Stickman Readers' Submissions February 14th, 2013

Can Tho: A Generous Tip Refused

Guesthouse Phnom Penh Cambodia

I’d seen the large colorful ferry the night before, and since it was getting late and I hadn’t had dinner I impulsively decided to follow the small crowd of Vietnamese families heading toward the gangplank that would take them onto the ferry that was a restaurant. It had three large decks and Christmas tree lights everywhere, and from the top deck blaring, harsh music. From what I’d seen the previous evening, I knew that at some point the floating restaurant would leave the wharf and slowly make its way up and down this tributary of the thousand-fingered delta.

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I got my first surprise when I got to the top deck, which was covered with long tables with red and white tablecloths. There were four continuous lines of tables, blanketing about three-quarters of the upper deck that could be used. All of them were occupied by families and couples, young and old, and with plenty of small children about. A quick glance at the tables seating some 150 or so people told me that there were a good ten or fifteen places where I could sit and have a meal, and at the same time listen to what I would discover would be a parade of young and inexperienced male and female singers belting out a song or two before sitting back down and waiting their next turn on the small stage.

I didn’t imagine there’d be any problem in taking one of the spots at these long tables, albeit sitting among people who didn’t understand me nor I them. We could get by as I have gotten by before under these circumstances: five words here and another four or five there and lots of hands and raised beer bottles or glasses amid smiles and nodding heads. This, I concluded right away, was obviously a restaurant for anyone and everyone who came aboard, and from all I could tell without reservations or tickets of any kind. But when I made a move to take one of the empty chairs not far from the stage, a tiny young waitress with bony knees in fancy flip flops, and who spoke no more than a few words of English, made it clear that I could not sit anywhere at the long tables. Not up front, not in the rear, not in the middle—nowhere. Odd, I thought. This certainly doesn’t look like it’s a family gathering, or a large wedding celebration, indeed any kind of a large group gathering. What’s going on? I didn’t have a clue.

The waitress now directed me to a tiny table to one side of the stage, a peripheral location where by turning my chair I would be able to barely see the singer, and later one magician, and only from their backside. I’d been offered just about the worst seat on this upper deck. Was this discrimination aimed at possibly the only white skin on the boat? To date, and on previous trips to Vietnam, I couldn’t remember anything like discrimination, at least nothing as blatant as this seemed.

Sensitive to my size, the waitress got me a larger chair, and I immediately put it on the other side of the table and against the railing, giving me as good a view of the stage as I was going to get. As soon I sat down I asked for a menu and a Tiger beer. She brought the beer and a glass and some large chunks of ice, and the bill, which she wanted me to pay right away. She also came with a menu. I began looking for something exotic, which is never hard to find on a Vietnamese menu.

I took a black moleskin notebook out of my back pocket and began taking a few notes, more for my fisherman son than for myself. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a fish or crustacean that he won’t try, and invariably like. As for the land creatures that one finds on a Vietnamese menu, I’m not so sure. But then who knows? Some of the exotic offerings included the following.

Snakehead fish roasted in a jar

Eels braised with herbs in a clay pot

Duck cooked with fermented tofu

Mouse sautéed with fragrant knotweed

Weasel’s meat

Mouse roasted in jar

Snail grilled with black pepper

When the waitress returned with an order pad, I said I wanted the snakehead fish roasted in a jar. She wrote down my order, and then confusion followed. For I told her, with my hands, that I would like a small bowl of rice. With words and grimaces and her own hands she let me know that the only bowl of rice they had was one with enough in it to feed a hungry family of five or six. Okay, I finally said, and thought: what’s an extra dollar or so—and it surely won’t be that much.

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Presently, I turned in my chair, one arm on the railing, and began staring at the backside of one singer, and then another, my tone-deaf ears registering the shrill and tinny sounds of Vietnamese songs, the kind that I wouldn’t listen to at home under any circumstances. But in this kind of an environment I’ll let just about anything come my way, if only to get a better feel for what’s going on.

