules, and someone who created her own. We traded Rainbow Brite stickers that day. That cemented our friendship. I still remember her up until this day -- I wonder how she is.

It's funny how we all usually condemn high school for throwing us in a world of cliques and gangs. The need to belong starts at a really young age. I wonder where we learn it from. High school only makes it worse. Let's just say that high school is the peak of the ugly mountain of Mt. Mean Girls, but prior to that, it's a steady incline that eventually leads us there. The popular circle never disappears though -- they just change in form as we advance in life. College has them, and the workplace definitely breeds an assortment of them (though more subtle).

I love it how I emerged from that kind of world relatively unscathed. How that happened, I'm not quite sure. I was the perfect candidate for being an outcast when I was in my youth. Perhaps I managed to round up the other misfits and we were able to form our own comfortable circle? Or maybe people got intimidated by my size and height (and oh yeah, having a big brother helped)? Or was I just not worth being picked on because even though I had my quirks, I just wasn't interesting enough to be made fun of?

Whatever it was, I'm glad I eventually found myself. Because everyone was so busy trying to fit their square selves into circular holes, I was already sitting my triangular ass in the most perfect triangular hole. If only people knew the secret -- not to give a shit, and we're bound to find other people who also didn't give a shit -- then the world will indeed an easier and happier place to live in. Why do we insist so much on conforming to what bigger circles dictate? Where exactly does that take us? Acceptance? Does it really take that much to be accepted?

Be your own bouncer in your bathroom stall. Don't let the short skinny girls dictate what you should be like, because you know what, half of those girls ended up pregnant and expelled before high school ended anyway... That leaves most of the bathroom stalls available for taking over :)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Crap-orate America

It's a slow Friday here at work right now so my brain is flitting slightly. Earlier, my thoughts found itself six years ago when I was twenty-one and at my first job. My very first job out of college was a customer support trainer for one of those multinational conglomerates that sold document solutions. That's what our brochure said though -- but to put it bluntly, we manufactured, produced and sold photocopiers from Japan. I was a small cog in a huge worldwide operations. Trust me, I totally felt my insignificance the minute I came in for my first interview.

My office was the Boston branch and it very much shared the same dynamics as The Office (though the boss wasn't that annoying). We even had a Dwight! However, as part of my job, I spent very little time in the office. Everyday, I put in at least fifty miles in my car driving from client to client training them on the complex boxes that we sold them for amounts that could've fed a family of ten in a third world country. It was a lonely job but I liked the independence -- and I really learned how to drive, read maps, navigate and guess roads (it was the pre-GPS days back then). was my best friend. I only went in at work during the quiet days where there were no training requests from the sales representatives.

I didn't make a lot of money as a customer support trainer but it was better than nothing. I graduated in 2003 which was post-911. Jobs vacancies were skint and I had rent to pay. Not a very good combination. Some three months into my job, I noticed that the training requests were getting lesser and lesser. I was spending time in the office more and more. Our branch sales director was smoking more and more outside by the side entrance -- and he looked like he had more lines on his face than my college-ruled binder. I knew something was not right. I mean, the economy was struggling back then, but the management never made anything transparent to us. I knew we weren't making a lot of money but I had no idea we were actually negative.

One day, my manager called me into the conference room. The HR guy was in there. I didn't know what was going on -- I thought maybe it had to do with those bullshit Peoplesoft crap that our HR kept making us do. I vaguely remember, but our HR guy was one of those people you really had to force yourself to like. He moved really slowly and called everyone by their full names. He liked to think he was bourgeous just because he's from Connecticut. And he had this thick moustache across his face that made him look like the Monopoly guy.

"Maria," he started as I cringed with what he called me. He cleared his throat.

I waited.

"Due to the company's financial position currently, we would like to sever your services to the company operations beginning today," he said -- no joke, he really used those words. He said that my department was being abolished and that the sales representatives will be conducting the product training then on forward.

"What???" I demanded. I turned to look over to my manager --- who promised me the world when she offered me the job -- and she was extremely focused on her palms.

"What I meant to say is--" Monopoly guy started.

"I know what you mean to say," I said, rather rudely. "But I'd like to know if the four other people in my team will also be sacked. Are they?"

Neither of them said anything.

"Am I being let go because I'm the newest?" I asked. "Why am I not given the same chance as them? I can be a sales representative too! I know the range of products better than any of the sales representatives. Surely, if you guys will help me, I can learn how to sell too!"

