Tit-for-tat in hotpot restaurant reveals the changes in society

Tit-for-tat in hotpot restaurant reveals the changes in society
PHOTO: Sina Weibo, Video screengrab

On Aug 24, a verbal tit-for-tat in a hotpot restaurant in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, escalated into an act that some call cruelty while others see as fighting back, albeit excessively.

According to a police deposition, the incident involved a customer surnamed Lin and a young waiter surnamed Zhu. At the Mr. Hotpot restaurant, Lin asked Zhu to add water to her pot, which she and her family were in the middle of enjoying. Zhu, busy serving the next table, took a look and determined it could wait while he finished his job. Lin was impatient: "Quick! What if my pot dries up?"

When Zhu later came to add water, Lin reprimanded him: "Your service is no good. How come you were so slow?" To which Zhu retorted: "Don't bring your bad mood into my work."

"Get your manager. I want to file a complaint against you," Lin said.

"Stop being so pretentious," Zhu mumbled as he left.

The spat could have ended here-but it didn't. Lin wrote a post of complaint on her micro blog and the manager upbraided Zhu, saying he should "communicate" with Lin and patch things up. He went back to her table: "Did I do anything wrong that deserved this? Can we talk at the back?"

To which she snapped: "Who the f-k are you? How dare you talk to me like this?"

The sentence with the F word was last straw for Zhu. Most Chinese would have interpreted it as an emphatic way of saying "Who are you to act this way?" But the Chinese term includes the word mother, so it fell on his ears as "Who is your mother so you act like this?"

It happens that Zhu's parents divorced while he was a toddler and the 17-year-old has been growing up with his father. So, he was extremely sensitive to the mention of a mother figure. Seeing it as the ultimate insult, he fetched a jug of boiling water from the kitchen and poured it over Lin's head.

She suffered severe burns to 42 per cent of her body.

Zhu has been in police detention since.

The whole episode was captured on a closed-circuit camera.

The squabble that spilled over to cyberspace was represented by two camps: one arguing against the teenager waiter and the other for him. Centrist that I am, I found myself in the strange position of agreeing with both sides on the major points.

Under no circumstances should a service member take the drastic action of physically harming a patron. True, a complaint from a customer might have robbed him of the bonus from his already meager wage. But he could have explained the situation to his supervisor.

In the hospitality industry, one complaint does not mean much. It's usually he said/she said. Management has to detect a pattern of behaviour before determining whether someone consistently delivers poor service.

Although Zhu went through training that included handling difficult patrons, he was not really prepared, saying he had never encountered someone so rude in his work. In his line of work, he needs to adjust his temperament so that he can take heat even when the customer is totally wrong.

In hindsight, he should not have retorted but asked his manager if he could switch tables with another waiter.

I was surprised it was the mother remark that pushed him over the edge. Usually it would be the building up of tangentially related incidents that caused the aggravation. Even a rational person could be pushed too far. But given the circumstances, i.e. the patron's behaviour was not extreme as most of us would define it, there is reason to believe personality defect was a root cause as well.

To put it mildly, Zhu is not cut out for such a job, yet it pays so little it often serves as an entry for those not trained for anything else. It comes with the innate responsibility of cooling things down rather than heating them up. Management should have caught his short fuse but, unlike airlines and five-star hotels, it probably cannot afford to offer rigorous vetting and training in jobs for which turnover is high.

There is a flip side though, which concerns the culture as well as the disposition. Every society has its share of rude people, but in China public attitudes toward those in certain service industries can be best described as a pendulum.

In the age when everything was in short supply, for example, those in sales, including shop assistants, were often the target of kowtowing as they acted as the conduit to precious goods and services, such as a yard of cloth or a bag of sugar. Imagine Death of a Salesman set in that era. It would come out as Death of the Purchaser instead.

With the free market comes an abundance of most things and, with it, the lowering of status of those who sell them. The mantra that the customer is god is drummed into the public psyche to the point that a segment of the paying public expects those who serve to be servants, even slaves. This is borne out by many postings in the aftermath of the above incident.

In the old days we were taught that every job is equally significant to the building of a better world. That utopian notion can no longer work now that success is more or less measured by wealth.

We have reached the stage when we have to recognise that waiters, cleaning ladies and security guards may be low in the social pecking order, but they deserve our respect nonetheless.

From my personal observation, things are generally moving in the right direction despite the occasional flaring up of hot spots. More people give those who serve the courtesy smile, nod or thank-you when they leave a restaurant or an aircraft. It's good manners but, more important, it's a case of treating others the way you want to be treated.

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