I’d gotten on the boat a little after seven, and some twenty or twenty-five minutes later it pulled away from the dock and slowly began moving in the direction of a rather large bridge, the lights of hotels and other building beginning to form a striking panoramic scene in the cloudless night. For some reason I felt unusually relaxed, and I paid little attention to the fact that a half hour had gone by and I’d seen the waitresses pass by me several times with food for those at the tables where I wasn’t allowed to sit. Strange, I now thought: where’s my meal? Maybe snakehead fish takes a long time to cook? After another ten minutes or so, and now into my second beer, this one a Heineken—the first beer cost me all of eighty cents, the Heineken a couple of pennies over a dollar–I stopped the bony kneed waitress who had taken my order and asked her where my food was. We had a hard time communicating, always more difficult when something has gone wrong. I finally got the message that I just had to be patient; they were very busy, there were all these people to be served that had good views of the show. My food would be coming. Be patient. Okay, maybe they were busier than I’d realized and my dinner was number eighty-nine on an order list of 90 or 92? Relax, I didn’t have to tell myself, because I was really enjoying all the people rushing by me: tall and short and fat waitresses; stylish young men with spiked hair; and my favorite–a tall woman in high heels and a skin tight ao dai who walked about with a small glass case at waist level. High heels, dressed for a ball of kings and queens, a stunning woman by every measure—peddling cigarettes.

A Vietnamese family of five had taken the table next to mine (and with a better view of the entertainment), about ten minutes after I’d arrived. Their meal had come not long after they’d placed their order: a large shrimp and vegetable dish to be shared by one and all, and two whole cooked crabs. By the time
I began to wonder what had happened to my snakehead dinner, they had finished eating, and now they were all sitting there a foot or two from me picking at their teeth, a habit for which Vietnamese and not just Vietnamese among Asians are famous. When my eyes were not staring at the ao dai backside of a singer, I found myself taking mental notes on the eating habits of this family. Somewhere in the middle of this exercise it occurred to me that I just was not giving all the Vietnamese students in my evolution classes the fair shake they deserve. I was not making a connection between Vietnamese eating habits and one of my favorite little sidebars that I never fail to share with all the impressionable freshman and sophomores who populate my very large class.

When I get around to talking about bacteria and viruses, I always have fun. I love to remind them that when they start to get sexually active, if not already there, they will find themselves engaging in open-mouth kissing; I never use the word French kissing, I don’t want any of them to think that I ever have sex on my mind. I let them know that there are more than 300 species of bacteria in their mouths and upwards of 40 million of the microscopic creatures actively wandering about. Just imagine, I tell them, how much heavy traffic there is on that moist pink bridge between your mouth and the mouth of your boyfriend or girlfriend. I also never fail to let them know that it is truly amazing how many of these bacteria are harmless or efficient at dealing with foreign intruders into their inviting soft fleshy homes. After finishing this lecture I often imagine that this is the one of the few lectures in the course they’ll never forget, and that it’ll be the very first thing they share with their friends or roommates on getting back to their apartments and dorms.

All this came to mind as I watched this Vietnamese family dig into the huge plate of shrimp and vegetables that sat in the middle of the table, and that all of them were picking at with their chopsticks. The square-faced mother with an unusually dark face and two black teeth and facing me was of particular interest. With deft control over her chopsticks she would pick through the mountain of vegetables and shrimp, pushing aside this or that piece until she found exactly what she wanted. Then she would pinch her selection with her black sticks and bring it to her mouth and conspicuously chomp and chew. And not in a manner than people with even a modicum of table manners would find acceptable. Then she’d quickly return to the plate, getting what she wanted before someone else took it.

Marvelous, I thought, imagining how this was the daily, often repeated family scene all over Vietnam. The family as a unit sitting down to eat, all of them picking through and sorting and choosing, all that bacteria running from their chopsticks into the food to then hitchhike a ride onto someone else’s chopsticks and find their way into another mouth. What a marvelous way to build up the immune system, within the family and among friends who sat at the same table! What a telling way to allow all these microscopic unicellular beasts that go back more than three and a half billion years to share stories and exchange genes and mutate into something new, and perhaps not exactly friendly to Homo sapiens. No need for getting more intimate among humans than this, surely. Yes, how remiss it would be of me if the next time I teach my evolution class I do not mention, at the very least for the benefit of my many Vietnamese students, that what I am about to tell them about “swapping spit”—those famous words cheekily thrown at Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond”—is something they already know about. You do know about what’s going on when you sit at the table and eat with family, don’t you?

The patriarch of the family, sitting next to his black-tooth wife, had had enough to eat and so it was time for him to get down to the business of picking at his teeth. Because a son and his wife were still eating, he made an enormous umbrella with one hand in front of his mouth when he began the habitual cleaning exercise, a kind of deferential politeness, if you will. Or at least I surmised this was the reason, an inference that I was less than certain about when I saw his black-tooth wife pick up a toothpick and make no pretense at covering her mouth as she went about cleaning the remaining teeth in her mouth. What astonished me as I continued to wait for a meal that did not come, and this family was long done eating, having chewed away at the tiny legs on the crab with the voraciousness of very hungry dogs, was how long and persistent the husband and wife in particular kept picking poking away at their teeth. Jesus, I thought, they’re never going to find any need to get their teeth cleaned. But then why do the Vietnamese seem to have the worst teeth in all of Asia? Or at least, it would seem, the ugliest.