Both of them still remained quiet. Monopoly guy looked more bewildered than somber.

"No seriously," I said. "If you think we're a cost center, then give me a chance to generate revenue for the company. Don't you think that it'd be a waste to simply let all the training you gave me go down the drain? Clearly I'd never use it again if I had to leave."

From the corner of my eye, my manager was looking at me and she was nodding in agreement. She almost looked proud of me.

"B-b-but," Monopoly guy stammered. "You're twenty one."

"And?" I countered.

He took a few seconds to collect himself. "I will discuss it with the sales managers and I will get back to you," he said. "For now, please clear your desk and we will give you a call if anyone agrees to grant you an interview." I wanted to deck him.

My manager escorted me back to my desk and asked if I had any outstanding accounts. I handed them over to her and wordleslly left the building. I entered my car and drove aimlessly for a good two hours until I got hungry.

I decided to go to Panera Bread for lunch. Mid-swallow of my panini, my mobile rang.

"Maria!!!!!!" the voice on the other side boomed. "Jim Kelly"

"Ah, James," I mocked. Monopoly guy always called him James. I could hear him cringe over the phone. Jim was one of the sales managers in the company and he looked like Santa Claus (complete with the platinum white hair. He rang me up because he heard from my manager that I was looking to start in sales.

"Why don't you come to the office tomorrow," he said jovially. "And we'll discuss your career, won't we?"

I agreed, happy that it was him who called me. Out of all the sales managers in the office, he was the most human-like. Everyone else either seemed like dried glue or like Margaret Thatcher reincarnations. Jim was the only one whom I had the gall to joke around with during the times I bumped into him in the pantry.

"You know," he said just before hanging up. "I told Marne to let me know if anything was going to happen to you. I had my eyes on you, kid."

The very next day, I signed my papers for my new position. My manager approached me in Jim's room just after signing the dotted line.

"The HR guy had to go to the hospital that afternoon, you know," she said. "He just couldn't take the tension like that. We weren't expecting all of that to come from a twenty-one-year old. Congratulations!" She smiled warmly.

That was my first real brush with the monster called Retrenchment. I hated it. Even though they company took me back, it was never the same again. It was like getting back together with an ex-boyfriend that cheated on you. There was a constant air of suspicious hovering around my head ever since. However, the rest is insignifanct because I have obviously moved on. But at twenty-one, it was perhaps one of my bigger achievements -- being able to turn a lay-off into a mini-promotion. Too bad I can't say it was happily ever after ever since.

I ended up leaving the company six months later for a Fortune 500 company. It was a similar position with a wider range of products (but no photocopiers, thank goodness). I went through four different people during my interview and a fifth one with the Boston sales director. She was this middle-aged woman who looked more suburban than any of the Desperate Housewives. And she had a faux fur coat hanging from the back of her door.

"So I see you've just worked for (insert old company name here)," she commented as she looked at my resume.

"Yes, ma'am," I said.

She looked at me. "The fact that you're speaking to me right now simply means that my sales managers that you spoke to prior to this really liked you."

I didn't think she was looking for a response so I kept my mouth shut.

"I used to work for your old company, you know," she revealed. "It was a heavily male-dominated industry back then. They were all ruthless. Who's the sales director there now?"
I gave her his name.

"That bastard," she said good-naturedly (I think). Then she cleared her throat. "Okay, do you have any other questions?"

"Yep," I said rather boldy. "When do I start?"

She smiled. "How about the second week of November?"

I survived my first economic crisis five years ago (albeit nowhere as big as the one going on right now). I also survived my first retrenchment experience, and I survived my first real job. A lot of my experiences were more bitter than they were sweet, though I don't regret any of them happening. I am now involved in an industry that has absolutely nothing to do with those two companies I first worked with -- but admittedly, the experiences I garnered from there all contributed to who and where I am now. And most importantly, I learned a lot about people and work dynamics. I realized what my priorities were and which direction I wanted to head towards as an individual.

With the current global financial crisis, I can just imagine all the people losing their jobs -- and college graduates having a tough beyond imagination time finding employment. My heart totally goes out to them because somehow, I've been there done that. However, I am confident in saying that they will be able to get through these hardships and tribulations in due time. And that it's still possible to hold on to hope.