About six feet from where I sat, and off to my right, was a table on which all the meals to be eaten were placed by those coming out of a kitchen, a deck below. Six, eight, then ten meals were there at one time to be picked up by the appropriate waitress and taken to this or that table in that great arena of locals who were off-limits to little old me. I had watched with interest all the meals that had come and gone, and now, well more than an hour into the boat run up and down this minor tributary of the Mekong, all I was seeing were piles of dirty plates and empty cloudy glasses with bent straws in them. And still there was no meal for me. What a mistake to have ordered a snakehead, I thought, an uncommonly generous thought to the way I typically view something like this.

We get to the dock, and people began to stand, and I think: Well, I did enjoy the two beers and the very amateur entertainment and the chance to watch up close a Vietnamese family passing bacteria back and forth to one another. At least I got something useful for my class that I hadn’t thought about before in quite this way. And so what if the cooks were just too busy to put together the snakehead meal I’d ordered? Or the waitress just couldn’t really be bothered placing the order for the bearded white skin, the lone outlier on the whole boat?

I exited the boat amid the slow-moving families, and I thought I’d better try to find a restaurant. Something simple, no snakeheads this time around. It was now getting on toward nine-thirty and I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink—other than three or four beers—since noon.

I wended my way through the clot of motorbikes—Vietnam is all motorbikes, and when it’s not a motorbike you see it’s invariably a shiny black Lexus—and started down the street toward the hotel I was staying at. I walked ten yards or so and my eyes went to a massage parlor I’d seen since my arrival, and ignored. Hum, I thought: think I’ll check out the prices and see if they have anything like the five and six dollar very satisfying hour massages one can get in Phnom Penh.

I wandered into the open and expansive and shadowy reception area, and the first thing I noticed were two clusters of young women in pea-green, form-fitting outfits sitting in large easy chairs on either side of the room. Each cluster had between seven and ten young women. They were chatting or checking their cell phones or just gazing into the near distance. And then at me as I entered.

I get a bit closer and thought: It’s dark here, but from all that I can tell these are some damn fine looking young Vietnamese women, by no means a representative sample of what I have been seeing on the streets.

I slowly headed toward the reception desk, all the while appraising the stunning young women on either side of me. A woman of some years pushed some small coupons at me, each one a different color, and each one with a price on it, indicating in very general terms the kind of massage you can get: 200,000 dong (ten dollars) for a “normal” one hour massage; 400,000 for the hour-and-a-half “VIP Special;” and 600,000 for a two-hour massage. Whether the VIP was a massage that involved some unmentionable particulars I did not know, and the woman was unable or unwilling to clarify matters for me when I asked. I figured there had to be something special in paying three times as much as the “normal” massage, even if the length of time being rubbed and stroked and pounded was a bit longer.

I chose the normal one hour massage, paid in dong, and then was told to go over to the two clusters of women and choose one of them. Choose! You f@#$ing kidding? They can choose me!

I go to the group nearest the entrance, an almost perfect circle of eight women, and quickly glance at all the smiling and staring faces; and I say, Which one of you speaks some English? Blank stares of incomprehension. And then one to my right—not the prettiest or smallest of the lot—says a few words in English. No idea exactly what she said, but I did recognize that she wasn’t speaking Vietnamese.

Okay, you, I say.

I follow her into a mazeway of empty rooms, until she stops and gets a small towel and a size fifty pair of green and white shorts with a draw string that will allow me to shrink the shorts—sort of—to a size thirty-two or thereabouts.

I again follow her, now into a hallway of tall thin doors without windows. She opens one, we go inside, and in a quite narrow room with a massage table covered in a clean white sheet and with a tiny while pillow at one end. She instructs me to take off my clothes and put on the shorts she’d given me earlier, and then to take my clothes and follow her.

We go into a different part of this large mazeway. By now it’s apparent that I’m probably the only customer in the whole place. Presently, we enter into a room where there’s a “steam bath” and a “sauna” and a W.C., or toilet.

Na—her name—points to the steam room and tells me to go inside, and as I enter she punches some buttons to turn the temperature up. Great, I think. I haven’t been in one of these for a couple of years, and have always enjoyed them.

I don’t know long I was in the steam room, but at some point I simply figured I’d had enough. On exiting, Nu was waiting for me—dressed as she was when I met her, and as she would be dressed until I left. She now instructed me to go into the sauna. I did as she said, and on entering found that there was a fire going against one wall. The room was paneled in a dark wood. It reminded me a little of being in an intimate country home in the Adirondacks. But at this point I didn’t have a clear idea why I was here. It was cooler than the steam room, the temperature perhaps not much different than it was outside in the street. I sat there for a long five minutes, cooled down a bit, and then exited. I concluded that Na had wanted me to “cool off.”

Na was waiting for me with a small bottle of bottled water. I took a couple of sips, and then she asked me to follow her again. Presently I found myself in a tiny room with a large shower head on a long flexible metal hose. She told me to drop my shorts and get on the brown and white stone slab, about a foot short for my six-foot frame, and she would give me a bath.

Shit, I thought. Some massage this! But, hey, what beats a novel experience, and one with a Vietnamese girl as pretty as Na?

She soaped me all over and did one corner of my back, neglecting the other side of my back, and made sure she got a lot of soap in my armpits, and even did a quick and discreet soap down into the region where my penis and balls are found. After she’d done her best to get all the soap off me, she told me to stand tall so she could dry me off. Which she did with half a bath towel. Half the job finished, she handed me a towel so that I could dry off all those places she’d missed, or was more or less discreetly avoiding.

Now she’s got me on the table and is giving me a very ordinary massage. Shitty, to be honest, by Cambodian standards. First on the back and then on the legs, and with enough pounding to make me wonder if I was going to wake up in the morning to see that I was all black and blue bruises.

She had me turn over and she did a similar job on my legs, and then, finally, a quite okay job on my arms and hands—they always do the hands better than anything else. She then went to my head, and she was pretty good. Overall grade: C at best.

I next expected her—in the wrong order—to work over my chest a little. But as soon as she finished with my head, she went to my side and pointed to my groin and said, You want?

Well, I ain’t stupid, and I knew exactly what she was up to.

Only thirty dollars, she said. And with her hands she indicated that she’d whack me off.

Not interested, I said. (Is there even one foreigner in a hundred who comes to this part of the world and is going to settle for having a young and attractive woman whack him off, and with all her clothes on to boot?)

She looked disappointed, and she repeated with words and her hands what she’d come forth with a minute earlier.

I shook my head, and at this she pointed to my pile of clothes on a tall rectangular dresser in the corner. I got dressed, she watched with disinterest, and as I was about to leave I decided to be generous and give her a tip of 100,000 dong, five dollars. I folded the bill and offered it to her.

She refused. No. I no want.

What do you want? I said, now curious, curious most of all why she wouldn’t take a tip that was larger than what waitresses in a café less than a hundred yards away were getting in salary for six hours of work.

Then I got the story. Na wanted me—demanded—that I give her a tip of 200,000 dong, or what I had paid for the massage. And if not that—nothing.

The exchange of words between us was not the easiest exchange I’ve ever had in Vietnam, but the gist of what I learned was that—so she claimed—she was paid nothing at all for working in the massage parlor. And the only thing that she got money for was whacking off guys for thirty dollars a go—apparently a non-negotiable figure—and if not this, or in addition to this, the 200,000 dong tip she expected.

I told her that I knew that not only were there waitress her age—Na was twenty—who were making about twenty-eight cents an hour less than a hundred yards from where we were talking.

Na was unmoved. It was 200,000 dong, and f@#$ the 100,000 I offered her. Yep, 200,000 or nothing.

Good night and goodbye Na. I left without another word, and I broke into the dark night and lazily wandered in the direction of my hotel. I thought: Was it possible that Na was paid nothing other than the non-negotiable amount she demanded for a tip, plus what she got from whacking guys off? It’s certainly possible, for in all that I’ve learned in half a dozen trips to Vietnam, and in dealing with Vietnamese in California, they’re a ruthless and money-hungry lot, and there aren’t many people about, including the closest of kin, that they won’t rip off or take advantage of. On the other hand, there’s always the very good possibility that Na was lying. All Asians, as far as I can tell, lie in ways that Americans and Europeans and Australians and Brits can’t even imagine lying; and they do it shamelessly, and all the time. It’s quite possible that Na was given no more than twenty or thirty percent of what I or any other customer pays upfront; and it’s equally possible that she, like so many of her countrymen, is of a mindset that says: lie and play the role of victim and then come forth with an uncompromising hardball card with the gullible foreigner: all or nothing. They’re stupid, they’re slow, they’re vulnerable, they couldn’t even beat in a war with all their fire power. And as everyone knows they’ve got money to throw around like they drop peanut shells. Stick them for every dong you can at every opportunity.

But then who knows the real story, in this instance, or in the one played out earlier in the evening when I ordered a meal that never came?

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