I still have my job and for that, I am eternally grateful. But becauseof what I've already gone through in the past, it comforts me to know that it's something that I can conquer somehow.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Pushing The Envelope

A few months ago when I went home for my grandmother's funeral, I was able to find some time to hang out with my cousins -- which I was very thankful for since it has become a rare event with me living overseas. My closest cousin is two years my junior. Her boyfriend of six years was chewing the fat with us one late night.

"Dude, it's been so long," I said to him half-joking. "When are you going to marry her?"

He turned serious and furrowed his brow for a bit. "Maybe in two years," he said. "I want to save up a bit of cash first before we enter the lifetime commitment." I heard a slight mockery in his voice when he uttered the last two words. But I had no doubt he was serious about taking my cousin for his wife one day.

Then two weeks ago, he IM-ed me which was a surprise since it's something he never does. He asked me if I wanted him to burn some songs on a CD to send my cousin whom I was meeting in Hong Kong a week from then. In mid-nonchalance, he told me that he was planning on proposing to her on the first of March -- during their seventh year anniversary.

The funny thing is, even though every bone in my body expected him to say it, I still felt taken aback when the words on my screen looked me in the eye. Somehow, it felt more real. It felt concrete. It really was happening. Somewhere deeper inside me, I was really happy -- that I will gain an awesome family member and that my cousin will finally fulfill her lifelong dreams of getting married (and perhaps starting a family soon afterwards too). I am confident that my entire clan will be shocked if they broke up (and I'm willing to bet my cousin won't be the only one that will be nursing a broken heart).

I couldn't understand what was the matter with me. Could it be jealousy? It can't be -- I know that if anyone asked me to marry him now, I wouldn't be able to answer NO fast enough. Could it be age wincing at me? After all, she is younger than me -- and in my family (and culture), there are great expectations for the older girls to get married first. That is their definition of "a natural order of things."

It took me a while to realize that it was the fear that the happiness she will feel when proposed to may not be something that I could ever experience. I know, I know -- I expect many eyes to roll with me saying that because I'm hardly in my 30's and that I still have strings of years to find "the one." But no matter. I wish I can be secured that I will someday possess the certainty that she will have when it comes to being with a lifetime companion.

I don't ask to get married right now -- not even to get engaged. The idea actually sends chills down my spine right now simply because I am not ready. But that doesn't stop me from wishing and hoping that I knew what was in store for me in that department. And it kills me not knowing. And it kills me even further knowing that there's a possibility that it might not happen.

You know when men in their 50's hit the brick wall called "the mid-life crisis" and they set off to buy a tiny red sports car to compensate for it? Well, my version of it is buying a house. Not really, but something similar. I was presented a potential opportunity to buy the house that my siblings and I grew up in (a result of my grandmother dying). At one point during a conversation with my mum, I heard myself saying that I'd be interested in maybe purchasing it if my dad and uncles decided to let it go (and then they can divide the proceed among themselves).

It was like a demon possessed me into saying that. Did I really know the responsibility of having a mortgage -- on top of having to pay for rent since I live in a different country? Ironically, it made sense. The timing seemed spot on to buy the house and knowing that I will be buying the house that furnished me and my family a thousand fond memories makes the deal even sweeter. The idea set my heart to race in Olympic speeds. It felt right... only if destiny has written in the stars that I'm meant to own it. If not, then que sera sera, right?

I'm not sure if it's simply coincidence that the opportunity presented itself just when I was feeling rather down and confused regarding my cousin's engagement. They are two separate events that have absolutely nothing to do with each other -- yet I feel that they cancel each other out.

Was it my version of over-compensating for the fear that I might not get married at all? Or was it my method of acquiring stability and certainty of sorts for myself? Or maybe I simply needed something to distract myself from my destructive thoughts? I'm really not sure.

It's no doubt that at one point in our lives, we all need some growing up to do. Some people are able to do so gradually in their own pace while others get forced to mature more quickly. My cousin and I grew up together -- and it's nice to know that we're still growing up together, just in different ways.

I got the call at 3:30 this afternoon. My mobile phone reflected her name and I knew that he finally popped the question. My cheeks hurt from smiling as she spilled the story of how he proposed. Then her boyfriend took the phone from her and confessed he was unable to sleep last night due to his excessive nervousness. I laughed -- not because it was funny, but because I was sincerely joyous for the both of them. For them, and for me. I wish them all the happiness in the world.